Global Counter-Terrorism Forum, Palace Hotel, New York

  • Transcript, E&OE

JOURNALIST: What can we expect in practical terms from a process like this?

JULIE BISHOP: I have just delivered Australia's statement at the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum that has been co-hosted by the US and Turkey. I set out the steps that Australia is taking to defeat the scourge of foreign terrorist fighters both at a domestic, regional and global level.

I set out our response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and also the work that we're doing to support Iraq counter Daesh and its violent extremism. So it was an opportunity here to outline what Australia is doing but also call on other nation states to support the efforts to counter terrorism in all its forms.

JOURNALIST: And there was a report in the New York Times this morning, which Secretary Kerry referenced in his remarks, that there are now around 30,000 foreign fighters in Iraq which is a considerable increase. Are we seeing a similar spike or trend I should say among our own nationals? Are we seeing more Australians journeying to the battlefield.

JULIE BISHOP: We estimate there are around 120 Australians currently in Iraq and Syria supporting Daesh and other terrorist groups. That is double the number that I reported here 12 months ago. However, we have been cancelling passports, we have been successful in a number of interventions through our security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies work. So the numbers are still increasing but we hope to stem the trajectory through our efforts.

JOURNALIST: Of course, you've created, I believe again, Secretary Kerry alluded to this in his remarks, that in doing that you create a secondary problem don't you? That you ground a lot of these people, these would be jihadis in their home countries and yet they remain in contact with their brothers in [inaudible]?

JULIE BISHOP: That's why we have introduced a number of diversion programs for young people in particular who we are able to prevent leaving the country, but we have to work with them because they've been radicalised, some of them are fanatical. What we're seeking to do is prevent them joining Daesh in Iraq and Syria to prevent them becoming experienced terrorists and experienced in the ways of terrorism and then making their way back to Australia. So we have available to us a number of tools, I can cancel passports or suspend passports pending further evidence, or indeed, ensure that a passport isn't issued in the first place.

JOURNALIST: Is stripping citizenship from people with dual citizenship involved in terrorism an option that you're aware has been used by any other nation?

JULIE BISHOP: Yes it is. It has already been embraced by the United Kingdom, other countries are considering it, as Australia is, and so we have been sharing information and practices with other countries who are also facing this extraordinary phenomenon of our own citizens being radicalised to an extent that they would join one of the most brutal terrorist organisations that we've witnessed in generations.

JOURNALIST: Have any nations experienced any success with that?

JULIE BISHOP: I understand the United Kingdom is the example that most countries are considering.

JOURNALIST: Secretary Kerry also used the term "lifecycle", attacking terrorism over its lifecycle, is that a new phenomenon, or use of that term, is that new?

JULIE BISHOP: It's the first time I've heard the term used in this context but I think Australia has always been clear eyed about this. This will mean a generational focus. We can't wipe out this kind of perverted ideology in a matter of days or weeks, it will take quite some time, and the terrorist organisations are increasingly sophisticated in their use of online and social media and we have to work to combat it at every level, everywhere. And that's why a meeting of the 30 coalition members is so important. We continue to share ideas, initiatives, and support each other in countering terrorism in all its forms.

JOURNALIST: You spoke at some length too about the problem inside the prisons which is not something I've heard you really talk about before. Were you referring principally to Australian prisons, or Indonesian ones obviously have a problem as well. But can you talk a little bit about the problem as it manifests itself in prison system, ours and others.

JULIE BISHOP: We are aware that a number of prisoners who've been convicted of terrorist related conduct are being released from prisons in our region, notably Indonesia. It's also a concern that we have that this kind of perverted ideology could be spread within the prison system as it has been in other countries, and so we are focusing on specifically on rehabilitation, and working with prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, including terrorist related crimes, in Australia. We're sharing ideas and best practice with Indonesia and we're hosting a summit on this very issue.

JOURNALIST: So it's kind of an emerging problem. The problem's going to get worse as those guys get out in the next few months or years is it?

JULIE BISHOP: We are aware that in the coming years a significant number of prisoners in Indonesian prisons who have been convicted of terrorist related activities will be released. It runs to the hundreds, and of course, if they've not been rehabilitated then they pose a serious risk not only to Indonesia but to our region.

JOURNALIST: And what's Indonesia looking to do from discussions you've had with them? What are they trying to do about that?

JULIE BISHOP: I had a very good meeting with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi yesterday in the context of our MIKTA meting – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia – and she spoke about the work Indonesia is undertaking to counter radicalisation amongst young people in Indonesia, the rehabilitation of convicted terrorists in their prisons and the work they're doing as a moderate Muslim nation and I expect that we'll see more from Indonesia in this regard and perhaps that's something that President Widodo will address in his national statement to the United Nations. But I understood from Retno Marsudi that Indonesia is focusing significantly on countering violent extremism.

JOURNALIST: Just as we were leaving, the representative from Denmark was saying that they've had a lot of success targeting… real grassroots work targeting families, working with the police, working with intelligence communities, and they've managed to halve the number of foreign fighters in the last year, as opposed to Australia which has seen a double, is that something Australia's looking at, doing more grassroots work?

