Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Counter-Terror Contretemps

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By Allon Lee


With a string of Islamist-related terror trials currently making their way through the world’s court systems, there is an ongoing debate in Australian academe about the best approach to meeting the challenge posed by the threat of terrorism.

Last October, Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre made a major splash in that debate with the release of a 125-page study called Counter-Terrorism Policing and Culturally Diverse Communities - advocating community policing as the best method of combating terrorism.

The report, the result of a three-year joint initiative between Monash University and the Victorian Police Counter-Terrorism Co-Ordination Unit, explained community policing in the following way:

The philosophical framework upon which police community engagement is based is critical to the successful integration of community policing into national security and counter-terrorism policing. Community engagement must be aimed at building trust, rather than based solely on the utility of gathering intelligence. Community engagement around counter-terrorism should be based on a philosophy of sharing information so that the flow of terrorism related information travels from communities to police and from police to communities.

The study has since been repeatedly cited in the Australian media as having “proved” that community policing is the key to counter-terrorism. However, as this article explains, the empirical portion of the study cannot support such sweeping claims, and its conclusions are rejected at least in part by many of the country’s top counter-terrorism experts.


Methodology and Findings

The report’s methodology was to survey the “perceptions and experiences of community and counter-terrorism policing from both police members and members of culturally diverse communities in Victoria”.

It also identified what the authors believed were “factors that are critical in the operation of counter-terrorism legislation and policy in Victoria” and offered recommendations.

Principally, the report claimed that Islamist-inspired terrorism was not a byproduct of ideology but rather:

….a multifaceted phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a single causal factor. It results from a complex array of economic, political, psychological and social forces the precise mix of which varies from place to place and person to person. Hence, while it is true that terrorist groups that claim to be acting in the name of Islam do pose a threat to Australians, it is not the case that the animus of these groups is a function of their religion. Rather, a more complex set of rationalisations and perceived injustices are at work.

The report also suggested that traditional counter-terrorism may actually cause further alienation of individuals leading to them becoming more susceptible for recruitment by terrorist groups.

At the heart of this concern is the fact that counter-terrorism, both pre- and post-9/11, has focused largely on groups that are considered ethnically, religiously or culturally distinct. Such approaches, often based on crude forms of racial profiling, have been common in counter-terrorism practices in places such as Northern Ireland and South Africa…

Worryingly, there is some evidence to suggest that similar attitudinal processes have recently taken root in the United States, European Union and Australia, where post-September 11 anxiety has led some in the media and government bodies to unfairly target communities as inherently suspect and being sympathetic to terrorism or its causes.

The report also took aim at the Howard Government’s counterterrorism policies and legislation,describing them as “emphasis[ing] prevention of terrorist events rather than prevention that aims to undermine the growth of support for terrorism.”

However, according to the study, the data claimed to back up these strong conclusions come primarily from online surveys and in person interviews with members of the Victorian Police force. Further, the study makes clear that the vast majority of the police surveyed had no responsibilities or expertise related to counter-terrorism. Moreover, the published study is less than clear about what exact questions police members were asked. The descriptions that do exist of the nature of the questions in the study suggest the questions asked of police may have been more closely related to how best to maintain good relations with representatives of ethnic communities, rather than how best to prevent terrorism.

The study also included focus group research with some representatives from various ethnic groups. The report is again vague about what questions were asked, or the answers obtained, but it is clear that the main objective of this research was not to explore effective counter-terrorism. According to the study, the purpose of this segment of the research was to “measure the extent to which the community felt that its place as a valuable part of the fabric of Victorian society had been maintained in the post-9/11 environment, especially on matters relating to counter-terrorism policing”.

In other words, a close reading of the study indicates that at best, the conclusions the study draws about the centrality of community policing to counter-terrorism appear to be based, on surveys of rank and file police, largely with no counter-terrorism experience or expertise. At worst, it is possible to read the study as implying that these conclusions may have been an initial assumption of the study, and the empirical portion of it devoted mainly to how best to effectively implement community policing.


Media Presentation

Despite this thin empirical basis for its conclusions about the centrality of community policing to counter-terrorism strategies, the report immediately generated a slew of headlines with its controversial findings following its official launch at the Counter Terrorism International Conference 2007 in Melbourne.

Headlines from the Melbourne-based Age newspaper’s coverage of Monash’s report and conference provide a glimpse into the nature of the debate. These included “State and federal police rift on terror” on Oct. 14, “Good Cop, Bad Cop” and “Ruddock hits back on terror laws” on Oct. 15 and 16, while a week later an interview with one conference attendee was entitled “US Muslims ‘fear mass internment’”.

Since then, the Monash study has often been cited both in the media, and in policy debates at conferences and other venues, as having established that community policing is the only way to achieve effective counter-terrorism in Australia.


What the Experts Say

AIR asked a number of Australia’s top security and counter-terrorism experts what they thought of the Monash study’s conclusions, at least as generally popularised, that community policing is the key element for effective counter-terrorism in Australia. And while most agreed that community policing and good relations with ethnic communities are important, they also largely disagreed with the overwhelming emphasis placed on it in the Monash study. Many also questioned the assumptions about terrorism’s causes made in the study.

For example, Dr. Anthony Bergin, Director of Research Programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra, attended the Monash conference at which the study was launched. He described the report as “half-right”.

