Saturday, 17 March 2018

Opening address to the ASEAN Counter Terrorism Conference – Sydney, Australia


It is a pleasure to be here and I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to open the 2018 ASEAN Counter Terrorism Conference. The men and women in this room do extraordinary work in keeping our communities safe and I commend you all for your continued hard work and dedication.

I would like to begin by officially welcoming you to Australia and in particular to Sydney. I know many of you have travelled great distances to be here and I do hope you find time over the weekend to discover what this great city has to offer.

Australia is truly honoured to be hosting the ASEAN-Australia Leaders Summit for the first time. This weekend marks an important milestone and serves as a great testament to the strength and depth of the relationship we have developed.

The Summit demonstrates Australia's increased commitment to Southeast Asia, and acknowledges the important role of ASEAN in the region. ASEAN is an important economic and socio-cultural partner to Australia, as well as a key partner in the security of our region.

ASEAN has a proud history as an integral part of Southeast Asia's emergence as a region of stability and prosperity. It is great to this morning see delegates from ASEAN member states and members of the East Asia Summit such as ourselves, gathered together with the same objective in mind - protecting our nations and our citizens from the threats of terrorism and violent extremism.

Protecting our nations from the scourge of terrorism is an ever increasing challenge. Terrorists and violent extremists are becoming increasingly ruthless, adaptive and creative. They operate transnationally–increasingly using the internet and encrypted communication to extend their reach across borders.

Advances in communication have given terrorists a truly global reach. Violent extremists can operate in a clandestine fashion, all the while thriving in the shadows and growing their spheres of influence.

Extremists cultivate resentment and discord among the disillusioned, the vulnerable and the disengaged to spread the threat of terror into our communities. They use technology to recruit, radicalise and inspire attacks from within. They use indiscriminate violence to engender fear among the innocent.

These vile individuals have no respect for the rules-based, integrated communities that we strive to achieve. Small groups driven by twisted ideology and supported by evolving technology have the capacity to seek out and exploit vulnerabilities.

The heightened threat level has led to the recent reorganisation of the Australia's domestic security arrangements. This has culminated in the creation of the new Home Affairs Portfolio, which I'm very proud to lead as the Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

Australia has consolidated government functions that secure Australia's safety, prosperity and social cohesion. Home Affairs is responsible for national security, immigration and citizenship, Commonwealth law enforcement, counter terrorism, anti-money laundering, counter-espionage and foreign interference, countering violent extremism, cyber security, emergency management, multicultural affairs, customs and border protection, transport security, and the resilience of our national infrastructure. The portfolio is as far reaching as it is necessary.

Australia faces many of the same threats and challenges confronting other nations in the region.

The threat from hierarchical cells remains, but the insidious influence of ISIL on vulnerable people within our communities has increased the risk of lone actor attacks. The fragmentation of threat vectors is only leading to an even more dangerous security environment. There are now more individuals within our own communities who wish to do us harm than ever before.

On 12 September 2014 the Australian national terrorism threat level was raised to 'Probable' for the first time. This means our security agencies have assessed that there is credible intelligence to indicate that individuals or groups possess the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in our country. Since September 2014, 85 people have been charged as a result of 37 counter terrorism related operations around Australia. There have been six terror attacks and 14 major attacks have been disrupted.

In July last year, our national security and law enforcement agencies disrupted a group attempting to carry out an attack on a plane departing Sydney. If successful, that attack would have resulted in an immense loss of life, affecting the nationals of many countries represented in this room today.

The collapse of the self-proclaimed ISIL caliphate and the liberation of around 7.7 million people is an incredibly positive development, but it poses new challenges.

Around 220 Australians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict since 2012 and one of the greatest challenges to Australia and the Southeast Asia region is posed by those individuals returning to our shores.

Foreign fighters returning from the Middle East have had extensive exposure to extremist ideology and are hardened to the everyday violence of armed conflict. They have the potential to bring experience, capability and connections to the global extremist community into existing onshore networks.

To mitigate the risk of returning foreign fighters, the Australian Federal Police, working with domestic and international partner agencies, has obtained 21 first instance arrest warrants relating to persons suspected to have been in the conflict zone and subject to counter terrorism operations.

Our response has also included amending the law to provide the legal certainty needed to target members of organised armed groups with lethal force, in the context of ADF operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

We are also taking measures to ensure that the rule of law applies online as it does offline. The use of cyberspace by terrorists and criminals presents an increasing challenge for our agencies. As well as using the internet to radicalise and recruit new members, and spread messages of hate, terrorist groups are using encrypted messaging apps to plan attacks and avoid detection by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. 

