June 6, 2017
A routine Australian Senate committee
hearing last month on security was never going to be normal in the aftermath of
the Manchester terrorist attacks. Still, it is no small thing that the hearing
led to a former prime minister lecturing the country’s most senior intelligence
official on the causes of terrorism.
At least since former Prime Minister John
Howard suggested in 2001 that asylum seekers coming to Australia might include
terrorists, the two Australian anxieties of refugees and terrorism have been on
a collision course. As the terror risk here has grown, and with the politics of
refugees becoming more divisive, that course has accelerated in recent years.
It culminated on May 25 when a populist
senator asked Duncan Lewis, the director of the Australian Security
Intelligence Organization, whether the country was increasing the risk of
terrorist attacks by accepting refugees from the Middle East. “I have
absolutely no evidence to suggest there is a connection between refugees and
terrorism,” Mr. Lewis replied.
You might think, given his access to vast
amounts of intelligence, Mr. Lewis is well placed to make that assessment. But
former Prime Minister Tony Abbott accused him of “denying the facts,” saying
that too many people “pussyfoot around the fact that just about every terrorist
incident of recent times involves someone killing in the name of Islam.” Mr.
Lewis, he said, “really needs to think again on this issue.”
Mr. Abbott is at the center of a small and
loud group of populists that includes members of his conservative Liberal
Party, the neo-nationalist One Nation Party and a suite of media pundits. For
them, Islam is an inherent problem, and asylum seekers are to be treated
harshly and with suspicion.
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Their attitudes on terrorism, Muslims and
immigration have much in common with President Trump, which is why their
language and themes are so familiar. They insist, for example, that terrorism
should be understood exclusively through the prism of Islam and Muslim
migration. They police public language on terrorism so it is unfailingly linked
with Islam — much as candidate Trump harangued former President Barack Obama
for not using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Most Australians in this
group — though not yet Mr. Abbott — support some version of a Muslim immigrant
But all this has little to do with a
serious analysis of the causes of terrorism. That’s why in the aftermath of Mr.
Lewis’s comments, the commissioner of Australia’s Federal Police, Andrew
Colvin, as well as a several academic experts on terrorism agreed emphatically
It seems that anyone with practical or
research-based expertise on terrorism finds what Mr. Lewis said utterly
unremarkable. As one academic from the Australian National University put it to
Fairfax Media: If politicians don’t believe academics and the intelligence
agencies, then “who are they going to believe?”
It’s true enough that three of the
terrorist attacks in Australia “involved either people claiming to be refugees
or the children of refugees,” as Mr. Abbott said (he omitted a fourth attack
that didn’t). But it’s also true that this common trait among these terrorists
becomes significantly watered down once you factor in those whose plots have
been thwarted. And it is also true that there are other examples from around
the world that fit a similar description — the recent ghastly attack in
Manchester among them. But to pretend that Mr. Lewis was denying those facts or
somehow covering them up is either a lazy interpretation of his statements or a
The point is that these facts alone say
little about causality. The question is not simply one of what traits certain
terrorists share, but rather which traits are relevant in radicalization.
Mr. Lewis insists that the refugee factor
is irrelevant. Or to put it in the police commissioner’s terms, most Australian
extremists “are people who are born, educated and raised in Australia,” and to
focus on whatever migrant backgrounds they have is to use “an extremely broad
brush” to describe them.
Put simply, the threat to Australia —
perhaps distinct from the European case — grows on Australian shores. It is not
typically imported in radicalized vessels that take the form of refugees.
If you’ve heard that sort of thing before,
it might be because the United States Department of Homeland Security made a
similar judgment when President Trump initiated his Muslim ban. Its
intelligence assessment in March blared the title: “Most Foreign-Born,
U.S.-Based Extremists Radicalized After Entering Homeland.” This echoed a
previous Homeland Security paper that concluded “country of citizenship is
unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.”
In both Australia and the United States we
have politicians and commentators whose political posturing rests on their
unwavering focus on terrorism but who pay little attention to, and even attack,
those who know the most about it. They support policies that have no sound
security justification and then excoriate those who point that out. They cheer
on every advance of the security state but then suddenly scorch those who run
it, simply because the agencies reject the latest populist orthodoxy.
This approach, with its frequent
accusations that others are in denial about terrorism, stands exposed for a
substantial denial of its own. Terrorism becomes no different from climate
change: just more raw material from which to fashion a well-worn narrative
about political correctness, elites and the evils of diversity.
That doesn’t mean these populist narratives
are entirely fact free — just that their analytical shoddiness puts them a
semitone from truth, superficially close, but completely dissonant with it.
They are therefore destined to clash with those who study these things in
depth, whose world, in Mr. Colvin’s phrase, “is far more nuanced” than the
absolutist worldview on display recently.
is a columnist and broadcaster and a politics lecturer at Monash University in