JULIE BISHOP: We are doing that now. Our number has doubled since last year, but I don't expect it to double again by next year. We are having some success in interrupting the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, but I wouldn't say that we have yet turned the tide. We are embracing ideas from all over the world and that's why forums such as this are so important.

Michael Keenan, our Minister for Justice and Counter Terrorism, will remain at this meeting so that he can gather the information from our colleagues around the table as to what they're doing. Australia is not immune from the threat of terrorism and all nations face a risk in some form or another. 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters are drawn from at least 100 countries around the world so we're all facing the risk at various levels.

JOURNALIST: There seems to have been an increase in the number of foreign jihadis, particularly, western jihadis, that have been killed in drone attacks, particularly around Raqqa. Is there an increase in the coalition drone campaign against these guys and if you are a young jihadi in the 'burbs somewhere thinking of going over to Syria, is it now a more dangerous place? A more dangerous proposition because of this increased activity?

JULIE BISHOP: We have been consistent in warning any person considering going to the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iraq to take part in this conflict that not only are they putting themselves in mortal danger, but they're adding to the misery and suffering of the people in the region who are being displaced by this conflict and those who have been brutalised by the terrorist organisation. There is a very high chance that anyone going over to Syria and Iraq and taking part in terrorist activities will not return.

JOURNALIST: Can you talk at all about your meeting with the Iraqi Foreign Minister yesterday?

JULIE BISHOP: We had a very positive meeting. I have met him before. Indeed I spent some time with him on my visit to Baghdad last October when we were able to agree the means by which Australia would support the Iraqi government in building capacity for the Iraqi security forces so that they can protect their own people and they can take back the territory that's been claimed as part of the caliphate by the terrorist organisation.

We discussed the progress that was being made, we discussed the necessary reforms that the Iraqi government will have to embrace in order to de-escalate the sectarian conflict in Iraq, and we also discussed Syria and Australia's decision to take part in air strikes over Syria.

JOURNALIST: There are suggestions too that the Iraqi Prime Minister has pulled back on some of those promised reforms in recent weeks. Did you raise that with him at all?

JULIE BISHOP: We spoke about progress, we certainly encouraged him, particularly in a number of areas where inclusiveness is at the heart of the reforms. And along with other coalition partners we have reiterated the need for the Iraqi Government to be inclusive, to be strong and to be able to support the efforts that the coalition are putting in to bolster the government's capacity to control their own security and defeat this terrorist organisation that is wreaking such havoc in Iraq in various areas and across the border into Syria.

JOURNALIST: Are you confident that the Iraqi government shares that urge towards inclusiveness that the west wants it to?

JULIE BISHOP: The Iraqi Government is in no doubt of the view of the coalition partners. It's not only the west, it is other countries in the Middle East who are urging the Iraqi Government to remain strong and committed to the necessary reforms to end the sectarian conflict within Iraq.

JOURNALIST: There's been increased speculation that we're now looking at the very real prospect of partitioning parts of Syria and northern Iraq, that that's ultimately where this conflict will end up, partitioning along sectarian lines. Do you think that's likely or desirable?

JULIE BISHOP: At this point we're focusing on both the military action that is so necessary to defeat the terrorist organisation and therefore prevent the humanitarian crisis from escalating further, but there must also be a political solution in Syria and I've been having discussions with a number of foreign ministers about that very issue. I expect it to be the subject of the leaders statements over the next few days.

Indeed, I see that Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom intends to address the issue of a political solution in Syria, and Australia's position is that all options should be on the table, nothing should be discarded at this point, no permutation, no political solution should be rejected while we consider what is realistic, what is achievable.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) has reduced the number of Iraqi forces it has trained in recent months, was there any discussion about increasing Australia's support for training Iraqi forces or any more support. Did the Iraqis ask for any more support?

JULIE BISHOP: No, the Iraqi government did not. We talked about what we were currently doing and he thanked us for our efforts and I look forward to Prime Minister Abadi coming to Australia and I hope that the Foreign Minister will also be able to come to Australia and continue our discussions. At some point I intend to go back to Baghdad and assess the situation for myself.

JOURNALIST: And just finally, you questioned the use of the term "softening" in relation to Australia's position on Assad. Can you clarify, what would you say Australia is doing in terms of reconsidering its position on Assad if it's not softening?

JULIE BISHOP: We're reconsidering our position.

JOURNALIST: But saying he must go and then saying all options are on the table, is that not a softening?

JULIE BISHOP: No, that's not softening, that's your word not mine.

JOURNALIST: What word… so reconsidering your position, even if it is reducing the penalty I suppose for him isn't considered a softening in your view?

JULIE BISHOP: What an extraordinary question. I said that we believed that all options should be on the table. That is realpolitik, that is being realistic. In 2011 there was a Geneva process that set out what the coalition partners believed was achievable at that time. It hasn't achieved it, so therefore we should reconsider the position.

JOURNALIST: And that includes him maybe staying on in an interim capacity?

JULIE BISHOP: I'm not ruling out any options, but I wouldn't use the term that you describe.

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