Phillip Etches is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Australian National University’s International Security and Middle-Eastern Studies program where he focuses on networked non-state threats. He can be found on Twitter @CN_Hack. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Possible shift in Islamic State’s (IS) operational focus towards Southeast Asia and the threat to Australian citizens.
Date Originally Written: February 22, 2017.
Date Originally Published: April 20, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This options paper is written from the perspective of an individual with command seniority within IS, or influence over the strategic-level policymaking of that organisation.
Background: The overall goal must be the demonstration that IS remains a viable enterprise, whether as a landholding caliphate or a check on the Western threat to the Ummah. Prior to Western intervention, a “balanced” strategy involved fighting for territory within “near enemy” spaces such as Iraq and Syria while also operating in as many “far enemy” spaces as possible. Doing so allowed IS to show that it could establish a new caliphate while simultaneously using kinetic and information operations directed at Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America to demonstrate to believing people that IS was capable of projecting beyond its immediate territory.
Significance: IS is at an inflection point where it must alter the balance of its strategy towards a new far enemy, and show that it retains the initiative by beginning to target Australian citizens and interests more aggressively. Doing so will show that IS can still function despite territorial losses, that it retains the initiative, and inspire hope in those whose confidence has been shaken by IS setbacks in Iraq and Syria. This pivot to Australia is vital if IS is to retain its control over its perception and reality.
Option #1: Continue attempting to inspire remote or unaffiliated persons to conduct attacks by way of broadly targeted messaging or manipulation of social/familial ties between IS personnel and individuals in the country.
Risk: The principal risk of the present course is a lack of impact and credibility. The persons who have thus far answered IS’s call have been portrayed as alone, insufficiently lethal, or of compromised standards and morals. This portrayal has allowed the Australian government and media to characterize operations in Australia as the products of mental illness or juvenile delinquency, lessening the kinetic and psychological effects of our operations. Additionally, operational risk comes from institutions and legislation involved in Australia’s internal security, forcing willing persons to mount small, unsophisticated attacks only. As such, broad messaging will therefore continue inspiring small attacks, but will not generate the psychological effect we desire.
Gain: The main gain of Option #1 is the higher likelihood of successful – if small – attacks which will show that IS can operate without restrictions on time or location. A secondary gain is the increased certainty which comes from following a proven course. While the current approach does little to change the overall strategic situation, it will avoid provoking a change in behaviour on the part of the Australian internal security establishment, lowering the risk of creating unforeseen future operational challenges.
Option #2: Targeting Australians in Southeast Asia via IS personnel displacing from Iraq and Syria or via cooperation with pre-existing networks in the region.
Risk: The biggest risk to IS from this approach will be the immediate response, as the relevant network elements will be endangered by any post-operational security crackdown in the countries where they mount attacks. In addition to likely immediate costs, Option #2 will alter the challenges faced by IS in future, particularly given that Southeast Asia is within Australia’s near abroad. Should the Australian government be sufficiently provoked, it will use any available multilateral and unilateral means – as it has before – to prevent future operations. Any networks known to be sympathetic to IS will also come under stronger Australian scrutiny. As such, the principal benefit of operation against Australians outside the attention of the Australian government will likely be lost after the first satisfactory attack.
Gain: The most obvious gain of Option #2 is that it responds to the challenges of Option #1. Targeting Australians in Southeast Asia will address the risks of the current approach by enabling the use of competent pre-existing networks beyond the auspices of Australia-based security organizations. Additionally, operating against Australians in Southeast Asia will enable IS to harness the fears held by many Australians about the Jihad in Southeast Asia and rekindle the anxiety they felt after the 2002 Bali Bombings. This impact will be enhanced if notables such as Abu Bakar Bashir are able to lend their support to the attacks as they did with the original Bali Bombings.
Other Comments: It may appear that the geographical remove between Syria and Southeast Asia, unlike that between Syria and Europe, is too great to feasibly conduct operations at a distance. However, it should be noted that operations can and have been directed at such distances by IS, and tactics, techniques, and procedures can be devised to ensure smooth operation in the absence of direct control by Caliph Ibrahim. Furthermore, IS has a number of brothers from Indonesia and Malaysia. Their experience both at home and fighting in Syria will make them capable operatives, and with some preparation they should be able to carry out the requisite planning, targeting, and execution of operations against Australians.
 Buggy, K. (2016). Under the Radar: How Might Australia Enhance Its Policies to Prevent ‘Lone Wolf’ and ‘Fixated Person’ Violent Attacks? Canberra, Australia:Australian Defence College’s Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies
 Dodwell, B., Milton, D., & Rassler, D. (2016). The Caliphate’s Global Workforce: An Inside Look At The Islamic State’s Foreign Fighter Paper Trail. West Point, NY:USMA