Bill Paterson, Australia's Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism

Transnational Terrorism: Evolving challenges -- An Australian perspective

Remarks as Prepared (Bill Paterson)

Islamist terrorism has presented a new challenge to security – it is transnational, religiously-based and draws on a collective sense of both community and grievance across the ummah – the global Muslim community – informed by a deceptively simple narrative. Its Salafist/literalist interpretation of Islam is rooted in the seventh century, but it is empowered by 21st century globalisation and modern technology.

The issue has particular complexity because a political ideology has been built from an absolutist interpretation of a religious faith. Hence opposition to the violent ideology can be painted by its followers as being anti-Islamic.

Islamist terrorism is not a purely Arab phenomenon although key ideologues and movements came from the Arab world – and extremists elsewhere look back to the Arab world as a source of religious legitimacy and historical association.

Terrorism as an Australian national security issue

One hundred and ten Australians have lost their lives in nine major terrorist attacks from 9/11 on. Many more have suffered injury and loss. The Australian Embassy in Jakarta was badly damaged in an attack in 2004, and a number of planned attacks in Australia have been disrupted over the last decade.

Australia has also specifically and repeatedly been listed as a legitimate target in AQ and JI propaganda, and been linked with the US and UK, in particular, as force contributors in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is our judgment that AQ-led, associated or inspired transnational terrorism will remain an enduring and evolving security threat internationally – and Australia will remain a target.

Terrorism affects Australian interests and those of our allies and friends, but it does not represent an existential threat or a territorial threat to Australia or Australian interests. Hence it is best considered as one of a number of enduring security challenges or contingencies with which we must deal and for which we must plan. It must also be dealt with as a potent form of criminality and not dignified by religious purpose.

While it should be set in context, transnational terrorism can have a disproportionate impact and present unique challenges for the security policymaker: it is both global and local, it is evolving and adapting, developing in terms of its use of technology, its operational security, its complexity, the nationalities involved, and its geographic nodes:

-- ● It creates pressures for tougher countermeasures which can impact on rights, freedoms, convenience and costs;

-- ● It is thus a more diffuse, dispersed and complex target than it may at first have seemed, and as such has become,as the Australian government’s 2010 White Paper on Terrorism said, 'a persistent and permanent feature of Australia’s security environment;'

-- ● It is also still close to the top of foreign policy priorities identified by Australians in the recent annual Lowy Institute poll of public opinion toward foreign policy issues, ranking only behind protecting the jobs of Australian workers and strengthening the economy.

Where are we at?

We share the view that failing to defend Afghanistan will almost certainly give AQ new momentum and greater freedom of action. It would also strengthen the hand of the Pakistan Taliban and the growing extremist alliance and capability in Pakistan. It would energise anti-western extremists elsewhere, posing a more complex security environment than we already face.

Hence the commitment of Australia and others to this task. We know from experience that this has directly impacted on Australians and Australian interests. In the end, we are dealing with a globalised extremist movement, and if it is not addressed and neutralised at source, its credibility as well as operational capability will be sustained and potentially enhanced.

So where are we at in addressing the terrorist challenge?

Positives and progress

The failure of the transnational aspiration (caliphate):

-- ● The Muslim masses – the ummah - have not been mobilised by AQ’s narrative – increasing awareness that terrorists kill mostly innocent Muslims and are most active in Muslim majority countries;

-- ● For instance, in 2009 in Pakistan, 87 suicide bombers killed 1300 people, 90 per cent of whom were civilians;

-- ● AQ’s narrative justifying violence and targeting the West and ‘apostate’ Muslim governments has failed to resonate widely;

-- ● But extremists still play with some effect to perception that Muslim lands have been occupied and injustices done;

-- ● Rallying a sense of Muslim group identity and grievance.

Steady elimination of AQ senior leadership:

-- ● AQ’s sanctuary in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is being squeezed and the core leadership steadily eliminated; AQ’s core leadership is effectively no longer in Afghanistan – only small numbers of lower-level AQ fighters remain in Afghanistan

-- ● AQ’s leadership is preoccupied with survival (and propaganda) – it’s outlook is bleak, but not yet terminal;

-- ● The AQ leadership is no longer a ‘doer’ but more a commentator – its operational relevance and its C2 have been diminished;

-- ● This has implications for the brand’s stature, unity and appeal, and its ability to recruit and attract finance;

-- ● Nevertheless, AQ has been durable and its capacity to regenerate, should conditions permit it to do so, should not be underestimated;

-- ● It’s been around 20+ years, and the idea will likely outlast the leadership.

