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Transnational terrorism: surveying the threat to Australians

By Alexander Downer - posted Monday, 19 July 2004

The new terrorism is limitless in the scale of its ambitions. It is not interested in extracting concessions from its victims or negotiating with governments. It wants to destroy our way of life and, where possible, to destroy us.

Australia is explicitly a target and has been since before September 11. Australian citizens abroad and Australian interests overseas are also targets. The threat is thus global in its ambitions and presence and transnational in its operations. Like a metastasising cancer, its form and means of attack are constantly changing. Past experience is not a reliable guide to what they may be planning next.

The threat comes from a fringe group of Islamist extremists. Obscure and largely marginalised, they are contemptuous about the observance of Islam in Muslim countries and would reform them along pre-modern Taliban lines with fire and the sword. They are also convinced that their destiny is to contain and eventually overshadow the democratic West.


What is important to remember is how remote and antithetical this is to the vast majority of Muslims, and that it threatens them at least as much as it threatens us, and gives us common cause.

While acknowledging the extremist-Muslim basis of Al Qa’ida and its associates, the government seeks neither to misrepresent mainstream Islam nor in any way offend the sensitivities of Muslim communities in Australia and overseas. The militant jihad that is intended to engulf us all was unwanted by anyone except the terrorists, and unprovoked.

The illusion of "root causes"

In the face of unwanted and unprovoked aggression, the usual response of the First World is to wonder: what have we done wrong? Is there something we've done to bring this on ourselves and is there anything we can do to avert it?

The answer is that it's not what we've done but what we are that inflames the terrorists' unassuageable sense of grievance. They regard democracy as an abomination and pluralistic societies as doubly decadent. Our open societies' success is seen as an implied judgement on the closed theocracies they dream of establishing. Our very existence challenges the validity of their world-view. So the offence is irreparable and trying to destroy us has a twisted logic to it.

It misconceives the problem to think there are "root causes" like poverty, disadvantage or hopelessly entrenched political impasses - all of them in any case long-running and endemic features of life throughout the Middle-East. Certainly it makes sense wherever possible to alleviate them. But they are not the well-spring of terrorist motivation and fixing them will not fix anything else.

We are engaged in a battle of ideas, a struggle to the death over values. Imagining that material remedies can be bargaining chips to reduce the terrorist menace is a strategic dead end in that struggle. Admittedly, Al Qa’ida has resorted to a deceptive ploy in touting a "truce" to Europeans in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings. But we know that it would be a temporary respite, purchased at enormous cost, from an implacable foe.


We have more reason to believe Al Qa’ida when it says that there can be no negotiation and that it will not compromise over its goals.

The drivers of this threat

Al Qa’ida and its Hydra-headed sympathiser groups have central tenets in common. They are emphatic rejection of the "unbelieving" and materialistic West and profound disillusion with the forms of Islamic observance practised by most Muslims. They see themselves, to borrow the formula favoured by some Christian sects, as "a righteous remnant". They have an apocalyptic view of history and their place in it.

The other distinctive element in their triumphalist version of resurgent Islam is its infection with elements of secular totalitarian ideologies - Bolshevism and fascism. Malise Ruthven examined the Islamist influences on Al Qa’ida in the wake of September 11, in his fascinating book, A Fury for God. He analyses the writings of their ideologues.

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This is an edited extract from a speech to launch the White Paper on International Terrorism at the National Press Club, Canberra, 15 July 2004.  The full text can be found here.

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About the Author

The Hon. Alexander Downer MP is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Member for Mayo (SA).

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