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No Simple Solution for Extremists

The Australian, 27 September 2005

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed comprehensively -- not just in the US but across the world -- the way in which we have thought about terrorism, feared it and fought it. While the phenomenon of terrorism is not remotely new, the way in which it has captured the attention of policy-makers and the public since 9/11 certainly is.

But it is now four years to the month since those attacks, nearly four years since the invasion of Afghanistan and with it the start of the war on terror, three years after the Bali nightclub bombing, 2 1/2 years into the war in Iraq, 18 months after the Madrid train bombings, a year after the Jakarta embassy bombing, and nearly three months after London's 7/7. And, unhappily, it seems just as possible to comment now, as I did at Davos two years ago, that "the most visible product of the war on terrorism so far has been nothing more or less than more war and more terrorism".

But is that judgment -- more war and more terrorism -- too glib? Where do we stand in the global response to terrorism? And how much have we learned about the menace we are confronting and how effective have we been in confronting it?

I don't have enough information available to me to make any credible overall assessment of the terrorist threat posed to Australia and Australian interests (and I will forbear from speculating whether, if I did have access to official information, my assessment would be any more credible). All I can say is that such information and analysis as is available to me suggests that the threat to Australians at home and abroad is real but moderate. There is no question but that our support for the US and contribution of troops in Iraq has raised our profile throughout the salafi jihadi world, which is no doubt why we are periodically mentioned in threatening statements.

The possibility of attacks against Australian embassies or interests in Europe or elsewhere, accordingly, certainly cannot be ruled out, although the general perception is that we rank well behind the US and Britain in the terrorist wish lists.

As to the specific risk posed by terrorist groups operating in and from Indonesia -- naturally centre-front in people's minds given the horrors perpetrated against Australian targets in Bali in 2002 and Jakarta last year -- Crisis Group's perception is that the Jemaah Islamiyah regional division that covered Australia has been effectively smashed by Indonesian police and intelligence operations (well supported by Australian agencies), and that JI no longer poses a serious threat in Indonesia or elsewhere.

The fugitive Malaysian bomb-makers for the embassy attack -- Noordin Mohammed Top and Azhari bin Husin -- may be tempted by another Western target in Indonesia, but a household name US enterprise is seen as more likely than anything identifiably Australian. And we have never had any information suggesting that there are sleeper cells in Australia or any thought of targeting Australia in this way.

That doesn't mean they don't exist, but given the absence here of currents of Islamist sentiment anything like as strong as those that exist, for example, in Britain, the probability does not seem to be very high. If the war on terrorism as it has been conducted so far has been an overall success, that's a well-kept secret. Terrorist attacks classified as significant more than tripled worldwide to 650 last year from 175 in 2003. This was the highest annual number since Washington began to collect such statistics two decades ago. Nearly one-third of those attacks -- 198 of them, nine times the number of the year before -- took place in Iraq, meant to be the central front of the war on terror.

On British newspaper The Guardian's figures two weeks ago, more than 4000 Iraqis have been killed by terrorists in Baghdad alone since April. The terrorist connection, remember, was the least plausible of all the reasons for going to war in Iraq, but terrorist violence has become the most harrowing of all its consequences.

Of course there have been some apparent successes, such as the capturing or killing of two-thirds of al-Qa'ida's leadership, but while this has undoubtedly diminished al-Qa'ida's organisational capacity it hasn't done anything to diminish its global following.

Much more successful was the police operation in Indonesia against JI. Interestingly, in Crisis Group's judgment, it was done in a way that avoided arbitrary arrests, with every person being detained for more than a few days being held on the basis of solid evidence. In doing so, the police helped create the necessary political space to work against terrorism. Domestically, across the world, homeland defences have been improved, most obviously and no doubt necessarily at airports, where one keeps on being confronted by the deafening clang of stable doors being shut after the horse has bolted. But umpteen points of vulnerability remain, most obviously in commuter systems: as not only a regular visitor to London but with a New York office sitting right above Grand Central Station, I'm more than a little conscious of that, no doubt inevitable, weakness.

There are several new international conventions and resolutions, with many measures devoted particularly to chasing the money trail: a good and obvious thing to do, but limited in its effect to the extent that most terrorist attacks to date, and the support of most terrorist operations to date, have not involved very much money at all. The whole cost of the 9/11 operation has been estimated at no more than $US500,000 ($660,000); the expense of the materials involved in the Madrid train bombings were estimated by Spanish investigators to be less than $1000.

We are dealing with a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, that demands a complex, multi-layered response. Good policy sometimes requires not simplification but complexification. With nearly all the international and national debate we have had on this subject, there has been an oversupply of rhetoric and an under-supply of thoughtful analysis. The struggle against violent extremism can be won, but it is going to be neither quick nor easy, and it is going to require a lot more thought, and application and persistence, and a much more balanced approach than comes easily to most of the world's policy-makers.

Gareth Evans, a former foreign affairs minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, is president of the International Crisis Group in Brussels. This is an edited extract from the Wallace Wurth Lecture to be delivered tonight at the University of NSW.