Michael Keenan on the evolving terrorist threat in Australia

On 26 October, Justice Minister the Hon Michael Keenan MP addressed the Lowy Institute on the evolving terrorist threat to Australia. Mr Keenan’s role within the government is to lead the Commonwealth’s efforts to counter violent extremism and to ensure effective and integrated implementation of Australia’s counterterrorism strategy. He is the primary contact for the Prime Minister for both day-to-day counterterrorism matters and in a terrorism crisis.

On 26 October, Justice Minister the Hon Michael Keenan MP addressed the Lowy Institute on the evolving terrorist threat to Australia. Mr Keenan’s role within the government is to lead the Commonwealth’s efforts to counter violent extremism and to ensure effective and integrated implementation of Australia’s counterterrorism strategy. He is the primary contact for the Prime Minister for both day-to-day counterterrorism matters and in a terrorism crisis.

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Full speech

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It’s always good to be at the Lowy Institute and I appreciate being invited back today. I last spoke here on the issue of terrorism a little over a year ago in July. And while important parts of the terrorism landscape remain familiar, there have also been some significant changes. This continuing evolution of the threat and how we address it will be my theme today – how we, the Government, must continually position ourselves to stay ahead of the threat - in terms of resourcing, legislation and outlook. 

The basic message is this - protecting Australians from terrorism has never been more complex, with threats becoming harder to disrupt or prevent. 

Although most here are familiar with the terrorist threat in Australia a brief historical overview helps to put the CT challenges we face – both now and into the future - into perspective. 

Even before 2001, terrorism was not a new phenomenon in Australia. Some of the most significant incidents included: the Sydney Hilton bombing in1978; the assassination of the Turkish consul in Sydney in 1980; the bombing of the Hakoah club and Israeli consulate in Sydney in 1982; and the Turkish consulate bombing in Melbourne in 1986. While alarming, these incidents were sporadic, had differing motivations and did not represent the direct targeting of Australia per se. 

But the rise of al-Qaida in the 1990s changed this. Australia and Australians were now a specific target, named in al-Qaida propaganda and targeted both abroad and at home. 

And for the first time a small but significant number of Australians were directly engaged with a terrorist group off-shore or were active supporters here. 

The number of Australians involved during this period was deeply concerning at the time. Between 1990 and 2010, 30 Australians travelled to Afghanistan or Pakistan to train at terrorist camps or to fight. 25 of these individuals subsequently returned to Australia and 19 engaged in activities of security concern following their return. Eight were subsequently convicted of terrorism-related offences, and five are still serving prison sentences. 

Due to the good work of Australia’s law enforcement and security agencies there were no terrorist attacks on Australian soil between 2001 and 2014, and authorities disrupted four significant plots. 

While the emergence of al-Qaida posed a new and serious challenge to, the next manifestation of global Islamist terrorism – in the form of ISIL – has been of a different order entirely, requiring us to again rethink our approach to the terrorist threat. 

A quick look at the more significant numbers tells the story of how our current experience differs from before. In the four years since 2012, around 200 Australians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict. And around 110 are currently fighting or engaged with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. 

Around 200 people in Australia are being investigated right now for providing support to individuals and groups in the Syria/Iraq conflict, including through funding and facilitation, or are themselves seeking to travel. The overwhelming majority of these are young men and women who have bought into the ISIL world view. 

And since I last spoke at Lowy there have also been significant changes to the numbers. Back then up to 35 Australians were believed to have been killed in Syria and Iraq – that figure now stands at as many as 68. The number of terrorist attacks is now four, not two. There have now been eleven terrorist disruption operations – in July last year there had been five. 

When I last spoke here 23 people had been charged as a result of eight counter-terrorism operations around Australia. The figures now stand at 51 people charged as a result of 21 counter-terrorism operations. As a result, there are currently 38 people before the courts and 17 individuals serving custodial sentences for terrorism related offences. When I spoke last DFAT had cancelled, refused or suspended 145 passports – that figure now stands at 190. 

Within these figures from the last 12 months are some new and disturbing trends, some of which we had anticipated or expected based on events overseas. These include: the first female charged with terrorism offences; the first extreme right wing activist charged with terrorism offences; a significant number of minors facing terrorism charges – most recently including the two 16 year olds arrested on 12 October; and the first asset forfeiture related to terrorism. 

All these figures speak to the scale of the problem. And each of them represents new challenges for investigators, prosecutors and legislators. 

But what they don’t show clearly is the day to day reality for our law enforcement and security agencies – each increase and new variation represents an added impost on their capabilities. 

That is why since coming to government we’ve increased our counter terrorism funding by $1.3 billion. But it’s not just about throwing more resources or adopting new legislation – it is also about doing things more intelligently and cooperatively: between governments, the private sector, communities and others. 

