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Role of Government in countering violent extremism and terrorist propaganda: opening address of the Ministerial meeting at Australia's Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, Sydney

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Friday 12 June 2015




Today’s meeting brings together, as I said, ministerial representatives and senior officials from across our region and, indeed, from across the world. While we are of different nationalities and religions, the threat we face is a common one. As the Prime Minister observed yesterday, it knows no borders and it speaks many languages. We are here because of our collective and fundamental opposition to the threat of terrorism and violent extremism.

The fact is, countering the terrorist threat is challenging and there are no instant solutions. Yesterday’s discussions were extremely productive: in both assessing the threat, appraising its dimensions and considering ways in which we can challenge the threat. But if there is one message which I am sure we took out of yesterday; it is that there are no easy solutions. And while this is a very important regional summit, the challenge we face is a global one which is why following the White House Summit in February regional summits of this kind have occurred or will be occurring elsewhere in the world: in Singapore, in Norway and shortly in Kenya.

This event provides an opportunity for the region to agree on practical outcomes that will continue the significant global momentum created by the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2178 and, of course, the White House Summit itself.

My hope is that we end today with a deeper understanding of the common challenges and a renewed, shared sense of purpose in our response to the radicalisation and recruitment of our citizens, in particular our young men and women, by terrorists and other extremists - including, in particular, through their exploitation of the internet.

Australia, and many of the countries represented here today, are currently facing a very real and present threat from ISIL. This terrorist organisation is committing atrocities in Syria and Iraq. They have enslaved and trafficked women and children. They have engaged in acts of almost unimaginable savagery; they have delighted in the torture and mass murder of innocent civilians and in the wanton destruction of irreplaceable cultural artefacts.

In any other age this sectarian conflict might have been contained to the region in which it was taking place but in today’s networked world, the internet and social media allow ISIL to reach a mass audience with slickly produced videos of their shocking and barbaric actions and we are seeing similar approaches taken by groups like Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda.

Their perverse interpretation of Islam attempts to divide our communities and to set us against one another. They have deliberately set about creating sophisticated branded products and developing an electronic army to reframe these conflicts in a way that, somehow, appeals to our vulnerable youth, in particular vulnerable young members of our Muslim communities.

Make no mistake; these individuals are being preyed upon by those who would use them for their own ends. These young men and women, of whom it is our responsibility to protect, are being preyed upon by evil recruiters, evil propagandists. Though they claim to be acting in the name of Islam, we must not give these evil people the legitimacy they seek - their interpretation of Islam is built upon deceit and self-interest.

Governments have no greater responsibility than to keep their people safe; to ensure the protection of the human rights of their citizens, including protection from terrorists who would destroy them.

Each of us achieves the objective we seek by putting in place strong legal frameworks and law enforcement mechanisms to uphold the rule of law but as we know that is not enough. Responding to the threats of terrorist recruitment and radicalisation is not something that governments can do alone.

It is well established by research, and backed by the recently adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2178, that communities can add great value to countering violent extremism efforts and they should be encouraged to do so. Many of the ways in which civil society and industry have sought to counter violent extremism were discussed, of course, yesterday.

We know that well-informed and well-equipped families, communities and local agencies are best placed to recognise and to intervene in the early stages of radicalisation to violence. We know from all the research and learning available, that governments stand little chance of observing these changes ahead of family, friends and communities which is why I say governments cannot do this alone. It is an essential element of any effective countering violent extremism strategy to leverage families and communities to play a role in early intervention.

Countering violent extremism is complex and our approach must be multilayered. Locally, we have based our approach in Australia on research, consultation and international experience. We aim to build the resilience of communities to violent extremism; to work with vulnerable groups and institutions. Here in Australia we are introducing diversion programs for individuals who may be at-risk of radicalisation or rehabilitating those who, in some cases, have already been radicalised.

