Overstating terror threat won't help Abbott tackle it

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: Manny Francisco
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: Manny Francisco

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is in very deep political trouble, and few even in his own party believe he will hold his job until the end of the year.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that his decision to make a major statement on national security this week was seen by many as a ploy to stave off political oblivion. Ever since 9/11, weak political leaders have sought to bolster their credentials by projecting themselves as steadfast guardians of national security.

No doubt there is some truth in this, but it is not the whole story.

Mr Abbott's national security statement reflects deeper and more important issues than the passing comedy of Australian domestic politics. It shows us something of the broader trends that have afflicted many Western countries as they have wrestled with the issue of terrorism since 9/11.

Western governments have never quite recovered their equilibrium since the attacks in New York and Washington in 2001. They feel a great political imperative to protect their societies and great political temptations to display themselves as tough and resolute against terrorist threats.

But, at the same time, they find it hard to assess realistically the magnitude of the threat that terrorism poses, and even harder to design effective policies that really have much effect in reducing it.

The result is that with each new manifestation of terrorist activity, governments declare the threat higher than ever before, and say that ever more intrusive and costly policies are therefore needed to deal with it. This sets up a seemingly self-sustaining cycle of escalating responses because no government ever finds a reason to say that the terrorist threat has reduced.

And arguably these responses do little or nothing to deal with the real threat and may even help to feed the factors which create the threats in the first place.

This pattern has played out in Australia over the past few months, culminating in Mr Abbott's major statement on Monday. The build-up to the statement began last year with the success of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), operating from its bases in Syria, in seizing territory in Iraq. This suddenly awakened Western governments, including Australia's, to what they saw as a major new threat.

In fact, they saw two new threats. The first was the threat that ISIS would consolidate its control over large areas of the Middle East under the flag of their new caliphate and emerge as a new and powerful threat to Western interests and influence in the region.

The second was that Western citizens flocking to join ISIS would eventually return, bringing radical ideology and fighting skills to sow terrorism in their homelands.

Mr Abbott was quick to identify these trends as posing a major threat specifically to Australia. And he was equally quick to respond by offering a substantial military contribution to the United States-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq, including a squadron of F-18 Super Hornet fighters which have been launching frequent strikes on ISIS targets, and troops in Iraq training Iraqi soldiers.

Since those forces were deployed, the concerns that Mr Abbot had identified have been confirmed and indeed amplified by events both in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Internet broadcast of beheadings and other ISIS atrocities in Syria and Iraq has vindicated Mr Abbott's habit of referring to ISIS as a "death cult". Meanwhile, a series of small-scale but high-impact terrorist attacks in Western countries, like those recently in Paris and Copenhagen which were apparently inspired by ISIS, has deepened fears about the consequences of ISIS' rise for the internal security of Western countries far removed from the Middle East itself.

Australia itself has suffered in this recent wave of incidents, when, last December, a lone activist held patrons of an inner-Sydney cafe hostage for many hours before shooting one hostage and himself being shot as the siege ended.

All this provides the background to Mr Abbott's announcement of new measures to combat terrorism this week. He put great emphasis on what he sees as increasing dangers. "The terrorist threat is rising at home and abroad - and it's becoming harder to combat," he said. "By any measure, the threat to Australia is worsening."

That is an important claim. It is, of course, as hard to verify as it is to refute, but it is important to consider it carefully. Certainly, Australia faces a serious terrorist threat which must be taken seriously, but the evidence offered in Mr Abbott's address falls well short of justifying the claims he has made.

Like many Western leaders, Mr Abbott conveyed an exaggerated message that his country as a whole is under attack from a potent, pervasive but insidious threat that threatens everyone - the society as a whole, its way of life and its very existence.

The reality is rather different.

A haphazard series of minor actions by marginalised individuals does not endanger the foundations of a robust and cohesive society like Australia. They can, of course, inflict great suffering and tragedy to those directly caught up in them, and for this reason alone they should be treated as very serious crimes which must be prevented if at all possible.

But they do not constitute any kind of existential threat to Australia or to any other Western society. They pose a serious law-enforcement problem - nothing more and nothing less.

Moreover, by overstating the threat, Mr Abbott has made it harder to respond to it in a balanced, rational and cost-effective fashion. In the years since 9/11, Australia has already greatly expanded and empowered its intelligence agencies and police forces, tightened its border controls and imposed restrictions on its citizens travelling to terrorist-controlled areas in the Middle East.

That helps to explain why Mr Abbott's statement, despite its dire warnings of increased threats, contained few concrete new measures to address them beyond the establishment of further new mechanisms to coordinate the many different agencies involved in counter-terrorism in Australia's complex federal system of government.

In fact, the most significant element of Mr Abbott's speech is his acknowledgement that taking steps to prevent self-radicalisation by marginalised members of Australia's Islamic community is perhaps the most important single thing that can be done to reduce the risk of the kinds of lone wolf attacks about which he was most particularly concerned.

The problem is that much of his speech may well have had the effect of increasing the sense of distance between Australia's Islamic community and the society at large. Certainly it did nothing to reduce the sense of alienation of Islamic minorities from the societal mainstream which has been such a notable and regrettable feature of the post-9/11 era in Australia as elsewhere.

Exaggerating the scale of a threat never helps one to respond to it effectively.

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.