Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Counter-Terrorism White Paper

Tuesday saw the release of the Rudd Governments first Counter-Terrorism White Paper (Get it here). It seems we are now duty bound to receive regular white papers on topics governments see as important (Defence, Aging, National Security principles & now on Terrorism – though no word on Foreign Policy) which is in the large a positive step, however this one feels somewhat like the homework done the night before, being slightly too glossy and superficial in parts. However this is an important document for the rhetorical shift it makes in how the government understands terrorism; first the causes and secondly who & how we fight it. It’s not entirely confident in its new positions (like the Defence Force 2030 White Paper), but the Rudd government is clearly shifting away from the Howard Government to attribute social & economic factors as drivers of terrorism, and is envisioning a role for Australia to fight the message war as well as the material one.

At 75 pages the CT white paper is a fair whack shorter than its 112 page older brother from 2004, and at least 18 of those pages are simply full page photos or blank divider pages. It’s also a lot less detailed, first in who the terrorists exactly are (though that’s old ground these days) but policy is much more grouped up such as stating “Australia operates in concert with a range of international partners in almost every aspect of our response to terrorism.“(p.47) while the 2004 edition seems to spell out much more what countries, what areas and what funding. Indeed like the Defence White Paper this document is very very light on figures, with only two clear financial outlays, first the $200 million airport security upgrades, and now $69 million for a biometric visa system. It even seems to hide some figures writing “Over 100 Australians have been killed since 2001” (p.7), which if you add up the various numbers on the charts reaches at least 112, which seems easier to have just said outright.

This report is quite clear on one thing: Terrorism is a crime (even a “heinous crime” p.55), that is best addressed through intelligence and police activity, with a small role for the military such as in Afghanistan or backing up/executing larger police operations. Unhappily this report, unlike its 2004 version, has had to re-state that Australia opposes torture and is strongly supportive of the various international legal obligations that constrains it. That is useful given the (still slight) domestic Australian support for techniques from sleep deprivation to outright torture (though that was quickly withdrawn). The Rudd government has taken a duel path of expanding the power of intelligence agencies and the police to use telecommunication snooping, while removing some of the more over the top restrictions (such as the sedition charge, and have created a Independent National Security Legislation Monitor.

However there is a big shift in the way terrorism is understood. In Tuesdays Crikey, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam writes that “The government makes important acknowledgements on the root causes of terrorism stemming from poverty and injustice,” which seems to be over-stating the case, however this document goes into the many factors which exacerbate or create “conditions conducive to extremist views and propaganda” (p.68). It seems to argue that their existence entices other people to support it, rather than being causes, stating outright that “there is no proven causal link between social disadvantage and terrorist behaviour” (p.68). It would have been nice for the report to have gone into details on it, but in dot point form it identifies the following as important factors in why people become terrorists:

Real or percieved social and economic circumstances
Individual social and psychological needs, Identity politics,
Small group dynamics, including those that form around charismatic figures,
The broader political environment including overseas events and government responses

The report even goes so far as to state “Improved access to health, vocationally relevant education and employment opportunities can create conditions less conducive to extremist views and propaganda” (p.68) It’s a somewhat hedged way of saying we need to at least think about social factors in order to end Islamic Terrorism, but this is a far way from the 2004 report which argues “The notion of ‘root causes’ is misleading. It implies there is something we can offer or correct to mitigate the threat. But Bin Laden and his ilk are not seeking remedy or compromise, only subjugation to their views.” (p.105)

The other important shift in this document is that it begins to lay out a non-material strategy, towards a public diplomacy/narrative control campaign. Chapter 7 is titled “RESILIENCE: Building a strong and resilient Australian community to resist the development of any form of violent extremism and terrorism on the home front”, however while welcome in recognizing the critical importance of the image/narrative war, and trying to bring business and the community in to do their bit, the report seems stuck in responding primarily in a negative sense, trying to prevent the spread of terrorists messages: “We have a key interest in not allowing messages of hate to divide our community…. Australia will not tolerate the propagation of violent extremism and hate under the cloak of that diversity”(p. 65). This is good, but we need to get on the front foot as the Australian Counter-Insurgency expert (and resident camo bound boffin with Petreus in Iraq) David Kilcullen has argued:

“We need an interagency effort, with leadership from the very top in the executive and legislative branches, to create capabilities, organisations, and doctrine for a national-level strategic information campaign. Building such a capability is perhaps the most important of our many capability challenges in this new era of hybrid warfare” -David Kilcullen (2009) “The Accidental Guerrilla” p.300

Kilcullen has argued for governments to see the media as a critical domain, even battlespace for winning the war on terrorism. This is not just blunt propaganda, but both negatively countering terrorists narratives (as this report seeks) as well as (and perhaps even more importantly) promoting a positive and inclusive message which helps draw in potentially supportive or neutral groups into our orbit, preventing them from being co-opted by international and domestic terrorist groups. The 2004 white paper was criticized by analysts such as Jacob Townsend from ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) for lacking a pubic diplomacy section, a shift urged by the Senate 2007 Committee on Public Diplomacy. While this white paper includes one, it isn’t yet very developed or thought through, but good to see its at least there.

The Rudd governments first Counter-Terrorism White Paper is an interesting report. It’s slightly light and glossy, (though nicely designed) and it isn’t confident in it’s beliefs. It contains little new funding or policy changes, and the big shifts are only partly thought through or explained. However it does finally get around to recognizing social conditions and the critical role of media narratives, two welcome shifts away from the material focused stubborn defensiveness of its predecessor. The report certainly wasn’t released as a distraction from Garrett’s foiled programs, though with an election coming up the government is no doubt keen to get onto security issues, using Tuesdays question time to this effect (though recent newspolls shows this isn’t the easy win I and many others thought it would be). Especially for questions of national security, what is important is less the policies than explaining how they see and think about certain issues. Most policy work will necessarily be hidden behind a national security classified veil, but through this we can see that the government is pushing for a new and more mature approach to Australia’s Counter-Terrorism program.

Elsewhere:Carl Ungerer on the focus on home grown terror/the new Counter-Terrorism Control Centre, and Sam Roggeveen on the concept of “resilience” in the paper. Both well worth reading.