The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP

Speech to the to the National Press Club

Canberra, 13 April 2004

Australia and the Threat of Global Terrorism - A Test of Resolve

On the morning of September 12th 2001, after sitting up most of the night transfixed by the horror unfolding in New York and Washington, a colleague of mine was confronted by his sleepy-eyed young son. The boy had overheard conversations and television snippets in the dead of night and wanted to know whether something terrible had happened or whether he had just had a "bad dream." Now, two and a half years on, the numbness and incredulity of that September are gone. Over following months we witnessed the gruelling task of the World Trade Centre rubble and its human contents being collected and removed�Ķtaken away like so much of our comfort and security.

We in Australia have since endured the shock, brutality and grief of Bali. We have seen the carnage in Istanbul, in Riyadh and in Madrid. We have seen military action in Afghanistan. We have seen the liberation of Iraq and continue to see terrorist attacks against international forces determined to bring stability. I think as a people we have realised that this is no "bad dream." We realise that this is not a string of unrelated, tragic events.

But I think many Australians are still uncertain and understandably worried about these events. This is not surprising - the campaign waged by the terrorists is unlike any we have had to face before. And it is designed to foster fear, division and self-doubt.

How can we fight a war against a tactic? Who is our enemy? Why do they attack us? How do we know whether we are winning or losing? The sad truth is that 9/11 did change the world we live in. We are engaged in a war to protect the very civilisation we have worked so hard to create - a civilisation founded on democracy, personal liberty, the rule of law, religious freedom and tolerance.

It is crucial that all of us understand the threat that confronts us and understand how we can - and must - overcome it. That is why I have commissioned a White Paper on the terrorist threat. And that is why I am speaking to you here today.

There are some who believe that the war against terror is something that we can avoid...that we can roll into a ball and, in the false security of an inward gaze, behave like we are a small target...and leave others to fight our battles. These people are wrong.

We need to be ever-cognisant of the reality - terrorism is a threat today that knows no geographic boundaries and no moral boundaries.Its perpetrators pay no regard to the morality of the religion they purport to uphold.The targets and scale of their carnage are limited only by the weapons they can access and the opportunities they can identify.

The terrorism challenge we face does have the dimensions of a war. Its prosecution requires:

At the outset, we should be clear that this is a war that we did not choose. The terrorists have declared war on us because of who we are and what we value. Our only choice is whether or not we defend ourselves.

The Government has made its decision: we will defend Australians, our nation and our interests. It is not an easy task - defending ourselves will test our resolve, our courage, our patience and our resources. But it is, surely, our only chance for peace and security.

The Fundamentalist Islamic Extremist Terrorists (or Islamo-fascists) cannot achieve their aims through persuasion - only through fear and chaos. But what is it that they want? Their precise goals and ideologies are so extreme - and their methods are so evil - that it is difficult for us to understand them. But try we must - because it is indeed a truism that, in order to succeed, we must know our enemy.

What distinguishes al Qaeda - and its kind - is a deliberate and militant misreading of the Koran and tradition in pursuit of extremist and backward ends. It is primitive and triumphalist. With it goes a conspiratorial explanation of a world dominated by Zionists and Christians...a mindset that thinks of the present in terms of the crusades; that regards the loss of Andalusia as a fresh wound, even though it happened more than 500 years ago. Al Qaeda embraces modern weapons technology, including weapons of mass destruction. But its aims are - to us almost unimaginably - pre-modern and fundamentalist. Its sense of geo-political reality is delusional; its intent genocidal and utterly uncoloured by reason, restraint, compassion or a notion of shared humanity. These people want to overthrow moderate Muslim governments and replace them with Taliban-style, Islamo-fascist regimes.

The distinguished writer Andrew Sullivan summed up the situation that confronts us. Al Qaeda, he says is 'quite candid in its goals: expulsion of all infidels from Islamic lands, the subjugation of political pluralism to fascistic theocracy, the elimination of all Jews anywhere, the enslavement of women, the murder of homosexuals and the expansion of a new Islamic realm up to and beyond the medieval boundaries of Islam's golden past.' The demands of the Islamo-fascists are absolute. There is no point in seeking to reduce the threat from these terrorists by offering concessions. There is no option but to understand this clearly and be resolute in our campaign to defeat them. This is as true for countries like Australia - a declared target of terrorism since our support for the liberation of East Timor - as it is for the mainstream Muslim communities. Half-hearted compromise or accommodation - or even (as we hear from some quarters) a sense that we are somehow accountable for the terrorists' vague grievances - is delusionary.


When it comes to confronting terrorists and their safe havens - we have to tackle them where we can. We cannot afford to sit back and wait for them to visit upon us another 9/11 or Bali bombing before we respond. That is why the international community, led by the United States, overthrew al Qaeda's puppet Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11.

