Monday, 13 September 2021

The Road from 9/11

​​​​Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

It’s a pleasure to be with you; even if we could only meet virtually.

I would like to thank ASPI and Peter Jennings for the kind invitation to address this important forum.

Twenty years ago, we saw terrorist attacks in the United States that claimed 2,9771 innocent lives, including those of 10 Australians.

Today, we remember those 2,977 victims.

Although two decades have passed, we have not forgotten.

So too, we remember the survivors – many of whom suffered physical, emotional, or psychological harm that still follows them through the years.

As Minister for the Australian Federal Police – I am acutely aware of the danger that many first responders rushed into that day.

In doing so, many were killed, and even more have lived with significant trauma ever since.

Of course, one didn’t have to be present to feel the gut-wrenching horror of that day.

Images beamed around the world had a profound impact on the psyche of many people – some of whom no longer felt safe in their own homes and workplaces, or who were shocked at the wounds inflicted on so iconic a skyline.

20 years ago, with the Taliban harbouring al Qaeda in the tunnels of Tora Bora, the United States – and Australia – were drawn into conflict in Afghanistan.

Two decades later, we have only just departed.

We should, therefore, reflect on an entire generation that has come of age not knowing any other world.

As a case in point – of the 13 US service members killed in the recent terrorist attack at Kabul Airport; 12 were in their twenties, and five of them were just 20 years old.

Newborns on September 11 2001 – their lives would be indelibly marked by the events of that day; highlighting, in sadness, the long shadow such events can cast.

Standing alongside those US service men and women for the past 20 years were almost 39,000 Australian Defence Force personnel.

I pay tribute to them all, for their service and their sacrifice.

None more so than the 41 Australians who lost their lives in service of our country.

As the Prime Minister has said, your actions meant Afghanistan was not a ha ven for al Qaeda…

You diminished al Qaeda’s ability to launch sophisticated attacks on the West…

…And you wiped out a generation of terrorist leaders.

I’m also grateful for the service of the men and women of our security and intelligence agencies; you have served with purpose, and seen many successes.

As much as it shocked all decent people, the 9/11 attacks have – sadly – served as inspiration for new generations of extremists.

From religiously motivated extremists seeking to replicate the attacks, to other ideologically motivated extremists exporting hate and calling for vengeance.

For the last 20 years – and of course, even earlier too – our security and intelligence agencies have been on the front line, dealing with radicals and extremists and foiling their attempted attacks – often by putting themselves into significant danger.

Today’s discussion is titled ‘the Road from 9/11’ – and over 20 years it’s been a long road.

We could view it as a road that started in New York, the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania…

…a road that cut a path through the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq…

…brought us to a nightclub in Bali, a café in Sydney, a police station in Parramatta, and a Mosque in Christchurch…

…perhaps it’s a road that looks like London Bridge, Bourke Street, a Promenade in Nice, or the end of a marathon in Boston… to name just a few.

That’s only one side of the story though, and it would be wrong and counterproductive to focus on it.

Terrorists thrive on attention, so I will speak no more of their atrocities.

Rather, Australia’s road from 9/11 has seen us come together as a nation, uniting in condemnation of terrorism and with a firm commitment to keep each other safe.

Thankfully, in Australia we have so far avoided a mass casualty attack of the type the United States experienced that day.

This has not been by accident…

It’s not been luck…

And it’s not because we haven’t continued to be a target – as we saw in Sydney in 2005; at the Holsworthy Barracks in 2009; or at Sydney International Airport in 2017.

Rather, it’s because we have – over many years – taken the threat seriously.

It’s because of the hardworking men and women of our law enforcement and security agencies – many of whom saw the events of 9/11 and at that moment committed themselves to safeguarding their fellows, saying ‘never again’ and ‘not on my watch’.

And it’s because – here in Australia – we have consciously based our counter terrorism responses around three pillars.

These pillars have guided our response over the past 20 years – and will continue to do so over the next 20.

They are:

  1. ensuring our counter terrorism arrangements are seamless, collaborative, and uniform; within, across, and between jurisdictions;
  2. acknowledging that terrorism exists on a continuum of behaviour, and that by countering violent extremism in all its forms we can de-radicalise some individuals before an attack takes place; and,
  3. ​a solemn commitment to supporting our intelligence, law enforcement and other operational agencies – making sure they have the resources, powers, and legislative backing they need to tackle the most dangerous of individuals and threats.

These pillars have kept us safe from a mass casualty attack – but they are no panacea.

Terrorism is a real and enduring threat to Australians; to our way of life; and to our national social cohesion.

We cannot be complacent.

The National Terrorism Threat Level remains at ‘probable’, where it has been since 2014.

Individuals, groups, and ideologies – both old and new – continue to plot and fantasize about doing us harm.

