Attribution is key to broader ISIS strategy

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

The suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait, shooting of Western tourists in Tunisia, and a beheading and attempt to blow up a chemical factory in France.

Three continents, three different attack methodologies and three different targets, but ultimately the same result. The death of innocent civilians in a brutal, horrific manner that dominates the news agenda. But aside from each attack being linked to ISIS and that they occurred (in all likelihood coincidentally) on the same day, the attacks appear to have had very little in common in terms of strategic aim.

In Kuwait, the attack marks the expansion of attempts by ISIS to undermine the domestic policies and sectarian unity of Sunni regimes across the Middle East.

Although Western tourists were ostensibly the target in Tunisia, the attack appears to be another attempt to degrade the ability of Tunisia’s secular government to maintain security, specifically for the valuable but vulnerable tourist economy.

And at this stage, the French attack appears to have been the latest in a series of ISIS-inspired, ‘crowd-sourced‘ attacks, unsophisticated in nature, easy to achieve and difficult to prevent.

But  the attacks do demonstrate the complexity of the threat posed by ISIS. 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

The Guardian and the death of Al-Qaida – reports greatly exaggerated

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An article in today’s Guardian – based on a series of interviews with AQ ‘spiritual leaders’ – concludes that the rise of ISIS has “pushed AQ to the margins” and that as a result, AQ lacks the resources to properly function as an organisation.

Interviews designed to influence, not inform

To examine the validity of this claim, it is worth asking why these interviews have taken place, and why now? Why have individuals variously described as “the intellectual godfather of AQ”, an “individual at the centre of terrorist activities associated with AQ” and “a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan” agreed to share opinions that on the face of it, appear to hinder AQ’s mission further.

It seems to me that while their insights, as with the recent interview with al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani, contain grains of truth, they are a conscious attempt by a beleaguered organisation to buy time with a hasty corporate re-branding. Given the recruitment and funding issues highlighted in the article, this is undoubtedly high risk. read more

What’s in a name? The importance of counter-terrorism terminology

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The importance of terminology

Is it ISIS, ISIL, IS or Da’esh? Are they an apocalyptic death cult or an Islamist extremist group? And on what basis is Australia currently involved in the Middle East – the war on terror or to prevent genocide?

This is not semantics. The language and tone used by politicians, the media, and the wider community has and will impact upon the success of counter-terrorism policy, particularly in relation to the radicalisation process.

Radicalisation – victims or offenders?

If the political and media classes are to be believed, radicalisation is a simple and ever-shortening process. Vulnerable teens, permanently connected to social media, are targeted by ‘wicked’ ISIS ‘predators’ and in a matter of weeks, they are brainwashed ‘zombies’.

This terminology appears to serve two (contradictory) purposes. read more

Returning Foreign Fighters: a risk and an opportunity

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So in the words of our Prime Minister, “a crime is a crime is a crime” and should foreign fighters return home, they will be “arrested, prosecuted and jailed”, given the risk of them conducting terrorist attacks here in Australia.

I can only hope that despite Tony Abbott’s bluster, discussions around the possible return of three suspected Australian foreign fighters will continue. While the threat they pose must and will be assessed by the AFP and intelligence agencies, their return presents two significant opportunities. keep reading

Lessons from India?

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Peter Hartcher had an interesting perspective on ISIS recruitment in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald , concluding that “India’s success in denying volunteers for ISIS is still a mystery. It’s a mystery worthy of closer attention. Because it seems to be working.”

If a country really is succeeding in preventing ISIS from recruiting its Muslim youth, the rest of the world should absolutely pay attention.

But the piece draws a comparison between India, and countries with a smaller Muslim population but larger numbers of ISIS recruits, without discussing the key differences between them keep reading

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