Dr. Clint Arizmendi is a researcher in the Emerging Threats and Opportunities section of the Directorate of Future Land Warfare. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government. John W. Little comments on national security issues at Blogs of War and is the host of the Covert Contact national security podcast.
In the first half of 2014, a number of articles and blog posts identified the emerging threat that Australians fighting in Syria’s and Iraq’s civil wars represent for domestic security. The concern is that these battle-hardened local jihadis have received training and indoctrination to carry out politically motivated violence in Australia, perhaps at high profile political events such as the G20 in Brisbane this November. While there is potential for direct physical threat, the real danger to Australian security that this handful of returned ‘veterans’ pose is through the strength of the narrative they can disseminate. They represent a new combat veteran typology – someone far removed from sanctioned service and slouch hats, yet experienced in a foreign theatre of conflict who is willing and able to share stories of their time on ‘the frontline’ with an impressionable audience.
This newfound street cred will act as a force multiplier for their message. Individuals such as the Syrian Alumni now have the ability to exert greater influence upon public perception, to facilitate sympathy for their political causes – potentially under the guise of humanitarian endeavours – and to recruit aspiring jihadists. Though the reality may be that the individual’s combat experience is more Walter Mitty than Andy McNabb, the credibility that their overseas experience brings to their narrative is a threat that must be analysed, understood and ultimately neutralised.
Returning fighters and jihadist preachers challenge the state’s ability to educate people about the risks of travelling overseas to fight in civil conflicts. They can directly encourage individuals to emulate their experience. A prime example is Zeky Mallah, the first Australian charged and acquitted under anti-terrorism law and one of the first to spend time with the Free Syrian Army. His Facebook page provided instruction on how to contribute to a conflict without becoming a combatant. Regardless of how he contributed to the conflict, or the accuracy of his information, his subscribers, followers and fans grew, spreading his ideas to a domestic audience.
As safe havens for jihadists expand, and as Australian nationals continue to migrate to battle zones, organizations such as ISIL will have an increasing ability to craft communications very specifically tuned for an Australian audience. Leveraging social media and other online channels will remove the risk of return, as Australians recruit their fellow citizens directly from a battlefield that they may have no intention of ever leaving.
This ability to plug Australian recruits into information operations on a large scale, coupled with the massive reach of social media, stands to significantly increase the potential effectiveness of jihadist communications. The relative clumsiness of messaging aimed at potential Western recruits seen in the previous decade will quickly fade as individual Australian recruits organically, and jihadist movements strategically, reach back to foreign fighters’ homelands in a style that is effortlessly culturally attuned. The matrix of permanently “deployed” Australian nationals tied to jihadist leadership on the battlefield and returning “veterans” who can serve as discrete facilitators for terrorist operations and/or recruiting efforts will prove to be a potent combination.
In order to counter the emerging threat of such narratives, the continuation of Whole-of-Government collaboration – and specifically the coordination of joint information actions – will be increasingly important. Legislation and formal Commonwealth agreements clearly delineate the powers of defence, intelligence and security agencies in Australia and overseas. However, as threat groups and individuals move between countries and their narratives transcend geographic boundaries, definitions of domestic and overseas security may no longer be adequate. This necessitates a more collaborative approach to establishing and sustaining the dominant narrative, and re-examining combined joint inter-agency coordination in the field of information activities.