Now the terrorists have made Iraq the frontline in their unholy war. In pursuit of their nihilistic agenda, they are prepared to kill Westerners, aid workers from any nation and Iraqis themselves, as part of a campaign to sabotage the creation of a democratic system in Iraq. Despite their rhetoric, this is not a religious war of Jihad. The terrorists know what is at stake in Iraq. For them, the establishment of a free and democratic Iraq would be an unprecedented and severe defeat. An Arab liberal democracy would be a burst of sunlight ruining their dark vision. So their plan for Iraq is one of chaos and civil war. We know this from the capture of documents purported to be written by the al-Qaeda-associated terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi made it clear he was aiming to foment civil war along Iraq's main religious divides. But he is being frustrated in his purpose by Iraqis who overwhelmingly oppose his actions and intent. As too does the international community, because it knows that a failure to see through the job of rehabilitation and reconstruction in Iraq would hand the forces of terror a victory without equal.

Now is the worst possible time to cut and run from Iraq. The Australian Government understands this and will keep Australian troops there until their tasks are complete. The vast majority of Coalition countries understand this and have restated their commitment. And the United Nations knows this - which is why it plans to move back into Iraq. The very few who advocate a cut and run policy clearly have not stopped to listen to the people who count most in this - the Iraqis themselves. A recent survey conducted for the BBC by Oxford Research International found that only 15% of Iraqis want coalition forces to leave immediately.

Nor have the cut-and-run advocates thought through the consequences of their proposed actions. To abandon the Iraqis just as they are finding their feet would be to turn our backs not just on the Iraqi people, but also on our allies and coalition partners and on the international community. Worse still, a cut and run policy would have a severe and very real consequence for the security of Australia. For Iraq would in effect become what Afghanistan once was: a failed state and a haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists. It would be a source of instability in a region of strategic and economic importance to Australia.

I remain proud of the decision we took to join the Coalition of the Willing in enforcing UNSC Resolutions, eliminating Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction threat and freeing the people of Iraq. Never again will they have to live with the dehumanising brutality of Saddam Hussein's tyranny. It was the right decision.

I understand others hold a different view: and I respect that. But whether we stay to help a new Iraq onto its feet, or whether we cut and run, leaving it in anarchy and as a haven for our enemies, is a separate debate. We need to work with the various religious and ethnic groups to ensure they do not choose the preferred path of the terrorists - the path of violence. The international coalition in Iraq wants the same outcome as the Iraqi people - including many of the insurgents: the earliest possible handover of responsibility for Iraq to its own people. Violence can only thwart that process.

The international community's decisions on how to grapple with these issues - on how fully to engage in the Iraq transition process - will be crucially important for the broader war against terrorism. The broadest possible support and widest possible source of contributions will create the best possible chance for steady, peaceful progress. Unity on Iraq will send a clear and strong message to the terrorists - who feed on our divisions and signs of weakness.

Just as we had to make a stand against fascism in the 1930s and 40s we must take a stand against the Islamo-fascists of the 21st century. Terrorists will not be defeated by acquiescence and retreat - victory can only come by taking them on directly, with determined and forceful resolve.

Global results

Two and a half years after 9/11 - and eighteen months on from Bali - it is possible to describe some progress against terrorism. Across 100 countries about 3,400 terrorist operatives have been either killed or detained. Entire al-Qaeda cells have been disrupted. Almost US$200 million in terrorist assets have been frozen or seized. In our own region, well over 200 Jema'ah Islamiyah suspects have been detained with key figures like Hambali and Al-Ghozi no longer at large.

But there is ample evidence of increasing coordination among terrorist groups. JI, for instance, is cooperating with Islamic extremist groups in the southern Philippines, to the point of sharing training facilities and operational expertise. Terror cells are planning for the medium and long term. They are patient. So we must continue our vigilance - and continue to fight this battle on many fronts.

Battle of ideas

It is crucial that we challenge the ideas by which terrorists seek to justify their actions. Otherwise we vacate the important intellectual battleground in the war against terrorism - allowing terrorists to exploit the politics of despair. In our engagement internationally with other governments, Australia makes clear our understanding that the campaign against terror must be fought on the battleground of ideas - side by side with efforts on law and order and security.

This is not to accept the simplistic idea that terrorism has so called 'root causes' that are easily identified and resolved. As a matter of principle, we do not accept that anything justifies or legitimises the killing of innocents. The idea that terrorism is driven by poverty and lack of opportunity is not supported by the facts. A number of the leaders of al-Qaeda and JI come from relatively affluent and privileged backgrounds. Osama Bin Laden was a millionaire. The 'root causes' thesis also misunderstands the purposes of groups aligned with al-Qaeda.These are not people seeking remedy or compromise - only annihilation or subjugation to their views.

We must always draw clear distinctions between terrorism that seeks to exploit Muslim populations on the one hand and Islam itself on the other. As a Muslim friend once put to me - on 9/11 it wasn't only planes that were hijacked but the Islamic faith as well.

