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Speech at Inaugural International Counter Improvised Explosive Device Leaders Forum, Canberra

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Thursday 3 September 2015



Can I begin by acknowledging the Secretary-General of INTERPOL, Jürgen Stock, our many distinguished international visitors whom I welcome, distinguished Australian guests and conference participants, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to have been invited to speak to you today at this inaugural Leaders’ Forum to counter Improvised Explosive Devices.

The troubling reality is that IEDs have become the tools of terrorists everywhere. These weapons kill and maim tens of thousands of people every year, many of them children. Of the 41 Australians who have lost their lives in the wars in Afghanistan in recent decades, over a quarter were killed by IEDs and although the popular imagination might presume that these horrific weapons are solely a Middle Eastern phenomenon, as the people of Boston were to discover in the most appalling circumstances in April 2013, their use is all but impossible to contain to the battlefields of Kandahar or Uruzgan, or Chechnya.

Closer to home, I know that there are families all around Australia whose lives have been torn apart by these devices. That’s why the work you are doing at this Forum is so important and I want to congratulate INTERPOL, Defence and the Australian Federal Police for their efforts to combat this scourge and for their work in convening this important conference.

When Australia goes to war, it is because we believe that a life free from terror and tyranny is the common birthright of humanity, irrespective of race, religion or creed. When we use forums such as this to counter the threat of IEDs and to develop measures to enable us to do so, we’re not only helping to keep our troops safe - we’re also helping to build a safer future for the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider world.

In a way, settings such as this provide a useful metaphor for the broader work the government is doing here in Australia to keep our people safe. Just as you will spend this Summit

discussing methods of countering the pernicious threat of IEDs, the Australian Government has been unrelenting in our mission to outsmart and outmanoeuvre those who would otherwise do us harm.

As we gather here, members of the Australian Defence Force are employed in the Middle East fighting an evil death cult that has declared war on the world. Here in Australia, with the help of our nation’s law enforcement, intelligence and immigration agencies, the Australian Government is doing its part to keep our citizens safe.

Today I want to speak about some of the specific measures the Australian Government is taking to combat the terrorist threat in Australia. In particular, I would like to talk to you about the government’s work tackling the scourge of foreign fighters and our broader effort in Countering Violent Extremism.

It is a sad and deeply alarming fact that there are currently approximately 120 Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq. To some, 120 might seem like a small figure, especially when seen in the context of the scale and size of conflict in Syria and Northern Iraq, but to put that number into its global perspective, it means that Australia has now contributed more foreign fighters, as a proportion of our population, than either the United States or Canada. It also makes it the greatest threat to our national security since the end of the Cold War.

Consider that over the decade-and-a-half since 9/11, as many as 20,000 foreign fighters are thought to have flocked to Afghanistan to fight in that conflict. Then compare those figures to the Syrian conflict: the number of fighters thought to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to take up arms is assessed to be in excess of 20,000, surpassing Afghanistan, and making the Syrian civil war, and its consequent escalation into Northern Iraq, the largest mobilisation of foreign fighters in a Muslim-majority country since 1945.

However, even that disturbing figure gives you only a glimpse of the rapidly escalating, increasingly dangerous threat environment we face today. As well as foreign fighters, we are currently aware of about 170 people actively supporting extremist groups here in Australia through financing and recruitment. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation is currently investigating several thousand leads. More than 400 of those are high-priority cases - that is double the number of even a year ago.

On 12 September last year, when ISIS started calling for attacks within western countries, Australia’s National Terrorism Public Alert level was raised from Medium to High - meaning that it was assessed that a terrorist attack was likely to occur. Notwithstanding that decision, few Australians then imagined that only three months later, we would turn on our televisions to see a café shopfront in Sydney adorned with the black flag of ISIL. And how can we forget the shocking images of a seven-year-old boy holding aloft a severed head, while his father, the Australian terrorist Khaled Sharrouf, looked on with encouragement?

More than any other recent conflict, the Syrian conflict highlights not only that the global threat of terrorism remains undiminished but that it will continue to evolve. It shows that we are witnessing a shift in terrorism tactics and techniques from large-scale, high concept, September 11-style plots to smaller, attacks including ‘lone wolf’ attacks.

