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

Speech by the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, The Hon Alexander Downer, to launch the White Paper on International Terrorism

Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia

National Press Club, Canberra, 15 July 2004


When I last addressed the National Press Club in April, I explained the Government's decision to prepare a White Paper on the threat from international terrorism.

That work has now been done and I am pleased today to be back at the Press Club to launch the White Paper.

I want to use this opportunity to set out in some detail exactly why the Government has brought this paper forward, to outline some of its key themes, to speak about the distinctive character of the threat and to underline the Government's determination to defeat it.

Why the White Paper?

A White Paper is a time-honoured way for government to recognise emerging developments which change the national agenda and to analyse them authoritatively. Much of our detailed understanding of this transnational threat has been learned relatively recently. This makes the task of public explanation all the more urgent.

Much of what we have learned has been through Australia becoming a terrorist target over the last few years. The grim reality is that we remain a target. What we have seen of terrorism overseas is so appalling, so alien to us, that it's tempting for people to compartmentalise it as a problem that only happens somewhere else to someone else.

Yet we need to understand that terror is no respecter of national boundaries and poses a threat to us all. Grasping the nature of that threat is hard. We are confronted with a terrorist project of limitless ambition, merciless methods and reckless zealotry which is almost incomprehensible to the modern mind.

Yet understand it we must, if we are to understand how comprehensively the world has changed since war was declared on us, and to win that war.

The distinctive threat

What is it about the new terrorist challenge which sets it apart from anything we've seen before?
How are we threatened, and why?

The first point of difference is that previously terrorism operated within limits. It usually had easily identifiable ends - territory, the release of prisoners or political concessions. The new terrorism is limitless in the scale of its ambitions. It is not interested in extracting concessions from its victims or negotiating with governments. It wants to destroy our way of life and, where possible, to destroy us.

Australia is explicitly a target and has been since before September the 11th. Australian citizens abroad and Australian interests overseas are also targets. The threat is thus global in its ambitions and presence and transnational in its operations. Like a metastasizing cancer, its form and means of attack are constantly changing. Loosely affiliated cells recruiting under myriad banners are springing up all the time. Past experience is not a reliable guide to what they may be planning next.

The threat comes from a fringe group of Islamist extremists. Obscure and largely marginalised, they are contemptuous about the observance of Islam in Muslim countries and would reform them along pre-modern Taliban lines with fire and the sword. They are also convinced that their destiny is to contain and eventually overshadow the democratic West.

Understanding the dangers

In time there may yet emerge another terrorist entity as ambitious, formidably armed, organised and motivated. However there is no way of skirting around the fact that the present danger comes from a network which is notionally Muslim in character and rationale. What is important to remember is how remote and antithetic it is to the vast majority of Muslims, and that it threatens them at least as much as it threatens us, and gives us common cause.

While acknowledging the extremist-Muslim basis of Al Qaida and its associates, the Government seeks neither to misrepresent mainstream Islam nor in any way offend the sensitivities of Muslim communities in Australia and overseas. The militant jihad which is intended to engulf us all was unwanted by anyone except the terrorists, and unprovoked.

The illusion of "root causes"

In the face of unwanted and unprovoked aggression, the usual response of the First World is to wonder: what have we done wrong? Is there something we've done to bring this on ourselves and is there anything we can do to avert it?

Can we rectify the situation? The answer is that it's not what we've done but what we are which inflames the terrorists' unassuageable sense of grievance. They regard democracy as an abomination and pluralistic societies as doubly decadent. Our open societies' success is seen as an implied judgement on the closed theocracies they dream of establishing. Our very existence challenges the validity of their world-view. So the offence is irreparable and trying to destroy us has a twisted logic to it.

It misconceives the problem to think there are "root causes" like poverty, disadvantage or hopelessly entrenched political impasses - all of them in any case long-running and endemic features of life throughout the Middle-East. Certainly it makes sense wherever possible to alleviate them. But they are not the well-spring of terrorist motivation and fixing them will not fix anything else.

We are engaged in a battle of ideas, a struggle to the death over values. Imagining that material remedies can be bargaining chips to reduce the terrorist menace is a strategic dead end in that struggle. Admittedly Al Qaida has resorted to a deceptive ploy in touting a "truce" to Europeans in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings. But we know that it would be a temporary respite, purchased at enormous cost, from an implacable foe.

We have more reason to believe Al Qaida when it says that there can be no negotiation and that it will not compromise over its goals. The terrorists have also been known to use local grievances - from poverty to the situation of the Palestinians - to broaden their appeal in the Muslim world and to supplement their own fundamental grievance against the West.

However, as William Shawcross recently remarked of the Palestinian case: "Even if the destination on the Road Map, a two state solution for Israel and Palestine, were reached immediately, that would not end the threat from bin Laden and those who think like him. They see this as an existential war".

The drivers of this threat

What drives the existential war that Al Qaida and its affiliates, such as Jemaah Islamiyah, are waging?

