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The challenges presented by terrorism today

By Devadas Krishnadas - posted Monday, 22 November 2004

Terrorism today is motivated by uncompromising fundamentalist ideology, transnational in organisation and capable of operating globally. To detect and defeat postmodern terrorists requires a departure from traditional state and organisation based approaches. Success means working together imaginatively, exploiting new technology and having the capacity and political willingness to act decisively.

While 9-11 remains the best example of post-modern terror, the 2002 Bali bombings were no less sinister in deliberation and intent. Terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah have demonstrated themselves to be clandestine, disciplined, trained and technologically proficient. It is important to observe that these organisations are forming transnational networks. In order to secure arms and financing they will - and in the case of the Taliban remnants have reportedly already done so - resort to criminal behaviour or consorting with existing international criminal syndicates. Drugs, in Central Asia, blood diamonds in Southern Africa and arms trafficking globally, are obvious revenue generators. Under the pressure of the war on terrorism, terrorists are forced to become more efficient, sophisticated and hardened. 

States need to accept that the security is not an issue they can tackle unilaterally. The ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Regional Forum (ARF) is encouraging as are the recent movements towards a multi-lateral maritime security arrangement in and around the Malacca straits. However, while there has been much discussion, the operational reality remains national rather than multi-lateral.


Australia in particular, which has focused on aiding its American ally in the Middle East, has relegated Asian regional security to a second-order priority. Nevertheless, outside the long standing Five Power Defence Arrangement [FPDA] with Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Great Britain, Australia has pursued a bi-lateral approach to security while actively discussing regional solutions to enhancing counter-terrorism, most notably in collaboration with ASEAN.

The ARF is mainly a policy discussion forum, which has generated more diplomacy than operational activity, at least of the joint multi-lateral kind. Steps to strengthen police, transport, financial control and civil security mechanisms in Asia-Pacific countries over recent years are positive steps. However, to defeat the terrorists at this level requires that intelligence and law enforcement agencies are similarly networked. States must therefore aspire to “pool intelligence” for the common cause. Key counter-terrorism assets such as intelligence and interdiction components need to be more than multi-lateral. They must be “joint” in the sense of acting with a common purpose and preferably within a common operational context such as a multi-national taskforce: To do so will require political will and will require the ARF to move beyond its historical political construct and recognise imaginative solutions to meet the threat. Such an idea will require a new operational doctrine, some alteration of national legal mechanisms to grant authority and a streamlined process of decision-making.

It is ironic that the remedy for the new terrorism threats will partly meet the agenda of the enemy. States will have to change, priorities will need to be rearranged, financial and political costs endured, and our sense of security surrendered. The creation of transnational counter-intelligence resources will pose the challenge of ensuring adequate command and control. The question to ask is “Who will guard the guards?” New political ideas must be generated to organise, contain and direct the remedy lest it evolves into a poison killing both disease and patient. Yet, without such aggressive action we can at best expect to enjoy uncertain episodes of peace between certain bouts of violence. A long-term threat requires long-term solutions and these invariably mean structural changes. The sooner this is recognised the better.

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About the Author

Devadas Krishnadas is graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts. He holds a BA (Hons) in History from the University of Sydney.

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