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Could Islamic State’s new threats against Australia show its bark is now worse than its bite?

Islamic State today is in increasingly dire straits on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Reuters/Umit Bektas

Could Islamic State’s new threats against Australia show its bark is now worse than its bite?

In a media release published through the online magazine Rumiyah this week, the Islamic State (IS) terror group encouraged sympathisers to launch lone-wolf attacks on targets in Australia.

While the antipodean focus of the call to arms isn’t new, its specific nature is a notable departure from previous threats. The identification of symbolic landmarks such as the MCG and the Sydney Opera House as potential targets could be a major point of concern. It has certainly been emphasised by some as heralding a new danger for Australians.

But is such rhetoric matched by a capacity to inflict global terror wherever whenever? Or is it the chest-thumping of a declining militant group wanting to polish a tarnishing image?

A crumbling mystique

Far from its high point in mid-2014, IS today is in increasingly dire straits. On the ground in Iraq and Syria, it faces a de-facto military coalition that includes the Iraqi and Syrian armed forces, a wide array of Kurdish militias, Russia, the US, Iran, the UK and now even Turkey.

While the precise losses of IS militants have been a matter of debate, they are undoubtedly in the many thousands at this stage.

Several senior IS members have been killed over the past year. They include its chief executioner, Mohammed Emwazi, and senior military commander Tarkhan Batirashvili. And its key ideologue and spokesman, Taha Falaha, was recently killed in an airstrike.

IS’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has not been seen in public for more than a year. Numerous inconsistent reports of his injury or death have cast a pall of uncertainty over his status.

IS also continues to lose the territorial holdings so integral to its state-building project. It was recently forced out of Fallujah and Manbij.

Further abroad, IS affiliates in Libya are on the brink of losing the northern coastal town of Sirte. And its Sinai chapter has failed to accomplish anything of note against the Egyptian state.

IS has also encountered growing resistance and counter-propaganda in the messaging campaign it was once so famous for. Several embarrassing videos, such as the ill-fated tale of the bumbling militant Abu Hajar, stand in stark contrast to the slick image it has sought to craft over the past few years.

Collectively, these various issues have helped erode IS’s credibility as a champion of the global jihadi project. To long-standing watchers, the growing spate of misfortunes evokes its previous abortive attempt to declare an Islamic State in Iraq in 2006. This move ended in disaster and decimated its credibility prior to the Syrian civil war.

As IS finds itself increasingly weakened conventionally, it will seek to asymmetrically export its violence in order to hold onto some market share of the jihadi struggle, to extract resources and support from sympathisers. Such a strategy is a mere band-aid solution, however. It is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term as IS is further depleted.

While it is unlikely to disappear completely, much like al-Qaeda before it, IS will find that perceived weakness and impotency will bleed it of mass appeal.

Fighting the far, far enemy

As military reality in the Middle East has eroded the mystique of the caliphate, IS has increasingly turned to striking its opponents in their home territories as a central source of legitimation. This is a strategy appropriated from al-Qaeda.

Such attacks seek to demonstrate IS remains vibrant and active in its quest to combat those arrayed against it, even as it loses ground on its home front – not simply barking, but also biting.

Organised high-profile terrorist attacks abroad – from France to Jordan to Belgium – are central to such a strategy.

For a group like IS:

Violence, in many forms, is critical as the movement must maintain attention, to keep moving forward or it will fade from relevance.

In the wake of such violence, the call to arms against Australian targets may appear concerning in its specificity. But it does little to change the underlying security realities the group and its supporters face in Australia.

The threat in Australia

The chances of a sophisticated and co-ordinated attack, similar to those encountered in Europe, the Middle East and the US, remain far more remote in Australia due to several factors.

Despite the claims of some gun advocates, the effective regimes of arms control imposed in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting make the acquisition of semi- and fully automatic firearms capable of inflicting high casualties with little skill much more difficult for any potential militant.

The isolation afforded by Australia’s lack of contiguous borders with its neighbours further lessens this concern. It makes border security a far more effective tool in weeding out potential infiltrators than in Europe.

The history of potential terrorists themselves is also worthy of note. Attempts by would-be jihadists to launch group attacks inside Australia often read like an ongoing comedy of errors reminiscent of the film Four Lions. Such incompetence has been further exacerbated and exploited by the highly professional and effective nature of Australia’s security and intelligence community.

The challenge of lone wolves

This does not mitigate all IS threats – especially those posed by lone wolves, who are inspired to engage in acts of terror without direct liaisons with the central organisation.

Individuals fitting this profile can be much more difficult for security personnel to identify pre-emptively. They often lack the larger intelligence footprint of a cell that can be used to identify early warning signs.

As the Oklahoma City bombing, the 2016 Nice attack and the 2011 Norway massacre show, lone individuals inspired by a radical ideology can cause extreme devastation and terror on their own when they commit to it.

But Australia’s track record in preventing lone-wolf attacks stacks up well compared with its international contemporaries. The few instances of lone-wolf terrorism experienced thus far in Australia – while tragic – have been poorly planned affairs with far fewer deaths than incidents elsewhere.

Australia’s security and intelligence community is highly professional and effective in combating the terror threat. AAP/Lukas Coch

Kangaroos, not car bombs

As it has for millennia, terrorism remains an inescapable feature of modern life. Nevertheless, the phenomenon’s sheer persistence alone does not justify the conflation of its relatively small threat within the current conflict-hungry public discourse.

The media have a particularly important role and responsibility here. Journalists need to continually impress this reality on viewers, rather than inadvertently support the narratives IS wishes to propagate by sensationalising and waxing hysterical over every edict the militant group publishes.

Despite IS’s latest declarations, Australians remain far more likely to be grievously injured or die from domestic violence, car accidents and even kangaroos than the nefarious plotting of a terrorist organisation.

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