The decline of AQ in Iraq (AQI):

-- ● The invasion/occupation of Iraq and a relate sense of Sunni disenfranchisement acted as catalysts for the rapid development of AQI;

-- ● But Iraqi tribes’ interests were in the end essentially local and they did not embrace the AQ global narrative;

-- ● AQI’s sectarianism and extreme violence alienated most Iraqis;

-- ● And as the foreign fighter flow into Iraq was stemmed, AQI lost a catalyzing and regenerating force;

-- ● AQI is still deadly, but it’s been heavily attrited and key senior leaders killed;

-- ● AQI is essentially domestically-focused (and anti-Shia) but it could rebuild as a focus of sectarian violence if Iraqi political systems fail.

Dismemberment of JI and (some of) its splinters in Indonesia:

-- ● Southeast Asia’s success story (in world’s largest Muslim country);

-- ● Nearly six hundred terrorists arrested and around 470 jailed, with over 50 currently on trial;

-- ● Important because JI had links to AQ and shared its ideology and aspirations;

-- ● 17 July 2009 Jakarta hotel attacks served as a wake-up call (there had been no major attacks since 2005), demonstrating the potency, durability and organisational skill of splinter groups which survived the pressure which had been placed on JI by Indonesian police;

-- ● But 17 July was followed by an impressive and effective Indonesian-led response, with the elimination of key operatives Noordin Top and, later, Dulmatin, following exposure a year ago of a major new terrorist training camp in Aceh;

-- ● More recently, JI’s emir, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, has been re-arrested and faces trial on incitement to terrorism charges;

-- ● But again, a qualification: the Aceh camp is indicative of the enduring nature of the extremist fringe in Indonesia. I’ll come back to that.

Pre-emption/prevention of key plots.

Many plots have been pre-empted including over the last year, particularly in western countries:

-- ● Through increasingly smart intelligence and investigation;

-- ● And enhanced protective security measures which act as a deterrent – although they may have the effect over time of transferring risk to softer targets;

-- ● But the Detroit Northwest airlines plot on 25 December 2009, in particular, pointed to gaps in information sharing and the translation of intelligence into pre-emptive action;

-- ● This was not only a US problem, leading to remedial steps subsequently being implemented in many countries;

-- ● Hopefully this will ensure our ability to detect and intervene before the commission of terrorist acts continues to improve;

-- ● But there is a common expression in the CT world that the terrorist has to succeed only once, whereas we have to do so every time.

Improved counter-terrorism capability in many partner countries.

The development of intelligence, law enforcement, forensics and biometrics, financial tracking, aviation security, protection of critical infrastructure, the accounting for and management of explosives, chemical, biological agents and radioactive materials has strengthened capability in many countries. Many obvious vulnerabilities have been addressed, at least in part:

-- ● But gaps remain and international practice is highly variable: the air cargo logistics chain is a current example.

You will have noted that all the indicators of progress I’ve listed are qualified: we are dealing with a complex set of issues and it is not possible to declare that any part of this problem has been solved or eliminated. Indeed, we face significant challenges ahead.


At 9/11 we had one apparent adversary: we now face a more diffused and diverse threat with affiliates, franchises, fellow travelers and self-radicalised individuals dispersed over a wide geographic area.

-- ● Harder to detect and hence harder to pre-empt.

-- ● A new paradigm? Attacks may increasingly be small-scale, opportunistic, with little preparation, training or lead-times. Failed attacks may be considered successful due to their disruptive effects, demonstration of vulnerability and generation of fear and uncertainty. Attackers are probing potential points of vulnerability.

So the spectrum of possible modes and scale of attack has widened – from extensively planned mass casualty attacks (harder now to undertake as more likely to be detected) to ‘micro-terrorism’ - simple local actions on the part of individuals radicalised, for instance, over the internet. In short, the threshold of attack has been lowered.

We are seeing adaptation, decentralisation and proliferation in the terrorist threat, as well as a stronger effort to reach into western societies using insiders.

The threat can often be linked to failing or deeply troubled states, to separatist insurgencies and sometimes to state actors – but the new paradigm for the West is that it can also arise internally in developed and democratic societies.

In addition, a process of political transition may be underway in parts of the Arab world, as we’ve just seen in Tunisia, which could in some cases prove disruptive and offer opportunities for extremist groups (but not, it seems in Tunisia) to tap discontent and build support.

So terrorism will be with us for a generation, or perhaps longer. And there may be no point at which victory can be declared.