Encrypted communications and global digital networks give these people a secure voice to a worldwide audience…

Disruption associated with the pandemic has seen many stay home, alone, with little to do but search the internet for simple answers to complex global questions …

And recent changes in the geo-political paradigm in the Middle East that have seen Afghanistan once again emerge as a potential safe haven for radica l Islamist groups and networks…

As Australia’s National Plan sees us emerge from prolonged lockdowns – we will once again start to gather in crowds.

Sporting arenas, shopping malls, airports, and other iconic locations will once more need to contend with the spectre of terrorism.

I don’t say this to scaremonger – rather – to ensure we’re clear-eyed about the threat; so we can prepare now to safeguard all Australians from those who would do us harm.

Security through collaboration

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, then-Prime Minister John Howard – who was in Washington D.C at the time – knew immediately he was dealing with a problem the Commonwealth could not face alone.

A sophisticated terrorist network – well-resourced and with a global reach – had successfully evaded the security agencies of the world’s only superpower.

That’s why – long before the US’ own 9/11 Commission Report reached the same conclusion

– the Australian Government took decisive action to increase collaboration.

The Commonwealth immediately spearheaded an initiative to join with the Premiers and Chief Ministers of the States and Territories to establish new counter -terrorism arrangements.

Through an intergovernmental agreement, the National Counter-Terrorism Committee was launched.

This new structure ensured cooperation between the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments and their respective operational agencies, including police and Commonwealth intelligence services.

The architecture was sound – and so successful that a decade later, it reached across the Tasman to become the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee, known as the ‘ANZCTC’.

This structure of seamless cooperation across jurisdictions has proven to be a key component of Australia’s counter terrorism response.

It’s one I’m committed to continuing.

While we have been justifiably focused on responding to the COVID pandemic, we cannot take our eyes off the terrorist threat.

That’s why, I can announce today that I have invited Australia’s police and law enforcement Ministers to a joint meeting to discuss the continued threat of terrorist attack in this country.

Fuelled by the Dark Web, religiously motivated and ideologically motivated individuals and groups here in Australia do mean us harm and are planning acts of violence.

The changing situation in Afghanistan presents a serious concern – with the Taliban in control, Afghanistan may once again become an international safe haven for terrorist networks and cells.

And the very anniversary we are discussing today – perversely – serves as inspiration for some.

Given these significant developments – the time is right for Ministers to gather and ensure we are all taking the steps needed to protect Australians.

The safety and security of our citizens is a responsibility for all elected representatives – Commonwealth, State, and Territory.

I look forward to discussing with my counterparts how we can all continue in the strong collaborative vein Prime Minister Howard started.

Countering violent extremism

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the world’s focus was – rightly – the degradation and destruction of large-scale, sophisticated terrorist networks – most notably al Qaeda.

Over time, our successful responses – and those of our allies and partners – reduced the threat of a direct attack from that group.

As an example, we saw in 2006 the disruption of al Qaeda’s transatlantic liquid bomb attack; a plot – foiled by British police – to bring down airliners using explosives disguised as soft drinks.

However, the murderous ideology that drove them served as inspiration for others.

The Bali Bombing, and the rise of Jemaah Islamiyah in our near region, served as an early example.

But these reverberations continued to echo across the globe, as we saw with the rise of the so-called Islamic State.

That group’s territorial gains – coupled with unchecked online propaganda – saw 230 Australians travel to conflict zones in the Middle East, changing the terrorism threat environment from 2014.

It was no longer enough to target committed terrorists themselves; we needed to address radicalisation and violent extremism before it manifested in an attack.

This is an effort that continues to this day.

With little to no warning – a lone actor with a knife and smart phone can cause shockwaves around the world.

In 2021, ASIO assesses that such lone actor attacks are “the most likely form of terrorism” 2

we will experience in Australia.

Tragically, just a fortnight ago, we saw a committed ISIS-inspired extremist attack seven innocent people in a shopping centre in Auckland.

Thankfully, New Zealand Police were able to respond quickly and professionally.

But as we emerge from the pandemic and once more gather together, this is a threat we will continue to face.

Countering violent extremism – or ‘CVE’ – is therefore a core element of our CT response.

Since 2014, it has placed Australia’s response to terrorism within the wider context of our overall social cohesion.

As a Government, we are committed to addressing the full spectrum of extremist threats, regardless of political, religious, social, cultural or issue-specific ideology.

Our CVE initiatives address terrorist and extremist violence by intervening early with a range of vulnerable communities and at-risk individuals, both before and after they face a court or a prison sentence.

The need for such a program has never been clearer.

Since September 2014, when the national terrorism threat level was raised, 140 people have been charged as a result of 67 counter-terrorism related operations around Australia.

There have been nine attacks and 21 major disruption operations.

You may recall one very serious plot in 2017, when two brothers in Sydney failed to smuggle an improvised explosive device onto an international airliner.

They also planned to create a device that could disperse deadly chemicals in a crowded area

– reminiscent of the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo Subway in 1995.

Thankfully, good work by the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, the New South Wales Police and others, including international partners, saw the brothers arrested before they could hurt anyone – and both are now serving lengthy gaol terms.