The growth in these numbers in just over a year is down to the continued virulence, prevalence and appeal of the ISIL message. 

In the last twelve months there have been major changes in the way this message has been propagated. New social media platforms – many of them encrypted – have appeared, challenging our ability to stem the message. These same platforms also challenge our agencies’ ability to monitor individuals of concern. 

ISIL wants to generate global attention, create panic and spread fear. In this information age, we are never far away from a reminder of the fact that a terrorist attack in Australia is probable. It is something we see daily in the media and through our personal news-feeds on social media. So what is to be done? 

The basis of Australia’s countering violent extremism work is to intervene as early as we possibly can – before an individual forms hardened views that could harm themselves and others. 

To this end we have invested more than $45 million over four years to counter violent extremism, more than tripling previous investments in this area. 

We have long understood individuals do not adopt an extremist mindset through a linear or predictable process. 

And identifying individuals at a point where they are vulnerable to this ideology is hard –it relies heavily on the information from non-government sources: workplaces, communities and families. 

But we are committed to—and this Government has invested in—taking preventative action wherever possible. 

These efforts bridge social and security policy. And these two policy areas must complement each other. 

Our social policies are designed to reduce vulnerability to harm including extremist ideas by increasing education, employment and economic opportunities for individuals. 

We work in our communities to understand the issues that are most affecting them. And we work together to protect those who might be targets of extremist recruitment efforts by presenting alternatives to extremist propaganda. 

In recent times our work has expanded to include research into potential links between acts of violent extremism and mental health. This work includes actively looking at all the areas of potential vulnerability that may lead to an act of violence. 

We work with industry, regulatory and international partners to limit access and disrupt violent extremist propaganda online, and we continue to work with communities and influential spokespeople to discredit propaganda and promote positive messages. 

An important part of the government’s effort has been our $21.7m investment to tackle extremist propaganda. 

Last year, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to progress CVE initiatives across a range of priority areas including families, schools and youth, communities, prisons, evaluation and research, strategic communication, and the online environment.

This is an effort to strengthen Australia’s capability to tackle the problem of young Australians radicalising. They prioritise prevention and early intervention by providing training and support to those on the front-line helping people who may already be adopting violent ideologies – families, friends, community leaders, support services and schools. 

Significant achievements have been made in this complex environment and this is indicative of the effective collaboration that has occurred across all Australian governments. It also demonstrates we are world-leaders in tackling the foundations of this terror landscape. 

To further support the Australian community, last year we launched the Report Online Extremism tool, a website for people to report violent extremist material that they come across online. Of the reports provided by the public about one in five breached social media conditions and the government worked with social media providers to have it removed. 

Well-informed and well-equipped families, strong communities and engaged institutions such as schools and workplaces are the frontline of our defence against online grooming and radicalisation. 

That is why we have funded a new $5m project with the Australian Multicultural Foundation to help parents of vulnerable or at risk teens identify and manage the risks of online radicalisation. 

The Office of the e-Safety Commissioner is also leading the work to roll out digital literacy programs to help young people distinguish between information that is reliable and information that is untrustworthy. 

And there is evidence that our efforts are working. In May this year, Australia’s Director-General of Security, Mr Duncan Lewis, reported that the number of Australians travelling to the Syria/Iraq conflict zone had ‘plateaued’. He noted the signs that our CVE programs were gaining traction, and cited this work as a contributing factor to this plateau. 

Australia has a small but growing number of prisoners incarcerated for terrorism-related offences. We are continuing to work with corrective services to provide education and support to prevent or counter the spread of violent extremist ideology in prisons. An important part of this is the development of a training model for corrections staff that has been rolled out to 3500 officers across the country to help them identify and manage radicalisation. The Government has also funded pilot de-radicalisation program in NSW and Victorian prisons. 

The Australia Government continues to invest additional resources in disrupting the activities of those in Australia and offshore who are planning violent attacks. 

I would like to be clear that, Australia’s agencies are well placed to meet this threat. And at the heart of the successes we have enjoyed is close cooperation and closer integration within the Commonwealth and between the Commonwealth and the jurisdictions. 

The Joint Counter Terrorism Teams (JCTTs) in each state and territory, established in 2002-2003, have done excellent work and are a prime example of co-operation between the Commonwealth and the states. The JCTTS have been at the forefront of disrupting the 11 terrorist plots in Australia since 2001. 

None more so than the two JCTT officers from Endeavour Hills who two years ago came face to face with a radicalised teen determined to do them harm. This is a terrifying reality for our law enforcement in this security landscape. 

The JCTTs have been complemented by the establishment of the multi-agency National Disruption Group, which is led by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) established in 2014. 