AFPAK still remains central:

-- ● The Afghan-Pakistan border still remains the destination of choice for extremists from elsewhere to link up and to train.

-- ● The UK claims more than 70 per cent of the terrorist cases it has under investigation have links to Pakistan. A similar pattern may be emerging in the US and elsewhere.

-- ● Pakistan, though, goes beyond simply an AQ problem: the Pashtun Taliban and government-created or facilitated groups such as Lashkar e Tayyiba now have a life of their own.

-- ● Pakistan presents a very diverse spectrum of militant Islamist organisations: in some cases groups created by or tolerated by the Pakistan military as assets against its adversary India, have built the ability to mount structured assaults both in and beyond Pakistan, and may no longer fully under government control.

-- ● They potentially represent a threat to the stability and effectiveness of elected government in Pakistan, and also have the potential to precipitate a new, complicating and dangerous crisis with India.

-- ● In turn, this could in extremis raise concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons (terrorist groups are interested in acquiring WMD).


Despite Indonesia’s CT successes, it presents a diffuse and persistent extremist landscape, hardly surprising in a large and diverse democracy, and one with a background of communal conflicts and durable, if small, extremist strains within Indonesian Islam.

-- ● The discovery and disruption of a major extremist network in Aceh in February 2010 arguably illustrates Indonesian CT success, but also the durability and evolution of the challenge.

-- ● The Aceh coalition of extremists was surprisingly large (over 100 arrested), committed, experienced and aimed at developing an AQ affiliate in Indonesia.

-- ● It was ambitious, experienced and was planning a Mumbai-style armed assault, including a plan to kill the President.

-- ● Around twenty recidivists, previously convicted on terrorist offences, were involved.

-- ● Aceh demonstrates that extremist capability may have been reduced but has not been eliminated. The risk of regeneration remains – and key individuals are still at large.

Geographic spread:

The European dimension – ‘home grown’ terrorism in immigrant communities – is of perhaps growing scale and concern.

-- ● British Pakistanis are perhaps the UK’s sharpest domestic security threat (1760 terrorist-related arrests in UK since 911- 200 of which last year).

-- ● This problem involves complex issues of identity – or multiple identities – and issue of sharing of values, particularly evident in Muslim communities.

-- ● Socio-economic deprivation, community isolation and consequent youth alienation are likely contributing factors to extremism.

Pakistani extremist groups have reached into expatriate communities in host countries.

-- ● Particularly Lashkar e Tayyiba, which has international capability and is no longer fully under Pakistani government control.

-- ● Hizb ut Tahrir, despite eschewing violence, promotes extreme views and is highly organised internationally.

There is also spreading extremist violence in North Africa and south into Sahel (AQIM), with the potential to play back into France, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium and the UK.

Somalia is increasingly being drawn into the AQ franchise network, with growing numbers of foreign fighters involved:

-- ● And some émigré Somalis returning to join jihad.

-- ● The 2010 attack in Uganda at the time of the World Cup, and previous attacks in Kenya, demonstrate the reach of Somali or related groups into East Africa.

Yemen has effectively become a new safe haven, with a distracted government fighting two rebellions internally. AQ-linked terrorists in AQAP pose a particular threat to Saudi Arabia as well as to targets in Yemen itself.

-- ● There are, notably, Yemeni links to international terrorism from UBL to ABB.

-- ● Yemen is increasingly serving as a magnet or hub for extremists elsewhere – including non-Arab ‘cleanskins’ - to congregate, plan and train, in much the same way Afghanistan was used during the 1990s.

Lebanon remains a hotbed and crossroads for extremist activity – both Sunni and Shia. Sunni sectarianism and militancy is growing, including in Palestinian refugee camps.

Local Muslim separatist insurgencies in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines (Mindanao) are long-standing, intractable and violent, arguably marked by a lack of resolve in both countries seriously to pursue early resolution. These insurgencies are less about the global jihad and more about issues of recognition of identity and economic equality. But frustration could lead to building or restoring international links and a more jihadist cast to essentially parochial claims.

AQ influences also play out in Australia in local plots – domestic terrorist cases have had Mid East (particularly Lebanese), South Asian and North African (Somali) links. AQ is a global brand and it has had a following in Australia.

Spread and durability of AQ ideology and the franchise:

-- ● Will setbacks undermine AQ’s attraction?

-- ● Continuing catalysing power of the Israel/Palestine issue and western presence in Muslim lands.