As announced at the White House Summit in February, this effort, in this country, will be enabled by investment in the establishment of a substantial new capability to undermine the pervasive spread of propaganda that is bringing this conflict to our shores and is appealing, in particular, to our young. And - despite our best efforts - when early intervention fails it is critical that we have strong legal frameworks to ensure agencies have the tools they need to address the threat of terrorism head on.

Not surprisingly, all of these steps involve significant financial commitment but ultimately we know it is a necessary investment in the security of our nation and of our people.

Let me tell you about some of the legislative measures that we have taken in Australia in recent times. Following a careful examination of Australia’s legal framework for disrupting and countering terrorism, the Australian Parliament enacted four significant pieces of legislation in the second half of 2014 and earlier this year. These laws ensure that our law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies have the tools they need to disrupt and appropriately respond to the terrorist threat.

The impact of one of these new laws, enacted in 2014, to criminalise the advocacy of terrorism has been evident already. Following the commencement of the law on the 1st of December 2014, we have already seen the behaviour of some individuals - who previously advocated terrorism - appears to have moderated, which indicates the offence is having a significant deterrent effect, even without the need of prosecutions. But where the law is breached by the most recalcitrant individuals, they will be prosecuted.

This is also why Australia’s suite of counter-terrorism and national security legislation remains under regular review to identify and respond to any shortcomings. We aim, the Government of Tony Abbott aims, to ensure that our suite of national security legislation, consistent with the rule of law, is as strong as it needs to be.

Therefore, I’m announcing this morning that the Government will introduce further legislation. That legislation will take into account lessons learned from recent legislative amendments and counter-terrorism operations, while respecting individual rights, such as freedom of expression, and the rule of law.

From 2001 to September 2014, 23 Australians were convicted of terrorism-related offences under our Criminal Code. Since Australia’s terror threat level was raised to high, in September 2014, 23 Australians have been charged as a result of 8 counter-terrorism operations. In other words, the same number 23 since September 2014 as in all the years between 2001 and 2014.

We have also seen around 175 Australians travel to participate in conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, most of whom are young men, though increasingly now, I’m sorry to say, young women as well, who have been groomed and recruited by terrorists.

Strong laws are required to protect the public, both here and in all of our countries, but legislative measures alone are not enough to combat the foreign fighter threat. We know that there are sectors within our communities and institutions that are being targeted by extremists to recruit the vulnerable. There is no more stark example than ISIL’s targeting of Muslim youth and therefore we must, as we all know, work with communities to prevent it.

This can be a difficult conversation to have with communities. Australian Muslims do not want to be portrayed as victims and yet they can feel the weight of judgment on them for the actions of others, in particular the actions of others in far-away places. But failing to acknowledge that they are being targeted only serves to exacerbate the threat - a threat that must be tackled head on, through partnerships and with positive and proactive measures.

The Australian Government has invested in a range of initiatives that we call ‘Living Safe Together’, which involve partnerships with organisations in our communities. The key focus of these partnerships is training and education.

Our research, and the findings of experts worldwide, tells us that those closest to at-risk individuals - those who see them every day - are the ones likely to notice changes in their attitudes and behaviour, and to help with early intervention. For example, one of the projects we fund involves the Australian Government working with the Australian Multicultural Foundation to raise community awareness of the indicators of radicalisation. That work is being progressed in particular by the Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, and my

Parliamentary Secretary Senator Fierravanti-Wells. The program includes helping parents know the key indicators of online radicalisation, so they can protect their sons and daughters from being groomed by violent extremists half a world away.

We also know that training and education is the window into a busy, sociable life; a path for those who feel unattached; a way to build a connection to others; a way to feel included. It is particularly so, of course, for the young.

Those who have somewhere to develop skills, find employment, feel included, be part of a sporting team, also have somewhere to be every day that puts them in touch with people who can give them reference points from ordinary lives and empower them to think carefully about their own lives and their own choices.

Across Australia, we are establishing diversion programs to help radicalised and at-risk individuals disengage from violent extremist ideologies and affiliations. Individuals will be assessed to understand and address their specific radicalisation and their needs so that counter measures can be shaped to meet the needs of individual cases.

