Thoughts on the Australian Government White Paper on Counter-terrorism

The Australian government has just released a White Paper updating their policy on counterterrorism. Most of the content is eminently sensible, but there are a couple of questionable assumptions and/or directions.

1.  The section on resilience assumes that radicalisation can be mitigated by “reducing disadvantage” using government actions to address social and economic issues. This may well be so, but I don’t think there’s much evidence to support it. It’s clear that there are countries where economic and social grievances are significant drivers for radicalisation (e.g. Southern Thailand); but the results of a recent survey in Canada with which I was involved showed clearly that attitudes about economic and social issues were uncorrelated to radicalism. Although many Islamic immigrants to Canada (and indeed many immigrants) struggle with e.g. access to jobs, this does not seem to turn into a sense of grievance that might lead to radicalisation. Australia may be different, but there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why it should be.

2. The section on intelligence-led counterterrorism talks about three components: the ability to collect; the ability to analyse; and the ability to share. There is existing capacity and proposed actions for the first and the the third — but there is a great black hole in both existing capacity and proposed action for the second: analysis.

It’s easy to skip over this word and assume what it means; but I suspect that, when it’s unpacked, it tends to be taken to mean either “looking stuff up” or “having a human put stuff together to discover its significance”. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that this can’t be enough. The challenge in intelligence is (a) deciding how important each dot is, and (b) finding the interesting constellations of dots from among the many possible constellations. In practice, the number of dots is in the thousands (and up) each day, so this process must be largely automated.

There is a strange blind spot about the role and importance of analysis. I suspect that this is mostly because it’s not obvious how powerful inductive data modelling can be and it’s not on the conceptual map of most people, especially those whose training has been in the humanities and social sciences. But talking about collection and sharing without talking about analysis is like a sandwich without the filling — and you don’t make a better sandwich by improving the quality of the bread, if there’s still no filling.

Analysis is tough for intelligence agencies, who are fighting a battle to upgrade their capabilities at the same time as meeting the real-time challenges of what analysis they can already do. And, although data mining/knowledge discovery is a well-developed subject, adversarial data mining, which I’ve often argued here is quite a different subject, has received little attention. One way that governments can help is to let some of this upgrading happen in universities. As far as I am aware, there is almost no work on counterterrorism analysis happening in Australian universities, and the possibility gets only a tiny mention in the National Security Science and Innovation Strategy. There are several research groups looking at the social aspects of terrorism and counterterrorism, and one or two looking at the forensic aspects of data analysis, but a conspicuous absence of work on data analysis as a preventive and preemptive tool.

A part of the report that has attracted media attention is the intent to impose special visa requirements for applicants from 10 as-yet-unidentified countries (but the US imposed special requirements on 10 countries so it probably isn’t too hard to guess the list). Two parts of this are problematic. First, it will use new biometrics — although this seems to be a grand way of talking about fingerprints and facial photos. Biometrics get over-trusted; they are mostly relatively easy to spoof. Second, the report promises to use “advanced data analysis and risk profiling” to identify risky visa applicants. It’s hard to know what to make of this,  but it sounds like either something quite weak, or something with unworkably high false-positive and false-negative rates.

3.  The problem with treating home-grown terrorism as a law enforcement problem is that catching and sentencing those who have planned or carried out attacks doesn’t do anything for those who are “next in line”. There’s a risk that dealing with a home-grown group simply radicalises their supporters to the point of violence. For example, this seems to be a potential risk after the sentencing of five men last week.

Other countries, for example Thailand and Saudi Arabia (although with questionable success), take a wider view and try to deradicalise those whose involvement with terrorist activity is marginal. In other words, any criminal events in the terrorism area are regarded as the tip of an iceberg; and other approaches (sometimes called “smart power”) are used to address the less-visible hinterland of the criminal event. While a law enforcement approach is good, there seems to be some scope for a wider approach to the problem. And the great majority of home-grown attacks have been discovered and prevented because of the actions of a whistle-blower within the attackers’ community, so motivating such whistle-blowing and making it easy seems like it should be a centrepiece of any proposed strategy.

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