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Why our Syria policy is strategically unsound

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The children of terrorist Khaled Sharrouf, whose extraction was initially deemed too dangerous by Scott Morrison (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Australian Government needs to figure out its priorities in deciding on a firm plan to deal with counter-terrorism, writes Dr Allan Orr.

OUR NATION’S current counter-terrorism praxis is as sophisticated as the Government’s election “strategy”. But unlike the last Labor performance, the Australian Government can’t afford to simply sit back and run a policy on the hope the other side defeats itself. It hasn’t happened in 20 years of war, it won’t happen in the next 20.

When the Sharrouf children’s location became known earlier this year, the Government simply reinforced the present cognitive divide between those members of the Muslim community in Australia who ISIL recruiters literally prey on and their government, along with the majority who elected them. They were callous enough to deem the underage caught in the crosshairs as not worth risking government lives to extract.

The strategic notion that all counter-terrorism operations have to be morally (politically) sound is childishly naive. In refusing to commit intelligence or military assets into Syria to extract uncharged Australian citizens, we lose any chance of exploiting the intelligence value of those individuals. These wives and children of ISIL know names, faces, places, chat groups and dates, here and over there, that have infinitely more worth than the terroristically-challenged cells the Government seems to conveniently roll up before every piece of controversial counter-terrorism legislation is passed.

Indeed, terrorism has become so politicised in this country that even when blatantly confronted with it, the Government reserves the right to tell the terrorists whether they are actually terrorists or not. Mert Ney knew more of what he was doing, ideologically speaking, than Man Haron Monis, yet to cover the abysmal law enforcement response times to that attack, five years later and just down the road from Lindt, they (State and Federal governments) actually opened up the “Joker” defence for every terrorist to follow hereafter.

Stripping citizenship – effectively negating the concept of nationhood – and the Temporary Exclusion Orders “initiative” are as strategically mundane and based little on how the policy plays among the Liberal core. Does the Government really think revoking the citizenship of someone who doesn’t recognise the political legitimacy of the State and is actively attempting to destroy it as a political entity will deter or punish these individuals? The TEO simply gives the “suspects” the advantage of time, sullying the recollections of the key evidentiary sources in these cases of foreign “fighters” — witnesses.

Counter-terrorism is about the carrot and stick. It is as strategically dicey policy-wise as the bombs made by the terrorists themselves and to conduct it efficaciously means always upsetting some sectors of the polis. “Risking” assets we retain for just these purposes, to extract the underage Australian victims of this war in Syria would have sent an absolutely invaluable strategic message to the real “battlespace” – the Muslim quarter of the country – that they aren’t second class citizens as ISIL charges. 

On the stick side, if the Government wasn’t worried about upsetting the Right-of-Left Labor supporters it pinched at the last election, it would target its draconian legislative sword not at the majority but at the militants themselves, by reinstituting capital punishment for acts of political violence against the State or in support of enemies of the State, for at least those acts which result in death or significant personal (not material or monetary) harm.

This would deter all but the most rabid of homeland terrorists and further ensure any terrorists or terrorist sympathisers returning from overseas would either be removed from the security equation once home or give security agencies the leverage to cut plea deals reducing the sentence to life imprisonment without the chance of parole in exchange for meaningful intelligence co-operation.

Lamentably, we simply don’t have the carrot at present and we are seriously fumbling the stick side of strategy, especially in regards to the farce that has become Syria policy in Australia. We don’t have to like the terrorists or family members in order to justify risking human assets to extract enemy combatants or sympathisers and we don’t have to let these people back into play overseas, on the ground and in the cyber ether to make a political point at home (there is no guarantee Turkey will simply “kill 'em all and let Allah sort 'em out”).

That’s how children think, the same children we are punishing for being dragged into a war they seemingly understand as well as the Defence Minister/former General currently refusing to back committing security resources to extraction missions unless some opaque, party-based politico moral metric is met, wherever that measure lies on the one-party sanctioned political spectrum.

Dr Allan Orr is an international security specialist whose publications revolve around the topics of terrorism and insurgency. 

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