The Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier this month that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) considered “the threat of terrorism in Australia [to be] as high as it is in global terror hotspots in Africa and the Middle East”. This puts Australia in the same category as countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia which experience frequent, in some cases daily, terrorist attacks. Whilst the risk of terrorism is obviously different in Australia as it is in these countries, is there really a ‘high’ risk of terrorism in Australia?
The FCO does not provide detailed justifications for the threat rating of individual countries. Although it cites the Australian government assessment from October 2014 declaring that the threat of terrorism was high, the FCO only changed the threat level from ‘general’ to ‘high’ on 28 May. In any case, Australia was not the only Western country where it warns of a ‘high’ threat. The UK, France, Spain and Belgium were also in the top category however, notably, the FCO assessed the US to have a ‘general’ threat, the second-highest category.
In the same month that Canberra raised its threat level, the Abbott government also made it a criminal offence for its citizens to travel to “areas in a foreign country [in which] a listed terrorist organisation is engaging in a hostile activity”. Travelling to a “declared area” without a legitimate purpose is punishable by ten years in prison. Foreign minister Julie Bishop declared the Al-Raqqa province in Syria off limits in December 2014 as well as the Mosul district in Iraq in March 2015.
Despite these restrictions, the government recently estimated that 100 Australians have travelled to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State (IS). Consequently, Australian security forces have actively moved to prevent citizens from travelling to these countries, cancelling passports and intercepting travellers both prior to departure and in transit. To this end, Australia has signed a joint-cooperation agreement with the Turkish government in an effort to stop the flow of Australians travelling to Syria to fight for IS. The two countries agreed to increase the sharing of intelligence and information that would lead to prosecutions.
The fact that tighter security measures have made it hard for extremists to travel abroad means that Australia is more prone to incidences of domestic extremism. In September 2014, after his passport was cancelled, teenager Numan Haider attacked two police officers in Melbourne, killing one of them. IS, in light of the strict measures preventing Australians from travelling to Syria and Iraq, have called on people who cannot travel abroad to mount attacks from home. In April, Australian IS-recruiter Neil Prakash, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Khaled Al-Cambodi, released a video urging Australian Muslims to “rise up and launch attacks on home soil”.
Even prior to Prakash’s message, however, the security forces had uncovered several plots. In February, the authorities arrested two men in Sydney after police received a tip-off that they were planning on beheading a citizen. Also notably, in April, Australian police arrested five 18-year-old men in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne and British police arrested a teenager in Blackburn in connection with a plan to use knives and swords to hack police officers to death during ANZAC Day commemorations.
The policies of the Abbott government that restrict Australians from travelling to Syria and Iraq, and the subsequent reactions from IS, increase the risk of domestic extremism in Australia. Such an explanation goes part of the way in explaining why the FCO might consider the threat level in Australia to be ‘high’. That said, last December’s siege in Sydney was the first successful incidence of terrorism in Australia in over 13 years - proof that Australian security forces are certainly capable of preventing domestic terrorism.
Thomas Murphy holds a Masters of International Relations from the University of Melbourne. He currently subcontracts for a political and security risk consultancy firm in London.
Image credit: Eva Rinaldi (cropped, altered colours) (Flickr: Creative Commons)