As well as our efforts to stem the exodus of would-be foreign fighters, we should be prepared for more of these types of attacks in Australia.

What the events of recent months and years have demonstrated, beyond the capacity of all but the most wilfully ignorant to deny it, is that today we live in an age more dangerous than we had ever imagined before. An age of networked terrorism, where extremist groups operate without regard for national boundaries and have a footprint in most countries, including our own. It is an age when all you need to commit an act of terror is a knife, a mobile phone and a victim.

Around the world, serious policy-makers are acknowledging that the wars that are taking place throughout northern Iraq and Syria have a direct and immediate impact upon the security of our own homelands, and that responsible governments have to grapple with new policy and legislative responses to adapt to this significantly more dangerous security environment.

As the Attorney-General in the Australian system, it is my job to deal with these difficult issues from two perspectives: as first law officer, to be jealous to protect the rule of law and defend our traditional freedoms; to approach these challenges with a presumption against any further incursions upon traditional rights and liberties. But as the minister responsible for national security, I have the obligation to protect public safety at a time when the threat of terrorist attack has never been greater.

In recognition of the seriousness of the threat facing us, the Australian Government has boosted counter-terrorism funding by additional $1.3 billion in the past year alone. The largest component of that new funding, accounting for $630 million, is being used to augment Australia’s intelligence collection and coordination across our law enforcement agencies.

We have also passed four instalments of legislation to strengthen the ability of our agencies to investigate, monitor, arrest and prosecute home-grown violent extremists and those who support them.

Among the new criminal offences we have created is the offence of intentionally being in an area declared by the Foreign Minister to be a no-go zone without legitimate excuse. So far, the Foreign Minister has declared two such areas: Mosul in Iraq and al-Raqqa province in Syria.

Similarly, it is now an offence to intentionally counsel, promote, encourage or urge the doing of a terrorist act or the commission of a terrorism offence. Alongside those reforms, Australia’s regime of control orders has been strengthened so that our security and intelligence agencies can more easily monitor people who are a potential threat to the Australian community.

Courts can now impose control orders that prevent returned foreign fighters from associating with certain other people where that would help avert a terrorist attack on Australian soil. And anyone supporting or assisting foreign fighters is now themselves subject to the same control order regime as those who return from fighting with terrorist groups.

Recently, we have launched a national conversation on ways that we can strengthen the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Next week, the Government will be asking Parliament to deal with a bill which updates the Australian Citizenship Act so that foreign fighters who also hold the citizenship of another country will lose their Australian citizenship and dual nationals who engage in terrorism within Australia can be deported.

We are also working closely with the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to ensure that they have the tools and support they need to pursue those who would do Australians harm. Importantly, we are working with our international partners to degrade and disrupt, and ultimately to destroy, ISIL.

To strengthen arrangements further, the Prime Minister recently appointed a Commonwealth Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, a very experienced Australian public official, Mr Greg Moriarty, who serves as a single point of coordination for all Commonwealth agencies working on counter-terrorism. This is a challenging but crucial role for the Government’s counter terrorism efforts to be as effective as they can be.

Alongside our efforts to address the scourge of foreign fighters, the Government is also investing over $40 million to counter violent extremism in our communities. This significant investment comes by way of recognition of the growing threat that terrorist groups like ISIL pose to our community through local recruitment and as well their sophisticated social media presence.

It is estimated that ISIL alone delivers up to 100,000 online messages every single day - each and every one of them aimed at gaining support and sympathy from vulnerable young Australians. On Twitter, the Brookings Institution estimates that ISIL and its supporters have at least 46,000 active accounts, each with an average of 1000 followers.

To combat the very distinctively 21st century dimensions of the threat, it’s clear that traditional law enforcement and legislative responses have not, and will not, succeed in isolation - they must be complemented by a broader effort engaging not merely government, but also community groups and industry.

The challenge for governments facing the terrorist threat is to empower credible voices to speak into this space - to undercut terrorist narratives and to promote liberal democratic Australian values.

We are doing this by investing in the capabilities of community organisations, leaders and role models who will be voices against violence and who can, both directly and online, go talk sense to those at risk of radicalisation. To point out to them that the path to self-destruction is no way forward for them.