“Trying to draw a particular community into a potential information sharing network based on trust etc., that’s all to the good. But what I thought the report lacked was any sense that community policing is only one aspect of counter-terrorism policing,” Dr. Bergin said.

The most important breakthroughs in terms of terrorism don’t come from people in the community voluntarily sharing information, Dr. Bergin said, but rather through “running informants, sting operations, covert surveillance, intrusive detection methods, etc”.

“I am quite convinced you need both. The softer approach by building up contacts [is good] but it is a bit naïve to think that that is the way you are going to get leads and break up networks,” he said.

Dr. Carl Ungerer, ASPI’s Australian National Security Project Director, echoed Dr. Bergin’s analysis that the report “has many useful things to say about the way in which the Victorian Police has done their community liaison policing in the past and the need to enhance their capability in that area,” but was concerned that it contained judgements “which aren’t supported by the broader evidence that we know about the current state of global and home-grown terrorism”.

Even more vocal in his criticism of the report was Dr. Mervyn Bendle, a senior lecturer in history and communication at James Cook University, who has written extensively in recent years on the threat of terrorism.

Dr. Bendle damned the Monash report as “a politically motivated document designed to embarrass the then-Liberal federal government.”

Dr. Bendle told AIR that the report is written from a perspective that denies the existence of people “who want to kill tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of people in the name of religious and political ideologies”.

“They seem to think that the problem is not that such people exist and want to engage in wholesale slaughter, but that governments want to take resolute action to detect and pre-empt their activities,” Dr. Bendle said.

Dr. Bendle also criticised the report for confusing the views of communities that were surveyed with the attitudes and inclinations of real and prospective terrorists.

“The right way to find out what makes terrorists tick is to capture and interrogate as many of them as possible,” Dr. Bendle said.

“There is no evidence from the history of terrorism that the types of people who embrace terrorism respond well to ‘soft-power’ - quite the opposite, they see ‘soft-power’ as a sign of weakness and decadence,” Dr. Bendle said.

In Dr. Bendle’s view the best way to deal with terrorism is by bringing in “very strict and wide-ranging powers” and then applying them in a series of well-publicised cases, making sure that everyone understands that terrorism is simply anathema and will not be tolerated.

Dr. Ungerer also took aim at the report’s foundational basis that alienation and poverty are the root causes of Islamist terrorism.

“This is completely at odds with the evidence we’ve had from a whole range of comprehensive reports and data, not only here in Australia but the United States, from Zachary Abuza and others who’ve documented very clearly that economic disadvantage is not a causal factor with Islamist terrorism or any type of terrorism.

“It is clear that the fight we face is an ideological one and I think the report, insofar as it tries to have an each-way bet on that question, is wrong,” he said.

Dr. Ungerer questioned how the West could reach an accommodation with Islamists.

“This argument that Western foreign policy in the Middle East is a principal cause for a whole lot of Islamist rage is nonsense. Indeed, what then are they advocating? The ending of US foreign policy in the Middle East? Should we hand back Spain? These ridiculous arguments taken to their logical conclusion just don’t add up,” Dr. Ungerer said.

A soon-to-be published study co-written by Dr. Ungerer with Peter Chalk of the Rand Corporation on the Islamist threat in southeast Asia, which looks at various Islamist groups including Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Hizb ut-Tahrir, suggests that the alienation argument can be self-fulfilling.

“JI and its leadership clearly are not economically disadvantaged in any particular sense. They do have a sense of alienation from the central government but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. Their own alienation from mainstream secular society drives a lot of that,” Dr. Ungerer said.

He noted the important observation in former Islamist Ed Hussain’s book, The Islamist, that when elements of the Left and media reports blame America for Muslim suffering, it “creates this tension and therefore creates this violence. Hussain says ‘they are doing our work for us.’”

“It places the pressure back on central governments to explain or justify foreign policy decisions, rather than what is the root cause of Islamist rage which is a warped reading of the Koran,” Dr. Ungerer said.

Dr. Bergin said he would have liked to see the report “explore different policing approaches to counter-terrorism and then try to make an academic judgement based on evidence.

“There’s nothing there where they say we interviewed 100 police officers and they said we found that x, y, z was useful in disrupting terror networks. I thought that was the weakest element to me,” Dr. Bergin said.

He continued, “if you are going to be in the game of asking how you should best invest public funding, then you do have to look at those issues and then try and canvass overseas evidence, and what has worked and what hasn’t.”

The report was too harsh regarding the changes made to national counter-terrorism legislation post 9/11, which tightened existing laws, granted additional powers for the police and intelligence agencies, and loosened the rules on the use of intelligence evidence in courts, according to Dr. Ungerer.

“One of the real problems is the prejudgement that they make that the national security approach that the government had taken to counter-terrorism was the wrong way to go. I completely disagree with that,” Dr. Ungerer said.

He noted that prior to 9/11 “it was widely acknowledged in legal circles that there were vast gaps in the code about how to deal with this particular kind of violence”.

The challenge of counter-terrorism is not an either/or option in Dr. Ungerer’s view. “You need both”, he said, but “those going down the community policing path only, I think, are completely misreading the situation.”

Ultimately, it’s been as much through good luck as good management that Australia has prevented a major terrorist attack here over the last seven years, according to Dr. Ungerer.

“But I have no doubt that Australia will remain a gold medal target for al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates and should the opportunity arise to do something in Australia, I have no doubt they will do it,” Dr. Ungerer warned.

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