For example, the messaging app Whatsapp was used in the March 2017 Westminster terrorist attack, where six people were killed and over 30 injured.

The use of encrypted messaging apps by terrorists and criminals is potentially the most significant degradation of intelligence capability in modern times.

As Prime Minister Turnbull has said, "A new generation of criminals and terrorists is using a new generation of technology; attempting to divide us by exploiting platforms designed to bring us together".

To address this issue, the Australian Government will introduce legislation to strengthen agencies' ability to adapt to encryption. Similar to the provisions in the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill, this legislation will:

  • ensure companies that provide communications services and devices in our county have an obligation to assist agencies, and
  • enhance agencies with the ability to use alternative capabilities, like surveillance devices and computer network exploitation.

Both online and offline, the Australian Government unapologetically pursues those foreign fighters who have broken the law and will see them prosecuted and jailed – whether abroad or here. We want to ensure that if they do return it is with forewarning and into the arms of authorities.

Australia has acted to prevent hundreds of individuals from traveling to conflict zones. Around 230 Australian passports have been cancelled or refused in relation to the Syria and Iraq conflict. These individuals would likely have become even further radicalised and would have gained potentially lethal field experience.

While ISIL has lost its self-declared caliphate in Mosul and al-Raqqa, we know the threat from ISIL and other groups including, Al Qaeda, continues in our region.

We have seen a recent example in the Philippines' city of Marawi in which regional and international extremists captured and held parts of the city, apparently seeking to declare Marawi a provincial ISIL territory. Significant effort was required from Philippine and international forces to recapture the city and I acknowledge the work of the Philippines Government and partner governments as well. While most of the extremists were killed or captured, some are understood to have gone into hiding, posing an ongoing threat to the Philippines and regional countries.

While our nations are focused on countering the ongoing threat of terrorism domestically, it would be a mistake to approach the problem from a purely national perspective. Terrorism and violent extremism transcend national borders. Countering the threat requires a united and cohesive regional effort involving coordination between our respective national security and law enforcement agencies.

We must recognise that national security cannot be achieved in isolation from regional security - they are complementary imperatives. A nation cannot be assured of its own safety while there are threats at its doorstep.

Collaboration between Australia and ASEAN enables better coordination and allows us to leverage our nations' strengths and expertise to prevent extremists getting a greater foothold in the region. Sharing intelligence and resources provides us with an enhanced counter-terrorism capability that far surpasses independent efforts.

We are working together to build the region's capacity to confront cross border challenges such as terrorism-financing, by building operational partnerships, boosting regional capacity and increasing information sharing.

A number of Australian agencies already play an important role in this regional capacity building. For example:

  • The Department of Home Affairs works closely with international partners, especially in our region, to strengthen legal frameworks to counter terrorism. Strong counter-terrorism frameworks ensure that those involved in terrorism cannot evade justice by retreating to other countries to seek safe haven, and that countries have the capacity to effectively disrupt, prosecute and manage terrorists, including foreign terrorist fighters. Similarly, cooperation on countering violent extremism allows us to help each other to stop people becoming terrorists in the first place.
  • The Australian Border Force also works with ASEAN counterparts to ensure stronger border management to facilitate legitimate travel and trade, and disrupt the illicit movement of goods and people in the region.
  • Likewise, AUSTRAC – the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre – plays a key role in a number of international organisations focused on combating terrorism financing, money laundering and other financial crime; and
  • the Australian Federal Police maintains dedicated counter-terrorism staff in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand in support of domestic capacity building programs and regional cooperation among Southeast Asian partners. The AFP has a longstanding relationship with its Indonesian counterpart through the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation.

I had the opportunity to see the value of this cooperation first hand with a visit to Jakarta last week which included meetings with the President, Minister Wiranto, Minister Luhut; and Minister Laoly.

We acknowledge that more can and must be done to build capacity and capability in the region.

Later today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will announce further details on a proposed Australia-ASEAN Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation to Counter International Terrorism.

The proposed MOU includes a package of joint initiatives and programs that will enhance regional security. The MOU will contribute to building counter-terrorism capability throughout Southeast Asia and provide a solid platform for ongoing engagement and initiatives.

We will speak at length over the course of today about the important relationships between our nations, and how we can work together as trusted partners to fight terrorism and violent extremism at home and abroad.

In concluding, I would like to reiterate the gratitude of the Australian Government for your attendance here today and commend your continued hard work in keeping your communities safe.

Thank you.