The National Disruption Group facilitates enhanced cooperation with various State and Commonwealth agencies. This allows us to examine the options that are available to mitigate the threats and prevent, disrupt and prosecute Australians who travel offshore to engage in or undertake training related to terrorism, as well as those who provide support to them. 

Many individuals who are engaged with extremism are also engaged in a variety of other criminal activities. By addressing these other criminal activities not only is justice done and community expectations met, but the capacity and will of these individuals to continue their extremist activities is limited. 
The AFP has also established a Returning Terrorism Suspects Team (RTST) which works with agencies from across the Australian Government and internationally to coordinate the management of returning Australian foreign fighters. 

Terrorists returning from the Syria/Iraq conflict zone have the potential to cause serious security concerns – especially if our earlier experience of Afghan returnees is any indication. But each one will pose differing degrees of risk and the RTST can manage returnees on a case by case basis. 

Our security agencies are among the best in the world. And we have to ensure they have the powers they need. 
Since August 2014 the Australian Government has taken five tranches of legislation through Parliament. 

This legislation has helped to ensure that our agencies have the necessary tools to combat the terrorist threat. This has included introducing new offences, creating new powers, strengthening existing ones and – perhaps most important of all - responding to lessons learned from domestic counter-terrorism operations. 

For example, before 2014, Australia already had a range of laws prohibiting Australians from travelling overseas to engage in foreign conflicts. However, difficulties around collecting evidence in conflict zones, particularly in areas where there were no recognised government authorities, made it difficult to establish these offences. 

The Foreign Fighters Act created a new offence for travelling to or being in a ‘declared area.’ The Act also included amendments to enhance the collection and admissibility of foreign evidence in terrorism proceedings. 

On home soil, passport suspension powers were created to better enable authorities the time to assess security risks, and act accordingly. Australia is not in the business of exporting terrorism and we cannot run the risk that 

Australians will go overseas, develop new skills and networks, deepen their ideological belief then return home – or operate elsewhere. 

The arrest threshold for terrorism offences was lowered from ‘suspects on reasonable grounds’ to ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’, giving police the ability to intervene and disrupt terrorist activities at an earlier point. This has been an essential tool in many counter terrorism operations including some of the disruptions. 

Regrettably, we are seeing minors engaged in terrorist activities - including children as young as 14. Of the 38 people currently before the courts for terrorism-related offences, six are juveniles – a year ago there were none. 

Seeking to stay ahead of this development, the Australian Government has introduced the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2016 which will allow control orders to be placed on persons 14 years or older with appropriate safeguards. A sad but necessary sign of the times. 

The Bill also introduces a new offence of advocating genocide. This will be important in curbing some of the more dangerous extremist rhetoric that – when it goes unchallenged - threatens social cohesion and has hitherto escaped the sanction of the law. 

It is important to manage terrorist offenders who may continue to pose an unacceptable risk to the community following the expiry of their sentences. 

This is especially so given the growing number of people convicted and sentenced for terrorism offences. Most states and territories have already enacted post-sentence preventative detention schemes for dealing with high risk sex and/or violent offenders, but currently there is no specific scheme for convicted terrorist offenders. 

The High Risk Terrorist Offenders Bill introduces a new regime that will enable the Supreme Court, upon application by the Attorney-General, to make an order for the ongoing detention of high risk terrorist offenders who pose an unacceptable risk of committing serious terrorism offences if released into the community following the expiry of their custodial sentences. 

Given the need to ensure the right balance between restricting individual liberties and freedoms and protecting the community, the scheme contains significant safeguards, including that any decision is made by the court and is subject to regular review. 
As our enemies work across borders, we too support our friends and allies in the global fight against terrorism. 

For many years, Australian agencies have worked closely with partners around the world, especially in Southeast Asia, to support the effective investigation and disruption of individuals engaged in terrorism, as well as to prevent the movement of terrorists across borders. 

Our regional cooperation comes in many forms. There is the ongoing engagement of law enforcement and security agencies – exchanging information and building capacity. But our engagement is constantly evolving, becoming wider in scope and deeper in commitment. 

For example, in June this year Australia partnered with Indonesia to produce a Regional Risk Assessment on Terrorism Financing in Southeast Asia. This assessment is a world first and supports our efforts to understand, coordinate and respond to risks associated with terrorist financing in our region. 

On the CVE front I recently launched a regional compendium of counter-narratives. Australia produced this resource with our Southeast Asian partners and the Hedayah research institute – the Global Centre of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism. The compendium provides advice on how to counter violent extremist ideology in an effective and compelling way. It was a key deliverable from the 2014 Regional CVE Summit – another flagship regional initiative championed by Australia. 