There are variations of regional emphasis and objectives. But Al Qaida and its Hydra-headed sympathiser groups have central tenets in common. They are emphatic rejection of the "unbelieving" and materialistic West and profound disillusion with the forms of Islamic observance practised by most Muslims. They see themselves, to borrow the formula favoured by some Christian sects, as "a righteous remnant". They have an apocalyptic view of history and their place in it.

The other distinctive element in their triumphalist version of resurgent Islam is its infection with elements of secular totalitarian ideologies - Bolshevism and fascism. Malise Ruthven examined the Islamist influences on Al Qaida in the wake of September 11, in his fascinating book, "A Fury for God". He analyses the writings of their ideologues. Foremost among them is Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Others include individuals more directly linked to bin Laden: his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri and his Palestinian mentor, Abdullah Azzam.

Ruthven explains how these ideologues diagnose modern societies, including those of the Muslim world, as existing in a state of paganism. For fanatical Islamists, this is sufficient justification for declaring a state, its officials or its leaders - and in extreme cases whole societies - to be unbelievers. As such, they are candidates for removal or forcible change by armed jihad.

It's worth noting, incidentally, that Ruthven makes a compelling case that these Islamist ideologues diverge from orthodoxy in interpreting Islamic texts. They rely on the fanatics' preferred tactics : quoting selectively and out of context. He also suggests that notions of an elite or vanguard group to shepherd a community back to the true path rely less on Islamic discourse than on ideas like the cadre, which are common to modern radical movements. Ruthven notes the totalitarian character of Qutb's political thought, as well as the adaptation of concepts found in Bolshevism and fascism. In particular he sees fascist parallels with the ominous "explicit hostility to reason" of Abdullah Azzam.

Jason Burke, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, makes similar observations about the influence of Leninist theory on prominent radical Muslim writers like Sayyid Qutb and Abu Ala Maududi. He also notes that: "the militants often couch their grievances in Third-Worldist terms familiar to any contemporary antiglobalization activist". Al Qaida's ideology, then, is a crude but potent mish-mash.

Chris Patten, the European Union's Commissioner for External Relations recently summed the matter in these terms : "The ideas that sustain Osama bin Laden and those who think like him, not all of them the members of a spectacularly sophisticated network of evil, but nonetheless fellow-believers in a loose confederation of dark prejudices, can hardly be dignified with the description of a sophisticated political manifesto."

In our disdain for that "loose confederation of dark prejudices", we ought not to make the mistake of underestimating their popular appeal and power to captivate. This is the stuff that turns devout, mild-mannered students into suicide bombers and we underestimate its effects at our peril. It is salutary to remember how an ideology as home-made as Nazism enthralled Germany with its appeal to base prejudice and notions of manifest destiny

Al Qaida's version of manifest destiny is to see itself as the scourge of modern Islam. It proclaims universalist ambitions. In doing so, it seeks not only to corral all Muslims under tyrannical regimes but to wage militant jihad so as to subjugate human societies everywhere. When you consider its demonstrated tenacity of purpose, means and capacity to enlist local causes and remote groupings with a similar agenda, it's clear that Al Qaida represents a grave challenge both to mainstream Islam and to the rest of the world. Its adroitness at invoking signal issues and dissatisfactions to broaden its base of sympathisers and recruits, to mutate in regional variants, make it all the more potent.

Nor should we underestimate the mystique of a more austere life, full of simple solutions within the bonds of spiritual brotherhood, which goes with membership of a cell of religious terrorists. Kumar Ramakrishna has noted "the desire for spiritual revival" in discussing shared motives for Jemaah Islamiyah detainees in Singapore who have otherwise diverse economic and educational backgrounds. The certainty of a martyr's place in paradise is part of the equation. But in essence the theme of Al Qaida and its affiliates is a perversion of Islamic religion.

It is a simplistic message of repression, hatred, inexhaustible rage and revenge. It is an inherently political message designed to appeal to the basest instincts. It travels easily and deciphering it takes no religious training or knowledge.

Why we're a target

To understand why terrorist warfare is being waged against us, you need to consider what sort of world the terrorists themselves envisage.

The reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan is the best indication we have of the social order they want to impose. It is a society that brutally represses its women and disenfranchises almost everyone. It is a state with no separation between secular and religious law, run on authoritarian lines by an elite band of zealots. It is an order better adapted to the pre-modern world - one in which notions like economic liberty count for next to nothing.

Al Qaida and allies such as Jemaah Islamiya want to eradicate the West's presence, its cultural and economic influence, in Muslim lands. They rightly see its modernity as a threat to all they hold dearest. They revile democracy as idolatrous, knowing how fatal to their objectives democratic choice would inevitably prove. Al Qaida and its allies want to replace the existing governments in Islamic countries with regimes which share their fanaticism. Ultimately they want to re-shape the international order to accommodate a new hegemon, a pan-Islamic super-state. Al Qaida and its allies cannot countenance the West's ability to deal with complexity, ambiguity and modernity.