-- ● On issues important to Muslims, the West is seen to be on the wrong side of the divide, often supporting apostate or autocratic governments.

-- ● Campus radicalisation by fundamentalist/Salafist groups (eg Hizb ut Tahrir) is in some countries energising Muslim students around these issues.

-- ● The ‘transmission belts’ of internet, contact via the hajj and umrah pilgrimages, unregulated madrassah education, migrant workers and student flows.

-- ● And the global power of Al Jazeera (Arabic) and other services to convey a grim pictorial reality to the ummah, a point made to us by French professor Bernard Rougier.

-- ● And, adaptability and resilience of terrorists – they are learning organisations often led by university-educated ideologues.

Radicalising power and operational value of the internet:

-- ● In some contexts, internet may be more important than the imam or the madrassah.

-- ● And key to the development of a new generation of ‘self- radicalised’ extremists, dispersed, unaffiliated and largely invisible to intelligence or law enforcement agencies.

-- ● Proliferation of jihadist websites – they number in the thousands - and difficulties/issues in disruption or manipulation, particularly in liberal societies.

-- ● The technology is accessible, low cost, immediate, portable, unregulated, global.

-- ● The internet is a propaganda and recruitment tool, source of data and knowledge transfer, fundraiser / medium of funds transfer, and is used for operational planning.

-- ● Opportunities for social networking via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter provide additional opportunities for terrorist communication.

-- ● The internet may be making English the second language of jihad, widening the audience for the AQ narrative.

Growing lethality:

911was a paradigm shift in terrorism (transnational, franchised, mass casualty, IT-empowered).

The future? Mass casualty/CBRN - or structured armed assaults (fedayeen attacks), suicides and IEDs, or ‘loners’?

-- ● CBRN can be hard (least likely but biggest impact), but the others have proven effective (low cost, high impact) and are growing in sophistication.

-- ● With cheap off-the shelf technology an enabler (Mumbai: GPS, Google Earth, VOIP, Twitter, mobile phones, commercially-available encryption, remote control units, digital watches as triggers etc).

-- ● Aviation (and mass transport) will remain an attractive target.

-- ● Physical attacks rather than cyber, for instance, will be preferred to inflict casualties and get media attention.

-- ● And devices concealed in body cavities represent a further evolution and a new challenge to detection.

Prisoner radicalisation:

-- ● Increasing evidence of radical Islamist ideas being spread in prisons by convicted terrorists.

-- ● While many detained or convicted terrorists are now completing terms in detention and re-entering civilian life.

-- ● Patchy efforts at de-radicalisation or disengagement programs have so far produced mixed results

Disrupting terrorist financing:

-- ● Terrorist attacks often cost relatively little.

-- ● But groups need money for travel and to support the families of martyrs.

-- ● Informal channels (eg hawala) and cash couriers are difficult to stop.

-- ● Porous borders, expatriate labour, connections to other criminal activity and to smuggling present major law enforcement challenges.

Impact of the global economic crisis (GEC) and continuing economic volatility:

-- ● If AQ is largely neutralised, will the US and others – faced with difficult budgetary environments, expensive commitments and competing pressures - lose interest and reduce involvement?

-- ● Budgetary pressures will limit resources, public opinion is negative about extended military involvement, and an absence of attacks within the US could lead to – or demand - some re-ordering of priorities.

-- ● In the US and elsewhere, including Australia, pressure is on police and intelligence agencies to shave budgets and personnel, and for police to restore focus on other forms of crime.

What policy responses have worked and not worked?

Intelligence capabilities:

Intelligence capabilities have been greatly enhanced in size and reach since 911 – have significantly enhanced pre-emption and prevention. Counter-Terrorism is an intelligence-led discipline, but its reach remains limited, by legal limitations, by technology and geography, and by the scarcity of humint.

Effective criminal investigation, prosecution and conviction in Indonesia, Australia, UK and elsewhere have been important in building public understanding and support for robust government action.

The Australian Federal Police model in Southeast Asia:

-- ● Building long-term law enforcement relationships, building police capabilities (and stature) – often poorly equipped and trained by comparison with military counterparts.

-- ● Catalysing inter-agency and cross-border contact , undermining silos and mistrust.

-- ● The JCLEC model – Indonesian law enforcement training institution.

New technologies:

-- ● Decapitation approach via Predator UAVs has had a significant effect– illustrative of the effective use of new technologies.

