Beware Terror Bubbling Beneath Arab Spring
This week a Sydney man, Mustapha Al Majzoub, was killed in Syria, apparently by government rocket fire. His family says he was in Syria doing humanitarian work. Media reports said he was known to police and intelligence services because of his extremist views.
There is no need to doubt the humanitarian work of this individual to see that his case nonetheless points to several very big security problems emerging out of the Syrian conflict, and the Arab Spring more generally.
For Australia, these are quite specific problems. But the Arab Spring has also produced a series of new and perplexing dilemmas for security and counter-terrorism forces across the Western world.
In Sydney and Melbourne, police are worried about the tensions ignited within the Arab Muslim community by the conflict in Syria. This especially affects Australians of Lebanese and Syrian background, and has led to tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, and between Sunni and Alawite Muslims.
Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria is based on the Alawite minority. There is also a significant Alawite minority in Lebanon.
In both Syria and Lebanon, there has been murderous sectarian conflict along these communal lines.
Police forces are worried at the intensity of these derivative hostilities within Australia. These are not jihadist-based conflicts, but straightforward sectarian enmities.
However, the civil war in Syria is having serious global jihadist consequences and Australian developments will be a part of this.
A small but significant number of Australians have gone to Syria to participate in bringing down the Assad regime.
No doubt many of them have good, democratic motivations. And it is unclear how many, if any, have been involved in actual fighting. But this travel cannot be divorced from the global inflow of jihadists to Syria. The Syrian conflict of today has become, on a smaller scale, the Afghanistan of the 1980s, attracting jihadists from all over the world.
The biggest pipeline for al-Qa'ida affiliated extremists into Syria is from Iraq, and mainly involves the al-Qa'ida in Iraq movement. It uses the same networks and lines of communication that Syria once used to send extremists into Iraq to hurt the US efforts there, but this time the flow is reversed. At the same time, there is a good deal of movement of people between Lebanon and Syria.
The number of Australians involved in the fighting in Syria is likely to be very small. But it is impossible to know precisely, because there is always a big traffic of Australians back and forth to Lebanon visiting family. Almost all of this travel is entirely innocent.
But if people go on to Syria to oppose Assad they are bound to meet and mingle with the jihadists flowing in. As the situation in Syria becomes more violent, opposition to Assad is more likely to involve military and paramilitary activity. When they come back to Australia, will they be influenced by this experience? Will they have acquired training in weapons and explosives? Will they bear the imprint of jihadist ideology?
It is still reasonable to hope that the revolutions unleashed by the Arab Spring may result long-term in a more representative, accountable, democratic and moderate political culture in the Middle East.
This is by no means assured - or even the most likely outcome - but it is certainly worth working for. However, if you were to make a net assessment today of whether the Arab Spring has increased or decreased the terrorist threat, the assessment would have to be that in the short term it has made things worse. This is especially because of developments in Libya, Egypt and Syria.
The collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya has seen an explosion of Libyan weapons all over the Middle East. It has been a transforming moment for al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb. It has had calamitous effects in Mali and Mauritania. Some of the tribal figures Gaddafi used in his regime have become involved in jihadism.
There has been a dangerous blurring of criminal activities, especially kidnap for ransom, and more traditional jihadism.
Some neighbouring countries such as Morocco have faced security challenges, but have handled them pretty well.
In Egypt, the most immediate operational consequence of the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's regime has been that the Egyptian security services have lost control of the Sinai desert. The Bedouin tribespeople there have been infiltrated by Salafist extremists. Weapons have flown in from Libya. Although extremists in Sinai want mainly to attack Israel, they have also fired on Jordan.
This is all of acute concern, not just because it threatens peace between Egypt and Israel, but because any time a state loses control of a big chunk of territory and population to jihadi extremists there is a danger of a quasi-state network emerging that vastly magnifies terrorist capabilities.
Elsewhere in Africa, the picture is mixed. The security situation deteriorated greatly in Yemen during the long Arab Spring effort to get rid of Ali Abdullah Saleh. But with his departure the US has found the new government a better security partner.
Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula had actually seized significant chunks of Yemeni territory, but this has been wound back in recent weeks and months.
The US is pioneering a new model of counter-terrorism in places such as Yemen. It avoids big-scale troop deployments, but concentrates on highly targeted drone strikes against terrorist leaders, with some special forces operations and assistance to the security forces of a friendly local government.
Similarly, al-Shabab has been pushed back in Somalia. These and other al-Qa'ida franchise groups operate independently and with varying degrees of success. Al-Qa'ida central still exists, and is located almost certainly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, but it has little direct operational role these days.
After Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, significant chunks of Afghan territory are virtually certain to fall back into the hands of the Taliban. The US will keep a force level there, almost certainly assisted by Australians, mainly for counter-terrorism purposes. There will also be continuing efforts to split the Taliban from al-Qa'ida.
The surge of support for jihadist groups in Pakistan itself remains the greatest long-term threat.
In Southeast Asia, the links between local jihadist groups and al-Qa'ida central have been substantially broken. In Indonesia, particularly, the police and courts have done magnificent work. There are still jihadist threats in Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia, but they are home-grown and on the defensive against the police.
The two big negatives are schools and prisons. The extremist ideology of Jemaah Islamiah and its allies is still promulgated through a network of extremist schools, and the prisons are an effective recruitment and schooling ground for jihadism, exploited ruthlessly by the hundreds of extremists incarcerated within them.
Western strategy, led by the US and involving Australia at all levels, has adapted pretty well to the operational threats that have emerged from the Arab Spring.
But the tactical challenge is restless, ever changing. The enemy is alert, intelligent, opportunistic and itself highly adaptive. No one should be complacent.