On the other side of the world we are strengthening our cooperation with the countries of the Middle East. 

As part of the Government’s response to the problem of foreign fighters, we have expanded the AFP’s footprint in the region, with new AFP positions in both Ankara and Amman. They form part of the AFP’s international network across 28 countries and the 16 bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation agreements we have worldwide. 

And Australia continues to be an active member of the Global Coalition -60 international partners committed to tackling ISIL on all fronts. 

Terrorist tactics are constantly evolving and changing and this is another area that we must constantly re-assess. 

While a large, coordinated attack, like that favoured by al-Qaida, cannot be ruled out, at the moment, a terrorist attack in Australia is most likely to be undertaken by an individual or a small group using weapons and tactics that are low-cost, relatively simple, and easy to acquire. ISIL has long called for supporters to use any means at their disposal and to do so without guidance or instruction. 

Government agencies that are working against terrorists, such as the military, police and security services, are prime targets for terrorists. Indiscriminate attacks are also encouraged and planned – both here and overseas and the risk to the general public in Australia remains. 

Following the Nice attack, the Prime Minister asked the Commonwealth Counter-Terrorism Coordinator to look at any lessons we can learn for our own Counter-Terrorism arrangements in Australia. In particular: the links between lone actor terrorism and mental health; and managing the threat to places of mass gathering. 

We will be working with state and territory counterparts to share the findings in this report and discuss ways we can further cooperate to address these challenges. 

Looking ahead, we will need to be prepared for more change, especially in response to shifts in the international security environment and the potential return of foreign fighters to their home countries – not just here. 

ISIL’s so –called Islamic state is in retreat in both Syria and Iraq. 
ISIL has now lost more than 50 per cent of the populated areas it once held in Iraq and will soon face the loss of Mosul - it’s last major population centre in the country. In Syria, forces opposed to ISIL now control the majority of the territory along the Syria-Turkey border, and are applying pressure on ISIL near Raqqa, the second ‘capital’ of the so-called caliphate. 

This is in clear contrast to the situation a year ago when ISIL controlled an area larger than Lebanon which contained more than 4 million people and, due to the resources at its disposal, was being described as ‘the wealthiest terrorist organisation to have ever existed’. 

As ISIL suffers military defeats its modus operandi will change. ISIL in Iraq and Syria will revert to being an underground terrorist organisation. It will also seek to expand its networks in Europe and elsewhere – including in our region. 

Of the thousands of foreign fighters many will die on the battlefield, but others will seek to return to their country of origin and continue the struggle. 

This will include a number of Australians – all of whom have lengthy military experience, a deepened commitment to the ISIL cause and networks of like-minded comrades from around the world. If they cannot return here they may go elsewhere which is a major concern. 

In Southeast Asia, ISIL has directed and inspired terror attacks in Indonesia and Malaysia, and encouraged kidnap for ransom operations in the Philippines. There are hundreds of regional foreign fighters that could seek to return to their countries of origin and the ISIL message is already gaining traction there – in a bigger way than al-Qaida’s did. 

We know that some Australian foreign fighters have families in Syria and Iraq. Even those not directly involved in fighting – especially children – may return having been exposed to ideological indoctrination and highly traumatic experiences. 

The international community must prepare now for the return of these foreign fighters, and their families. We must be ready with strategies to protect the safety of our communities and the welfare of children. This will involve a wide ranging government response – both Commonwealth and jurisdictions – and include agencies in the social welfare space that have hitherto had little to do with national security issues. 

While I have spoken at length about the threat posed by ISIL today, other established terrorist groups with longstanding grievances against the West – including Australia - have not disappeared. And, in the fullness of time, history tells us new ones will appear. 

Groups like al Qa’ida, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusra) will continue to pose a threat, and are also adopting the effective online recruitment tactics used by ISIL. There are Australians actively associated with some these groups off-shore and others sympathetic to their causes here. 

And while the threat we currently face, and will continue to face for the foreseeable future, overwhelmingly comes from Sunni Islamist extremist groups, there are other ideological motivations at play. For example, as I mentioned earlier, in August this year an extreme right wing activist was charged with Commonwealth terrorism offences – the first time this has happened. 

The evolving terrorist threat to Australia is real. The Australian Government will continue to work with our international partners to respond to this ever-changing threat. 

Success requires strong laws and modern powers. Importantly, it requires social unity, and I firmly believe security and freedom are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually reinforcing. A safe community is a strong community, and our unity is our greatest national asset. 

We have the best law enforcement and security agencies in the world that continue to thwart and frustrate attacks in Australia before they occur. 

We must keep legislation and capabilities under constant review. And we must carry on our work to build strong and resilient communities for generations to come.