The world’s attention is fixated on two topics today: the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the ongoing refugee crisis. These two issues are in many ways interlinked, in that ISIS is the motivating cause prompting many Syrians and Iraqis to flee to surrounding Middle Eastern states and Europe. Furthermore, there is a recurring fear in many intelligence agencies throughout the world that violent jihadists will infiltrate European states, specifically in order to carry out terrorist attacks. (There has been some speculation that one of the terrorists who participated in the Paris terror attacks on November 13 was a Syrian refugee who arrived in France this autumn, although this is still far from confirmed.)
Like much of the developed world, Australia is also struggling with the challenges associated with extremism. Two days ago, the wife of one of Australia’s most notorious deceased ISIS fighters, Mohamed Elomar, pled guilty to charges of abetting foreign fighters in Syria. Something like 120 Australians are currently in Syria, fighting for ISIS and other militant groups.
Australia has also seen a few instances of small-scale homegrown terrorism. Roughly a month ago, Farhad Jabar Khalil Mohammad, a 15-year-old Australian-Iranian, shot and killed a police accountant in Sydney’s Parramutta suburb before being killed in a shootout with police officers. According to the police, Mohammed was a radicalized youth who had been in contact with ISIS before his attack. Last year, Sydney was the scene of a hostage crisis, perpetrated by a man who supposedly was inspired by ISIS (the terrorist organization later claimed responsibility for the attack, although the veracity of this is unclear).
As is inevitable, there have been some strong reactions to these incidents and other acts of terrorism throughout the world. In response to the Paris attacks, Andrew Fraser, a conservative MP from New South Wales, has called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to close Australia’s borders to immigrants from the Middle East. Fraser wrote the following on his Facebook page: “Message to Malcolm Turnbull: Australia does not need Middle Eastern refugees or Islamic boat people! Close our borders, we have enough anarchists already resident in Australia (our democracy) we do not need any more coming in disguised as refugees!” This was a reference to Canberra’s decision to accept 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq.
In response, Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claimed that Australia will honor its commitment to take in these refugees, adding that Australia “obviously faces a very different situation from Europe, which has land borders.” However, Dutton adds that the resettlement process for these refugees could take longer than usual, due to more stringent background checks as a result of Paris.
In fact, Australia already has some pretty stringent rules on immigration and asylum seekers. The ruling Conservative Party has faced domestic and international criticism due to its harsh immigration rules and controversial practice of placing asylum seekers in detention camps in countries such as Nauru, Papua New Guinea, and Cambodia.
Tightening border controls and having tough immigration policies is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can help keep migrants and asylum seekers from travelling to Australia, along with all the social and economic challenges this entails. Furthermore, in a worst-case scenario, ISIS or Al-Qaeda could use the stream of refugees to infiltrate operatives bent on carrying out terror attacks in Australia.
On the other hand, strict policies can cause grievances within a minority population already living in the country. Australia has already been named as a target by both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, primarily due to the country’s involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In this respect, the country faces two sorts of threats. Firstly, there is the threat of planned, large scale Paris-style attacks, conducted by terrorists trained and experienced in war zones. If 9/11, the 7/7 bombings, and Paris are anything to go by, these attacks are likely to be motivated by Australia’s presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Secondly, there is the possibility of homegrown terror attacks as previously seen in Australia. These are often characterized as follows: one, or a few, perpetrators with little training and basic equipment carrying out an attack resulting in relatively few casualties. (There are exceptions. Anders Behring Breivik, the terrorist who perpetrated the Oslo bombings and the Utøya Massacre killed 77 civilians in the space of a couple of hours.) Australia’s strict immigration policies could lead to further alienation of parts of its Muslim population, and could be a motivating factor for further homegrown terror attacks.
The answer to terrorism is a complicated one. Good intelligence work is important as a stopgap measure, although it doesn’t remove the underlying issues motivating terrorists. In the end, decreasing the threat of terror involves “mundane” measures such as employment opportunities, community outreach, and an honest conversation about the role of religion and politics in an open society.
For policymakers everywhere, there is a sense that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There are few easy answers to terrorism.