Taking the terror out of terrorism

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This was originally published in 3 parts between 17 and 19 January 2017 by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading foreign policy think tank.

The current terrorist problem is, by most metrics, larger than ever.

There have been four successful terrorist attacks in Australia since September 2014. Outside of Australia, terrorist attacks are occurring more frequently and killing greater numbers. While the large majority of these have taken place in just a handful of countries, in 2015 and 2016 there were multiple attacks in Europe; South and Southeast Asia; North, West and East Africa; and North America.

Yet the terrorist threat is more than just the attacks that actually transpire. The actions of counter-terrorism authorities have thwarted planned attacks and prevented other terrorist offences from taking place. As a result, arrests associated with disrupted attacks, attempted travel to terrorist hotspots and other terrorist offences have become a frequent occurrence.

Thousands of individuals are currently under investigation for potential terrorist activity. In Australia, ASIO estimates indicate that almost 200 Australians are actively supporting Islamic State, with a further 110 overseas fighting in the Middle East.

The escalation in terrorism-related activity means that counter-terrorism is both a higher priority for governments, and of greater concern to the general public. As a result, governments across the world are communicating more frequently about terrorism and counter-terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »


al-Adnani’s death: A significant but not crippling loss for IS

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This was originally published on 1st September by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .

The death of Islamic State’s Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in a US (or possibly Russian) air strike has been described by some as the ‘biggest ever blow to Islamic State.’

Although often identified as the group’s spokesman and chief propagandist, Adnani’s role was much more significant than that. Adnani was one of the group’s first foreign fighters and longest-serving members, having joined the nascent group in 2000. If reports are to be believed, he was even being groomed as a successor to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This is not to underestimate the importance of his role as spokesman. While his messages are unlikely to have the radicalising resonance of Anwar al-Awlaki, Adnani’s blunt missives against the West made an impact.

Take, for example, Adnani’s call in 2014 for Islamic State supporters to ‘smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car…’ and the wave of unsophisticated but deadly attacks over the past two years, culminating in July’s truck attack in Nice.

Yet Adnani’s significance goes beyond his ability to recruit and legitimise the violence of disparate individuals and groups across the world. read more

Risk Aversion in Counter-Terrorism – How our quest for perfect security makes us more vulnerable to terrorism

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This was originally published by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, and is also available on the ABC website.

Australia’s intelligence agencies are busier than ever. Twenty-three people have been charged with terrorist offences since September 2014, 288 people have been prevented from leaving Australia to fight in the Middle East, and in the last three months 18 Australians have had their passports cancelled.

For Australia’s intelligence agencies, preventing current or future travel doesn’t free up resources. Investigation of those individuals will continue and potentially increase. And as investigations generate multiple intelligence leads, they can quickly mushroom. For agencies attempting to balance existing operations against new leads, there’s a danger that even despite recent funding increases, they will reach information overload.

The public wants to be reassured that the intelligence agencies are doing everything they can to prevent an attack. But it’s possible that external pressure is increasing the likelihood of an attack by increasing the risk aversion of intelligence and law enforcement organisations.

Why is risk aversion important? read more

Assessing the current threat – why we should be more worried about the ‘known knowns’ than the ‘known unknowns’

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The known knowns

It’s becoming an all too familiar story. A small-scale and relatively unsophisticated (but high-profile) terrorist attack; a scramble to identify the individual(s) responsible; and finally, a drip feed of information confirming that they were well-known to the relevant authorities.

This pattern has repeated itself over the past 2-3 years, from the murder of Lee Rigby in London, the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and most recently, last week’s attempted attack in Texas.

That individuals radicalised to the point of committing a terrorist attack are on the radar of intelligence agencies should not in itself be surprising; were the opposite true, we would be more concerned.

But these aren’t instances of intelligence agencies having too many leads to pursue, or making legitimate priority calls based on the available intelligence. The perpetrators of the attacks above – and indeed Jihadi John – were known entities, comprehensively investigated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. And in each case, keep reading