I encourage the Muslim mainstream not just to reject the terrorist agenda of a fanatical minority, but to speak up - as many have been doing - to condemn terrorism unequivocally. In this context, I acknowledge Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's recently launched moderate Islam Hadhari initiative.

Australia has taken steps to promote understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim societies. The Australia-Indonesia Institute (AII) is promoting understanding through its Inter-Faith Program, which encourages contact between our countries' Islamic and Christian organisations. In 2003, I formed the Council for Australian-Arab relations to promote economic, political, cultural and social links between Australian and Arab communities. I have also made a major effort to engage the mainstream Islamic leadership of Indonesia. Exchanges have already taken place and I have hosted some of the key Indonesian Muslim leaders here in Canberra.

Security response

Since September 11 and Bali, about $3 billion has been committed to protecting Australia against the new terrorist threat. Just last month the Prime Minister announced that Australia's intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies would receive an additional $400 million to strengthen our campaign against global terrorism. Australia, with our partners in the war against terrorism, has been working assiduously, using our law enforcement, intelligence and security capabilities to track and arrest terrorists and disrupt terrorist networks.

No country can combat terrorism on its own - it is only through cooperation that we will get the fullest possible picture of the current and emerging nature of terrorism - and how best to fight it. Cooperation between Muslim and non-Muslim countries has been vital in the progress so far.The Government is taking steps to prevent terrorist attacks through enhanced international cooperation across many fronts:

Australia has put in place a network of bilateral counter terrorism Memoranda of Understanding with nine countries in the region - to underpin practical cooperation. Our MOU with Indonesia, for example, provided the basis for the excellent cooperation between the Australian and Indonesian police forces in the aftermath of the Bali and JW Marriot (Jakarta) bombings which has helped hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Australia recognises that helping countries to develop their own capabilities to fight terrorism is as important as operational-level cooperation. Importantly, in February this year, I co-chaired with my Indonesian counterpart, Dr Wirajuda, a regional ministerial meeting on counter terrorism in Bali. With 25 countries represented, this meeting gave fresh political impetus to the regional campaign against terrorism. It identified practical ways of building regional cooperation which are being pursued as we speak. The Bali meeting also welcomed the Australian/Indonesian counter terrorism initiative to establish the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation. Australia is contributing A$38.3 million over five years to this centre which will help build regional counter-terrorism capabilities as well as provide a hub of practical expertise which can be swung into action on particular terrorist threats or incidents.

International response

Australia's counter-terrorism efforts in the Asia Pacific draw upon and complement the broader international coalition against terrorism. We work especially closely with strategic partners like Japan and the United Kingdom who are committed to combating terrorism in the Asia Pacific. We coordinate with initiatives like APEC's Counter-Terrorism Task Force and the G8's Counter-Terrorism Assistance Group. We are working to build regional counter-terrorism capabilities through established organisations such the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering.

And, importantly, Australia remains firmly committed to working within the United Nations on terrorism. The UN has a critical role to play in setting and monitoring international standards against terrorism, including through international conventions, facilitating counter-terrorism capacity-building assistance, and preventing the financing of terrorism.

And in the war against terrorism Australia must not downgrade our most important alliance relationship - with the United States. That alliance is more important to us today that it has been for a generation. Australians must ask themselves this: would they feel more secure in the war against terrorism if we downgraded our alliance with America? Is this really the time in our history to weaken those ties which have given us such security for so long? The US brings to this struggle the greatest array of assets. Its unrivalled intelligence and military resources provide the most potent weaponry to disrupt and destroy the terrorists. Through the alliance, these vast resources are exploited for the protection of all Australians. But we cannot expect to have a meaningful alliance with the US if we are not prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with it in the war on terrorism.

There are some who seek to characterise the US alliance as a one way street - a relationship of subservience. These critics are wrong: what is worse is that they are looking for a one way deal. They seek to avert their eyes from the war on terrorism, turn their backs on US missile defence plans and ignore cooperative efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They would seek to isolate Australia from its alliance partner and from the great issues of our time. In this myopic isolation they would hide and hope - hope that the great evils of our time were not visited upon our shores.

But if they were, would they then echo John Curtin's call in 1941 and "look to America"? And what would America say to a country which had turned its back on its old friends? We must be clear about a simple fact - to choose isolation is to choose to be alone.

This Government will not retreat into isolationism...we will not cower...and we will not leave our allies to labour alone. We will confront this struggle together with our neighbours, with the international community and with the US.


We all want a world free of terrorism. But we will not attain this without tough and sustained action. Unity and cooperation are the keys and we must put past political differences aside. The War against Terrorism is a war Australia did not choose. It is a war we cannot win by retreating into a false fortress at home. Rather, we will work alongside our allies and regional partners in this solemn endeavour. Because this is a war we must win for ourselves...and for our vision of a tolerant, free and democratic world.