-- ● Others, fusing biometrics, forensics, the exploitation of mobile phone tracking and computer hard drives with more conventional humint are potential ‘game changers’ (as important, some in the US believe, as sigint was in World War II)

Physical security measures:

Physical security measures and measures to protect critical infrastructure and the integrity of identity have undoubtedly reduced points of vulnerability and acted as a deterrent.

Counter-radicalisation (CR):

A developing discipline of as yet uncertain impact:

-- ● CT capabilities have significantly improved, but attenuation of what appear to be contributing social conditions in vulnerable communities –marginalisation, alienation, poverty, unemployment, lack of access to modern education – has a long way to go.

-- ● Radicalisation ‘hotspots’ notably coincide with poor socio-economic indicators.

-- ● Deprivation cannot justify terrorism, but it fosters grievance and recruitment and plays to the AQ narrative.

-- ● CT policies need to blend tough law enforcement or military action with other instruments of state power such as development aid, law enforcement and access to justice and to social support mechanisms.

-- ● Addressing the drivers of radicalisation and sources of facilitation.

-- ● Australia has focused CR efforts internationally on assisting community groups in building community resilience, conflict resolution, and promoting inter-faith dialogue.

-- ● Our approach is to work with credible local leaders to support them in finding local solutions to local problems.

-- ● Programs of school-building and basic education have a secondary counter-radicalisation dimension, offering skills which enhance employment opportunities and connections with the community.

-- ● Prison reform/prisoner rehabilitation is potentially an area where significant gains might be made. Like education, its impact would extend beyond counter-radicalisation and represent progress more broadly in development and governance.

De-radicalisation/disengagement programs for convicted terrorists:

-- ● An uncertain science, but a developing one.

-- ● Recidivism is evident, but effort may assist in limiting spread of extremism through detention, and re-integration after release.

Counter-messaging and encouraging moderate Muslim voices:

-- ● Has had limited success, particularly where the hand of Western agencies is evident.

-- ● Frustration and exhaustion with violence in Muslim communities may be encouraging local leaders more robustly to challenge the terrorist narrative.

-- ● But encouraging a view of Islam as a dynamic faith rather than a static one rooted in the seventh century must in the end be a job for progressives and moderates in the Muslim world.

-- ● It cannot be a job for western governments.

Speaker Biography

Mr. William (Bill) Paterson was appointed as Australia's Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism in 2008.

As Australia’s Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism, Mr Paterson is responsible for developing and implementing Australia's international counter-terrorism efforts. He plays a key role in coordinating cooperation, capacity building and operational collaboration between Australian agencies and international counter-terrorism partners.

Mr Paterson is Australia's fourth Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism. The position was established in March 2003 and has played a critical role coordinating and promoting Australia's international counter-terrorism. Previous Ambassadors for Counter-Terrorism were Mr Nick Warner, Mr Les Luck and Mr Mike Smith. The strong work of Australia's Counter-Terrorism Ambassadors was underlined by the appointment of the previous Ambassador, Mike Smith, as the Executive-Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate in November 2007.

Mr Paterson’s position demonstrates the Australian Government’s committed to countering the ongoing threat of violent extremism and international terrorism. Mr Paterson continues Australia's whole-of-government efforts in working to reduce and eliminate terrorism, counter extremist ideology and propaganda, and to promote tolerance and respect for human dignity cooperatively with international partners, both bilaterally and multilaterally.

Mr Paterson was Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand from 2004-2008. He has extensive experience in international strategic and security policy, politico-military affairs, intelligence and regional issues as a senior government official, including as head of DFAT’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force immediately after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

In 2002-03 he was head of the Australian Government’s Iraq Task Force. He has also served as head of the International Security Division and the South-East Asia Division in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.

Mr Paterson served as Chief of Staff and Principal Adviser to the Foreign Minister (2000) and as Assistant Secretary for Asia, APEC and Trade policy in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (1998-99). Overseas, Mr Paterson has served in Dhaka, Baghdad, Vienna, Washington, Tokyo and Bangkok.

Mr Paterson has a Bachelor of Arts degree with honours from the University of Melbourne. He was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2004 and the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal in 2005. He is married with three children.


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About HSPI's Ambassadors Roundtable Series

HSPI's Ambassadors Roundtable Series is designed to provide Ambassadors to the United States and their key diplomatic staff with a forum to discuss current and future counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts on a regional or country-specific basis. In an effort to draw upon various insights and experiences, the Ambassadors Roundtable Series builds upon and institutionalizes efforts over the past few years to engage in a dialogue with members of the international community, policy makers, and practitioners.