Coupled with efforts to de-radicalise such individuals, we must also harden our defences against those we can’t bring back from the brink.

Support to agencies

Which brings me to the third pillar of Australia’s response to terrorism.

Terrorists seek to create fear and division in our communities; their ultimate aim is to destroy the ties that bind us together as a nation.

That’s why there is no greater refutation of their ideology – nor proof of their impotence – than the free, open, and transparent debate that empowers our liberal democratic norms.

The act of passing legislation – through a Parliament elected by the Australian people and reflective of their diversity – is a direct challenge to terrorist ideology.

It’s also emblematic of our adherence to the rule of law – a concept alien to terrorists who kill indiscriminately.

Since the National Terrorism Threat Level was raised to ‘probable’ in 2014, the Parliament has passed 22 tranches of legislation to strengthen Australia’s counter-terrorism response and support our operational agencies.

As a recent example, I was pleased to join with Minister Cash to pass the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Sunsetting Review and Other Measures) Bill.

This provides for the continuation of key counter-terrorism powers, including control orders and preventative detention orders – powers that are critical for the operational agencies who are on the ground managing these serious threats.

And we know there is more to do.

As we recently saw in Auckland, some individuals are so committed to doing us harm they cannot be de-radicalised.

And as we witnessed in the 2019 London Bridge and 2020 Streatham attacks in the United Kingdom, convicted terrorist offenders can pose a very real threat to the community at the conclusion of their sentence.

In the case of the Streatham attack, it occurred mere days following the offender’s release from prison.

In Australia, there are 51 offenders serving gaol sentences for terrorist offences and another 32 before the courts.

With several of these offenders reaching the conclusion of their prison sentences in the next few years, the need for effective risk management measures to keep our community safe is greater than ever. It will be an important focus of mine.

The Government currently has before the Parliament the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Bill 2020.

The Bill will create a new Extended Supervision Order scheme, to assist our agencies keep the community safe when high risk terrorist offenders are released into the community after serving their sentence.

Currently, I, as Minister for Home Affairs, can seek from the court a continuing detention order.

Such an order allows for the continuing detention of eligible convicted terrorist offenders who pose an unacceptable risk of committing a serious terrorism offence, if released into the community.

It – of course – comes with high thresholds under the law.

Under the Bill before Parliament, a Minister for Home Affairs will be able to apply for a new category of order – an Extended Supervision Order.

Such an order will allow courts to impose tailored supervisory conditions specific to the risk posed by the terrorist offender if released into the community, where the court is not satisfied that continuing detention is appropriate to prevent that risk.

The Bill will broaden the range of tools available to address the risk posed by convicted terrorist offenders, and give our agencies the authorities and the information they need to keep Australians safe.

It’s not easy to ask someone to put themselves in harm’s way – to watch over, interact with, or arrest a person who we know is planning to do us violence – it’s even harder to actually do it.

To those we ask of that I say: ‘this Government has your back’.

This Government will continue to seek passage through the Parliament of the powers you need – and the resources required – to do your job.

Similarly, the rule of law is a concept that should apply online as it does offline.

In May this year, I was proud to represent Australia in a meeting of the Christchurch Call to Action – alongside New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern and French President Macron.

The Call is a commitment by governments and tech companies to eliminate terrori st and violent extremist content online and is something I will continue to prioritise .

I will not allow digital spaces to become safe havens for terrorists, nor allow encrypted communications to protect the anonymity of those who would do us harm.

That’s why I was very pleased to recently secure passage of the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill; giving the AFP and the ACIC important new powers to tackle crime and extremists on the Dark Web.

Future outlook

The terrorist threat will continue to evolve, and terrorists will continue to take advantage of events both here and around the world.

I am in regular contact with my counterparts overseas – and will shortly embark on a series of important international engagements with Five Eyes and Indonesian counterparts, among others.

20 years after 9/11 – terrorism remains a significant global threat.

The three pillars we’ve built our response on for the past 20 years have served us well – and will continue to do so going forward.

We will continue to secure Australia – and the freedoms that security affords us – by collaborating with others; sharing experiences and working together…

We will continue to counter violent extremism in all its forms before an attack takes place; maintaining our social cohesion and celebrating diversity and inclusion, where terrorists try to divide and sow fear…

And we will continue to give our law enforcement and security agencies the powers and authorities they need to respond to the terrorists and violent extremists who would do us harm.

The road from 9/11 has not reached its end – it never will. It is a road that will continue to wind and turn.

We may yet see some familiar places along the way, and there will no doubt be fresh challenges ahead.

But over the past 20 years, the overwhelming majority of Australians have come together to reject terrorist ideologies...

…we’ve kept each other safe from mass casualty attacks…

…and we’ve built a strong framework for managing the threat.

I have full confidence that the next 20 years will only see more of the same.

Thank you

1 Attacker deaths not included.
2​​ ​https://www.asio.gov.au/counter-terrorism.html