Across Indonesia, Australia and the world, is the terrorism threat over?
- For Indonesia and Australia, the Bali bomb attacks 20 years ago were transformative in reducing the capacity of terrorist groups
- As traditional terror threats and groups are minimised, far-right and related conspiracy extremism are on the rise, representing a new terror threat
Does this mean the threat from terrorism is over?
Few are better placed to answer this than Mike Burgess, Director-General of Security and head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Australia’s domestic intelligence agency.
Burgess is one of the handful of people who can talk openly about his agency’s work. And when he speaks, his words are carefully calibrated and warrant close attention.
In a rare public address in November he told the Australian public that, for the time being at least, they could stop worrying about the threat of a terrorist attack in Australia.
According to the Global Terrorism Index, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for almost half of all terrorist deaths, and the Sahel (a region of North Africa that includes countries such as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) is home to some of the most potent terrorist networks on the planet.
How have stable democracies minimised the terror threat?
Established democracies have developed police-led counterterrorism intelligence capacity to the point where ambitious, large-scale, terrorist plots are largely detected and disrupted, and terrorist social networks are effectively pinned down.
The Australian Federal Police was established in 1979 and tasked with leading counterterrorism, in response to the Sydney Hilton bombing of 1978. This was an unprecedented attack that killed three and injured 11. By the turn of the century, however, the modest resources of the Australian Federal Police were being reorientated towards more pressing threats, such as counternarcotics and port security.
The Bali attacks resulted in the establishment of a specialist counterterrorism unit of the Indonesia police called Densus 88. In the 18 years since its establishment Densus 88 has arrested, and contributed to the successful prosecution of, more than 2,000 terrorists (this is my estimate based on the hundreds of arrests reported year on year).
The challenge now for Indonesian police is breaking the cycle of radicalisation. The recent release of Bali bomb-maker Umar Patek, on closely supervised parole, is confronting. But it’s also an encouraging indication of the success of Indonesian police in rehabilitating former terrorists.
Not only does al-Qaeda now enjoy safe haven in Afghanistan, Islamic State continues to launch devastating attacks across Afghanistan.
For the time being, however, police counterterrorism intelligence has constrained the capacity of both al-Qaeda and Isis to project a threat into Australia.
What about far-right terror?
For the moment, this new threat is mostly likely to manifest in lone-actor attacks that are mostly smaller-scale and less lethal (but not always, as we saw in Christchurch in 2019).
For Western democracies, and increasingly Asian democracies as well, toxic ultranationalism in the form of ethnic and religious supremacist movements is the rising threat. Currently it is less well organised and coordinated than jihadi terrorism. But that is likely to change.
And, as the tragic attacks in Wieambilla have shown, it has all became much more complex and unpredictable. Paranoia fuelled by conspiracy theories, mixed with religious fundamentalism and hatred of governments and police, is generating new forms of violent extremism.
As Mike Burgess reminded us: “Terrorism is an enduring threat. And terrorism is an evolving threat […] We keep the terrorism threat level under constant review. There can be no ‘set and forget’ in security intelligence.”