THE terrorist’s answer was so matter-of-fact that its full meaning crept into my consciousness only gradually. It was September 1991 in South Lebanon and the captured terrorist leader responded calmly to my question about his team’s mission. It was a mission they would never achieve after their small boat was seized by my United Nations colleagues. The boat was crammed with AK-47s, hand grenades, knives, explosives and rocket-propelled grenades.
He said their mission was to land on the Israeli side of the border, near the beautiful town of Nahariya, and kill as many Jews as possible before they themselves were killed.
When not working in South Lebanon as Team Leader of UN Mobile Team Zulu, I lived in Nahariya with my wife and two young daughters — a street away from the terrorists’ planned landing point. I asked how his three-man team would distinguish between Jews and overseas visitors. He confidently put that question in the hands of his God.
At the time I thought how lucky we were not to have such irrational, indiscriminate killers in Australia. Those days are gone.
I spoke in my maiden speech to parliament about the importance of reinvigorating pride in Australian citizenship as a source of national strength and resilience. This aim is based on my personal experiences after migrating to Australia in 1965 with working-class parents who dreamt of a future beyond European village life.
Everything I have gained in the 50 years since then has resulted from citizenship of this great country. But the rewards of citizenship should impose obligations — the most important of which is loyalty to Australia and its people.
Morally, intellectually and legally, citizenship must underpin the strength of our national character and our future potential. It defines a partnership that can be a source of incredible common purpose. But broken connections between a state and its citizens breed disharmony and decay.
As we have seen from events in recent years, some benefit from Australian citizenship, but ignore their responsibility to Australia and its people. Supporters of transnational terrorism are one example. How should Australia respond?
Some nation states take the reciprocal obligations of citizenship more seriously than others; with Australia perhaps sitting midway along the spectrum.
The UN has called for greater action in responding to the resurgent threat of terrorism, with the recently adopted Security Council Resolution 2178 requiring states to criminalise travel or attempted travel of foreign fighters.
Britain’s government has introduced a power to suspend citizenship. France and Canada are even tougher, revoking citizenship rights of dual nationals.
This British-French-Canadian determination signals a pragmatic way ahead for others, including Australia, to confront resurgent terrorism.
Why is this important now? Because the issue of state citizenship — particularly that of dual nationals — will be an increasingly important battleground in the continuing “War on Terror”.
At the very least, an objective public debate is needed on whether such a move is justified in Australia at this time.
The most recent incarnation of terrorism is exponentially dangerous and difficult to combat, with globally-connected networks at the heart of the problem.
International terror networks make it difficult to detect or curtail the spread of violence, and the strength of jihadist ideology means that it is extremely difficult to rehabilitate those involved.
The end result is a dormant, nascent group of radicalised individuals, whose intentions and actions are potentially far more damaging to Australia’s interests than other serious crimes.
Most other serious crimes are like a disease, which, if they cannot be cured entirely, can at least be reasonably managed by law enforcement.
On the other hand, once agents of terrorism are radicalised, there is almost no way to bring them back to mainstream society.
The best practical options are for the state to do its best to stigmatise all participation in terrorism within source communities. Those who persist in associating themselves with terrorist causes must be identified and wherever possible ejected from the state.
Sources of terrorism in places such as Iraq must be neutralised, including by use of military force if necessary. Closer to home and more benignly, it can also be addressed by revoking citizenship, which I believe should be strongly supported in the case of dual nationals.
Of course, the related issue of truly homegrown terror — perpetuated by those rare individuals (so far), who hold only a single national passport, throws up other challenges and less certain solutions. The key impediment is that revocation of citizenship cannot render a person stateless. The British approach of suspending citizenship has the virtue of not rendering the person stateless.
But, these issues too, must be confronted as sensible democracies continue to grapple with, and ratchet up their responses to those who seek to harm the state and its law-abiding citizens.
Many will argue persuasively that by pledging allegiance to transnational terrorist organisations and participating in terrorist acts, even Australian-born citizens forfeit their right to be considered Australian. Response options could include the imposition of strict control orders, or denial of family reunion immigration for those in Australia whose support for transnational terrorism breaches our laws.
Given the difficulties of collecting reliable evidence in overseas terrorist strongholds, we should err on the side of victims and let our law enforcement and intelligence agencies act on the basis of “reasonable suspicion”.
A clear way ahead for Australia has not yet emerged, so the implications and options for addressing this deserve near-term consideration.
Now is the time to start a public discussion to better inform policy responses.
This may just be a British-French-Canadian trend worth imitating.
Andrew Nikolic is the federal member for Bass, a government whip, and a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. He is a retired army brigadier and former first assistant secretary in the Defence Department.