Case management involves conversations to directly engage with, and try to reframe, the ideology which has captivated them. However, dependent on the individual circumstances of a case, it may include psychological support, counselling, assistance in establishing alternative social and peer networks, to continue schooling or to gain employment.

Some of these services may be accessible through mainstream government programs, but many - like ideological mentoring or youth programs - will best be delivered with the support of credible and influential community groups and role models from within the Muslim community.

One of the biggest challenges we face, as I said earlier, is that of extremist propaganda. The online environment is a powerful medium of influence. It is easily accessible. It has no borders and terrorist organisations are using very persuasive imagery and messaging to resonate with the vulnerable. It is not possible to effectively control the internet - as illicit or offensive content is taken down, new content is immediately uploaded.

That is certainly not to say that legislative and law enforcement approaches are ineffective, but we must utilise these tactics as part of a broader strategy to reduce the impact of terrorist propaganda online. Indeed, the online environment has become such an efficient platform for inducing hate, prejudice, violence and terrorist messaging that we know that ISIL alone is posting over 100,000 pieces of propaganda on Twitter every single day.

Terrorist groups exploit social media to create divisions among our societies and so we must counteract their efforts through a powerful narrative of our own; one that highlights strengths in diversity and core values of commitment to our societies, inclusiveness, mutual respect and love of country.

To counter the prolific threat posed online, we are establishing a social media monitoring and analysis capability. That will help us better understand the impact of extremist narratives on Australians - and reduce access to such material.

We are also empowering credible and resonant voices in our communities who can challenge terrorist narratives and promote powerful alternative messages. We are doing this by investing in the capabilities of community organisations, leaders and role models who can speak against violence, who can get online and talk sense.

Together, we can help vulnerable individuals reject terrorist propaganda. And we can achieve this by questioning its inconsistencies and exposing its false allegations - by bringing to light its brutality. For example, highlighting the experiences of foreign fighters when they get to

Iraq and Syria only to discover that what they were told would be a glorious adventure is actually an experience in savagery, sexual slavery, lawlessness, isolation and poverty.

While these initiatives complement our legislative and law enforcement efforts, there are many online spaces where the right messages are not being heard. To be truly effective, this is where we must focus our efforts.

Clearly, combatting extremist propaganda cannot be tackled by any single nation. It is very much a global challenge that we share. It relies, as so many other measures do as well, on strong partnerships and it requires trust and collaboration of the region so that we can have a united response.

We must use this summit to build on the momentum of UN Security Council Resolution 2178 and the White House Summit to develop and implement activities that not only combat terrorist propaganda but reach out to our citizens with positive alternatives; and to do this, we must make a concerted effort to invest in the technical capability of community organisations to elevate non-extremist voices that can resonate with vulnerable audiences. As well, we must expand our current levels of information sharing to include best practice examples of successful counter narrative work so that we may each learn from each other’s successes.

While combatting terrorism is complex, it is wise for us to draw strength from positive stories. The challenge for governments is to partner with communities and industry to identify influential voices - to identify positive messages and stories and to empower them to be heard. Governments should also recognise when the community is doing a great thing by itself and encourage, support and invest but not attempt to replicate this work. At all times, as we learned in our discussions yesterday, the notion of government partnering with the community, mentoring and supporting civil society is the essence of success in this task.

ISIL, as we know, have had unparalleled success in creating a social media brand; in recruiting thousands of foreign fighters to join their cause and in radicalising vulnerable people from across the world. They have effectively flooded our audiences with messages that prey on the ‘push and pull’ factors that underpin radicalisation. Sadly, they do not have to succeed often to succeed at all and so the challenge for us is to empower credible alternative voices to speak into that space, to undercut their narratives and promote positive social values.

Today’s program has been designed to address those very issues and it is pleasing to see so many people from so many different private and public sectors, all with a common cause.

I want to thank all speakers and participants for joining us today and I look forward, very much, to hearing your presentations.

Thank you.