Monday, February 23, 2015

23-Feb-15: Lessons learned, and not learned, from an Australian encounter with jihad

Australia's Martin Place siege in December 2014 was a front-page event
everywhere. Now it's time for the lessons learned [Image Source]
In Australia, the government says it is prepared to act in the face of the growing pile of evidence that terrorism is not only not retreating but metastasizing and reaching places that no one expected even a short time ago. Extracts (all direct quotes) from an Aljazeera report today:
  • [Prime minister Tony] Abbott said the threat at home was getting worse with security agencies currently running more than 400 high-priority "counterterrorism" investigations, which is more than double the number just one year ago.
  • Canberra says it has since carried out a series of raids amid the alleged departure of at least 110 Australian nationals to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIL.
  • "By any measure, the threat to Australia is worsening," the prime minister said in an address following the release of a government review into December's  deadly siege  at a cafe in Sydney. "The number of foreign fighters is up. The number of known sympathisers and supporters of extremism is up. The number of potential home-grown terrorists is rising... In proclaiming a caliphate, the Islamist death-cult [referring to ISIL] has declared war on the world."
  • [He] announced that his government will tighten immigration laws and crack down on groups that incite hatred under a raft of counterterrorism measures introduced in a bid to combat the threat from "home-grown terrorists". The measures announced on Monday would revoke or suspend Australian citizenship for dual nationals who fight alongside "terror groups" overseas, axe welfare payments and consular services to those involved in terrorism and clamp down on "hate preachers," or groups that incite religious or racial hatred.
  • "Even if the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq stopped today, there's an Australian cohort of hardened jihadists who are intent on radicalising and influencing others," said Abbott. "The signs are ominous."
  • The government review found no major faults with multiple agencies that failed to detect Monis was a threat, despite the fact that he was out on bail on sexual assault and accessory to murder charges. But Abbott acknowledged the system itself had failed, saying Monis should never have been allowed into Australia, should not have been out on bail and should not have been able to get a gun.
(Monis is the Australian Islamist, an immigrant from Iran, who died in a hail of police gunfire on December 15, 2014 after holding hostages for 16 hours inside central Sydney's Cafe Lindt.)

The hard talk and plain logic of the Australian political leadership today makes a lot more sense to us than some of the initial assessments appearing in the media after the Martin Place Sydney killings. At that time, prime minister Abbott was quoted saying:
"This was the act of a deeply unstable person with a long history of violence and mental illness. This was the act of someone who is way beyond any mainstream – any mainstream – and has been rightly, absolutely repudiated by all of the communities of Australia.” [source]
But with the taste of real, personal, existential fear still bitter in the mouths of many Australians, and the realization that "deeply unstable person" might not be the most insightful way to think about the threats, some difficult questions are left after all the speeches, assurances and post-event findings. 

An analysis in the Sydney Morning Herald today, by its chief political correspondent, for instance ["Sydney siege report: Biggest question left unanswered in review"]:
Specifically on Monis, the National Security Hotline had taken 18 calls from concerned members of the public regarding his website  in the six days before the December 15 siege at the Lindt Cafe. Crucially, Monis had announced his conversion from Shia to Sunni Islam - the sect to which Islamic State and al-Qaeda belong. Those complaints were referred to ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, and in some cases, the NSW Police. Each was dismissed... [SMH today]
Remember the context. Australia had just had its national security alert system moved from medium to high. A terrorist attack in Australia was regarded as likely. The advent of IS had presaged a dangerous new threat: spontaneous "lone-wolf" attacks licensed by a one-way propaganda model where extremists were invited to initiate whatever harm they could. It had already seen some deadly attacks abroad and sparked "chatter" of similar intent here... This was a systemic failure. [SMH today]
We happen to have received a response this morning from the Australian government in Canberra about Australian support for media glorification of our daughter's murderer. (Our daughter was born in Australia.) Today's letter, about which we plan to write later, gives assurances that in our view are without a basis in fact, and largely misses the points we think Australians should be confronting. Even when faced with evidence that Australian policy is providing a fig-leaf for the incubation of terror and terrorists, its officials choose (like many governments and NGOs) to back off. We can see why this might seem right to them; but it's not. (The circumstances and background are here.)

But what seems right to a civil servant or a security official from a distance might be considerably less right when immediate mortal danger and actual casualties stare you in the face. That's why a comment of prime minister Abbott's yesterday ought to be on the minds of the Australian officials with whom we are currently exchanging viewpoints:
"Precisely where we draw the line in the era of terrorism will need to be reconsidered," he said... "We need to ask ourselves, at what stage do we need to change the tipping point from protection of the individual to the safety of the community? Obviously we need to look at what are the relevant triggers for concern and ask ourselves what should be the consequence if concerns are triggered." [ABC Radio, February 22, 2015]
His questions are worth pondering in Canberra and in Amman and practically anywhere that terrorism is emerging (i.e. everywhere). In an age of rampant, expanding jihad, who can afford systemic failures?

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