15 December 1997

Blood in the streets and bodies in bags is the nightmare vision of the future conjured up by an expert in terrorism at the University of Queensland.

Dr Peter Chalk says the world is not becoming any safer in terms of terrorism: it's becoming a great deal more dangerous.

Dr Chalk, a lecturer in international relations in the Government Department, has made a study of terrorism and associated threats to democracy.

His prognosis is that terrorism will become more bloody and murderous as groups seek to make their mark in a world increasingly desensitised to violence and death.

'I see terrorism becoming more dangerous because it's growing more unpredictable, less easy to track down and inherently more violent,' Dr Chalk said.

He said terrorism got its name from the terrifying effect it had on society. 'It used to be that the killing of one person would scare 1000 others. Now I believe some groups will be prepared to kill 1000 people to get their message across. This is not terrifying a society - it's attacking it.'

Dr Chalk has identified significant changes in terrorism since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union. Many commentators believed those events would herald a decline in world terrorism but Dr Chalk sees no evidence of this.

His studies show terrorism has changed and adapted to the new world order and in the process has become a more insidious threat to society and democracy.

During the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union, both fearful of mutual nuclear destruction, effectively indulged in 'war by proxy', using other players to achieve their territorial, economic and political goals.

Dr Chalk said right and left-wing extremists could count on financial and perhaps military support from one or other of the super powers in much the same way that countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and North Korea acted as sponsors of terrorism.

However, these days about the only major backers were Iran and Sudan, and that was forcing some fundamental changes on terrorists, he said.

They now had to find ways of financing their own activities and this had led to a shading of the boundaries between terrorism and crime, especially in the area of drug trafficking.

The loss of external support had also led to terrorism becoming less structured and more in the nature of loosely connected groups or individuals sharing similar beliefs, such as the patriotic militia in the United States and neo-Nazis in Germany.

The Internet was also playing a part. It made information more accessible and easier to spread, it kept like-minded people all over the world almost instantly in touch without them having to meet, and if anyone wanted to know how to make or plant a bomb it was all there at their fingertips.

Dr Chalk said this 'amateurisation of terrorism' was a major worry to a lot of people as it meant less discipline and restraint than had characterised close-knit groups in the past.

Dr Chalk said another major concern was that the world was awash with easily-obtained weaponry, most of it a legacy of the Cold War and military campaigns extravagantly supported by the super powers in places such as Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Ironically, the war in Afghanistan had also left a legacy of thousands of American-trained guerrillas, described by Dr Chalk as 'rebels without a cause', who were now embracing violent Islamic fundamentalism.

The world had yet to see terrorists turning to agents of mass destruction such as nuclear, chemical or biological weapons but Dr Chalk believes that is a distinct possibility, most likely involving one of the lose-knit groups.

While he believed militant left-wing terrorism was a thing of the past, Dr Chalk said other equally threatening trends were rising around the world. These included terrorism based on separatist, ethnic, religious or spiritual/mystical grounds.

Another prediction was the rise of technological terrorism where the targets might be the means of mass communications, electricity supplies or the introduction of computer viruses.

An area of special interest for Dr Chalk is the threat posed to nations when organised crime, such as drug trafficking, piracy, money laundering and smuggling, is carried out on a huge scale.

He said Russia was a classic case where crime bosses had gained such economic and political power that they were in a position to influence, or even determine, national policy.

Heroin warlords in Burma were essentially in control of much of that country and similarly parts of South America and the southern Philippines were under the thumbs of drug traffickers or other criminals.

Dr Chalk said the explosion in South East Asian drug production in recent years had led many governments in the region to rank heroin trafficking as one of the most significant national security issues of the post-Cold War era.

Reasons for this were the spiralling rates of crime and social instability, the huge costs of trying to control the problem, the spread of corruption among government officials and the military, and the destabilising effect of powerful, well-armed drug barons.

While all these examples were drawn from around the world, Dr Chalk said there was no room for complacency in this country.

'Australia needs to watch out. It's an outdated notion to think that because we are so far from anywhere we are not a target.

'South East Asia has a lot of disaffected groups and it's probably easier for their terrorists to commit acts here than in their own countries where there is not the same amount of freedom.'

Dr Chalk said internally there was not much of a terrorist threat in Australia though he saw some 'fairly worrying' parallels between militia, racist and supremacist movements here and in the US.

For more information, contact Dr Peter Chalk (telephone 3365 2910)