In the war on terror, the battle for hearts and minds is hardly a recent consideration. The truth of the matter is that every country in the world is currently grappling with the question of what it is that makes people susceptible to extremism and to terrorist recruitment.

To meet this challenge we in Australia have put in place a range of measures to help stop our young and vulnerable from moving down the dark path of violent extremism - we cannot

afford to wait until people have already become radicalised and formed the intent to do harm. We need to reduce the risk by taking steps to roll back the threat of extremist ideology and tackle the problem at its roots.

Experience has shown us that the best defence against violent extremism is a combination of strong security and law enforcement, coupled with resilient and cohesive communities. But having said all of that, as policy-makers, we must not fall into the all too common trap of simply writing off extremism as a by-product of poverty, or as an over-the-top reaction to Western foreign policy.

We have to recognise that above all else, beliefs are the drivers here - that sincere, though misguided, ascription to the doctrines of martyrdom and jihad matter - and that people don’t simply leave comfortable middle-class upbringings to fight holy wars because they lack economic empowerment.

As a government, we have to understand the power of ideas, and we are looking at how we can boost the capability of our own society to challenge those ideals. To challenge extremism variance of Muslim theology in a way that will reach out and, hopefully, influence those at risk. And where these safety nets fail, we are working with our state and territory partners to implement new intervention programs to help individuals to disengage from violent extremism.

We also recognise that terrorism is a global phenomenon that cannot be dealt with by one country alone. As the investigation and prosecution of terrorists often relies on evidence from overseas, it is equally critical to have international relationships in place, so as to ensure that those involved in terrorism cannot evade justice by seeking safe havens in other nations.

In June of this year, I convened a regional summit in Sydney on Countering Violent Extremism, in which all of our regional partners from the Asia Pacific gathered to bring together across government, civil society and industry their shared experience and insights in how to address the threat posed by violent extremist groups. Australia’s regional engagement and the lead we have taken in our region in countering violent extremism continues.

Let me close these remarks by saying a few words about a virtue that is always at risk of being lost in the discussion of this topic. That is the virtue of tolerance. For it must be said that one of Australia’s greatest strengths is its tolerance and its diversity.

This is the great Australian success story, the great Australian achievement, shared with many other lands I know, and it must be preserved and protected as we face the terrorist threat. More should be done to better define what separates us from those who would seek to our societies harm. Where we have created a liberal democracy, our foes would prefer to drag humanity back into a new Dark Age.

Where our society values peace, tolerance and the liberal democratic ideals of the enlightenment, our opponents would prefer ignorance, squalor, enforced by depraved violence and looking forward only to the apocalypse.

Our strength and tenacity in steadfastly upholding the freedoms upon which our society is based are, in a sense, the ultimate act of defiance against those who would seek to do us harm.

So it is critical that every Australian feels proud of our cultural diversity and of the spectacular privilege our citizenship affords us. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech and religious freedom are cherished rights and radical, or unpopular, thinking has often transformed our country’s political and social landscape for the better.

Indeed, espousing a belief in freedom of thought would be meaningless if it did not extend to those ideas we might find offensive or disagreeable but advocating extremism, or supporting violence to achieve political change, is not an expression of freedom of belief, it is the articulation and the incitement to violence and that can never be accepted.

As David Cameron remarked in a speech on extremism earlier this year, “No-one becomes a terrorist from a standing start. It starts with a process of radicalisation…

“It may begin with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death.

Or, as Mr Cameron went on to say, “The extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.”

The actions of violent extremists threaten Australia and its values: the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, religious freedom, the rights of women and sexual minorities. To that end, as the world gets smaller, Australia and her allies must continue to work together against the menace of Islamist extremism wherever it originates, and not merely dismiss the threat as being too far away or too hard to solve. By our active engagement with our Coalition partners in the Middle East, Australia is showing that that is not our approach, that we share the burden of this common problem with civilised nations from every culture and background. We must continue to remain ever vigilant, committed, continue to cooperative with one another in our combined effort to defeat the threat of ISIL.

The Australian Government has shown the political will to deal with that menace. Keeping our community safe, while protecting our traditional rights and freedoms, are not incompatible ideals, but are essential to one another.

That is why today, and forever into the future, that task will remain at the top of the Australian Government’s priorities.

Thank you.