Whatever the First World's shortcomings and areas of dysfunction, in general terms it is adaptable and plainly works, in ways that a Taliban society could not. So the terrorists' strategy, with premeditated violence, is to exploit the very openness which is a great strength of societies like ours and wreak havoc where it can. Civilian populations are intimidated by its threats, as we saw in Spain. Governments are held to ransom with that tell-tale gesture - the threat of another beheading and the countdown. They seek to undermine us economically, to undermine our confidence and values, sowing division and intolerance.

The pluralism they so despise, which is vital to the success of diverse, contemporary societies, is particularly vulnerable in the age of terror. But it is a broad-based, insidious challenge to all our values, our liberties and to our way of life. In that tumultuous clash of values, the establishment of a stable, democratic state in Iraq has become the test of everything the West stands for.

Terrorist insurgents know very well, better in fact than many in the First World, what is at stake. That is why they are hell-bent on sabotage.

A modern Iraqi state would pose an intolerable threat to their world-view and its plausibility. A failed Iraqi state would be an immense blow to the prestige of America and its Coalition allies, a triumph for fanaticism in the battle of ideas. That is why Iraq is not a sideshow or a distraction from the war on terror - as the Labor Party would have people believe - but the front line of battle. That is why so many lives and so much treasure have been spent in the struggle. That is why, irrespective of reservations after the event about the war, this government is resolute in its determination that Australia's military and civilian contingents will stay the course and play their part in winning the peace.

A resolute response

I want to move now from the front line of battle to consider what can be expected in the war.

The first thing to be said is that, although it's a new and unfamiliar kind of engagement, war is no mere metaphor. Far more civilians than soldiers have already lost their lives. Who knows what terrorist outrages, abroad and even at home, may lie ahead? Or how many billions of dollars will have to be spent, before we can safely say that Al Qaida and its henchmen have been contained and eventually defeated?

It may not happen for a generation. Networks of cells can lie dormant, undetected, for a very long time. When the enemy depict our response as religious persecution, as they undoubtedly do, and when the volunteers for martyrdom in suicide bombings are plentiful, vicious cycles are set in motion that take ages to run down.

The terrorist challenge which confronts us is not amenable to reason, compromise or negotiation. It demands of us a steadfast resolve, sustained as long as the threat lasts. We need also to be careful that we don't forsake or lose sight of the values we are defending - tolerance, pluralism, openness - for then, evil will have scored a terrible victory. Our greatest allies will be those mainstream Muslims and moderate Muslim leaders and politicians best placed to assert orthodox values in the face of fanaticism and stare down terrorist sympathisers. They are also the people who have most to fear from Taliban-style regimes.

Even before the Bali bombings, Australia was engaged in a very productive regional partnership with Indonesia which, I'm sure you all know, is the world's largest Muslim nation. Cooperation in counter-terrorist intelligence and law enforcement has been an obvious priority and the White Paper gives a balanced and forthright account of progress to date.

The challenge is a global one. Its dynamic is transnational. Those facts shape the way we must respond. We need to continue in developing cooperation with other countries in the region and beyond, to identify and literally outlaw those who threaten us on a global front. We have to make it ever more difficult for the terrorists to operate, to proselytise and recruit, to train, to plan, to move funds and resources, and to attack. We also need to demonstrate clearly that Australians are not hostile to Islam, as the terrorists portray us, but only to those who threaten us with militant jihad.

An activist foreign policy can assist in intervening to demonstrate the warmth of good regional relationships. Providing aid and other forms of targeted assistance in communities where extremism might otherwise flourish is an obvious example.

Similarly, there are cultural, administrative and religious divides where we can build bridges linking the Muslim world and the West. One practical form of bridge-building is by equipping countries with stronger, fairer and more resilient instruments of governance. Another is by expert advice to help them deal more effectively with the consequences and opportunities of globalisation.

In conclusion

We face a terrorist threat quite different from anything experienced in the past. Our enemies aren't interested in limited hostilities and extracting concessions from us. They wage a version of total war and they want to destroy us. They despise the values and aspirations we hold dear as the epitome of decadence and weakness.

Stable, open, tolerant democracies are the antithesis of the retrograde, oppressive regimes they want to foist on the Muslim world. Their hatred is implacable and the war on terror is likely to last for a long time.

On the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the front line of security and intelligence gathering in the region, in consulates, hospitals and police academies, Australians have responded readily, often heroically, to the threat. In time, every Australian citizen is going to have to come to terms with the fact that we are at war.

The sooner it's realised, the better will people be able to deal with it. Living in a fool's paradise is scarcely an option, because terrorist warfare concentrates on sapping morale. It deals in nameless dread, in threatened executions of hostages, in foreshadowed, indiscriminate civilian slaughter. The best defence against that kind of intimidation is a clear, widespread understanding of the issues.

For that to develop there needs to be authoritative analysis. The White Paper is a major contribution to the national debate on terrorism.

I congratulate all those who have had a hand in producing it and commend it to your attention.

See the White Paper