Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 18:55 | SYDNEY
What's happening on

Overview

The current turmoil in the Middle East is incubating a new generation of jihadists. Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters, including Australians. The political crisis in Egypt is being exploited by extremists and could result in a lengthy period of violent conflict. New spaces are opening up across the region that can be used by jihadists for training. Power struggles between regional powers are exacerbating the instability.

In many respects the conditions for the creation of extremist movements and ideas in the Middle East are worse today than they were before 9/11. And while the current focus of jihadist groups is on the Middle East, this can, and probably will, change. For Australia the immediate focus is, and should be, on individuals returning from Syria. But the government should be keeping a weather eye on other parts of the Middle East as well.

Osama bin Laden is dead, it has been over a decade since the Bali bombings, and Australian troops have mostly withdrawn from Afghanistan. It has been three years since the last major conviction in a domestic terrorism case. Yet terrorism still occupies a prominent place in the national security consciousness of most Australians. In the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, 65 per cent of Australians see international terrorism as a critical threat to Australia's security.

Australian agencies charged with combatting terrorism are naturally preoccupied with events in Syria. In the last three years at least 120-150 Australians have travelled there to participate in the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. A number of these individuals have been fighting with jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Should they return to Australia, some will bring with them new military skills and connections with the international jihadist community.

Yet Syria is just one piece of a disturbing picture in the Middle East. That picture includes what is likely to be a prolonged period of domestic unrest in Egypt and other Arab countries, and an intensifying geostrategic and sectarian rivalry between regional powers – all of which are contributing to the recrudescence of jihadism. ISIL’s successes in Iraq underline that new spaces for jihadists to train and operate can open up at any time. In many respects conditions in the Middle East are more propitious for jihadist activism today than they were before the 9/11 attacks. Is it any wonder that al-Qaeda has christened its new English-language magazine, ‘Resurgence’?

In the last decade, real progress has been made in diminishing the terrorist threat by reducing the number, connections and lethal skills of the international pool of jihadists that emerged in the period leading to 9/11. Unfortunately, current developments in the Middle East are rapidly refilling that pool; it may end up considerably larger than the one that existed a decade ago. Moreover, given developments in Syria and Iraq, it is a pool that is likely to have a significant number of Australian citizens in it.

For these and other reasons Western countries including Australia are not about to escape the ‘war on terror’ era any time soon. The first challenge will be in managing any returnees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. But there is also a need to watch broader developments in the Middle East given the likelihood that these too will generate new threats in the future. In coming years the West will face a more complex and serious terrorist threat than it did in the lead up to and after 9/11. 

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