Address: No Money for Terror Conference

  • Speech, check against delivery

Ministerial counterparts, your Excellencies, Heads of agencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to session two of the “No Money for Terror” Conference.

I acknowledge and thank France for its leadership in the ground-breaking No Money for Terror Conference in 2018 – a meeting I had the opportunity to attend in my then capacity as Australia’s Defence Minister in France last year. It was a very important meeting. It led to the Paris agenda, it provided momentum for United Nations Security Council Resolution 2462 in March of this year, which was a very important step in strengthening cooperation to stem terrorist financing.

I’m pleased that we have so many counterparts and colleagues from Australia’s neighbourhood, the Indo-Pacific region, who have joined us here today. I very much value the opportunity in getting to meet with his Excellency Dr Mahfud MD, who is in Australia on his first visit as Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law, and Security. I want to acknowledge the shared commitment that Australia and Indonesia have to combating terrorism, and that is exemplified by the fact that we were reaffirmed as co-Chairs of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum’s Countering Violent Extremism Working Group for a further two-year term.

As I said, New Zealand’s Justice Minister Andrew Little will also be speaking today. And for Australia and New Zealand, that is about family. As Australians, we certainly shared in New Zealand's grief and horror after the terrorist attacks in Christchurch this year. What those attacks showed us is how quickly terrorist and violent content can spread on digital platforms. After that horrific tragedy, Australia signed up to the Christchurch Call to Action, which aims to stop the proliferation of such content online. We also led the Osaka G20 Leaders’ Statement, a global call for online platforms and governments to work collaboratively to better prevent, detect and remove terrorist and violent extremist content.

These were good examples of cooperation to fight terrorism. But I do believe that there is more that we can all do. This important conference is about how we can further improve our international cooperation. A global problem requires a cooperative response. We owe it to our citizens, amongst many countries, to bring together our collective action to keep them safe. Because we know that today, terrorists take more ways to reach out; more ways to recruit; more ways to direct their followers than they have ever had before. And equally, modern global communications and innovations like cryptocurrencies expand the pool of potential resources upon which they are able to draw.

The Australian Parliament changed our laws in December of 2016 to ensure that, for example, the Australian Defence Force could target a wider range of terrorists, including those in supporting roles, such as logistics, planning, financing. We did that in recognition of the fact that a terrorist organisation’s potency comes not just from its leaders and those who plan and direct attacks, but from those who sustain the organisation.

To get this second session under way, I want to talk a little more about what we can do together to stop kidnap for ransom, a particularly insidious source of terrorist financing.  For terrorist groups, money is like their oxygen. And kidnap for ransom is one of the ways that terrorist groups stay alive. 

It doesn't make any sense for nation states to fund both sides of the battle, when we pay with blood to mount ever more complex or risky counterterrorism operations and then we allow terrorists to nourish their recovery through kidnap for ransom or other forms of terrorist financing.

So if we are to succeed in countering terrorist organisations, wherever they are, we need to defeat them with our operations at the same time as we choke off their funding, no matter where those funds come from.

We have to work together to prevent all forms of terrorist financing. And we do have to address what is a very difficult issue of kidnapping for ransom.

I don't believe that any one nation to combat this issue alone. We need to hold firm as a cooperative alliance, as we are doing in this important conference this week, because we know that if terrorists find a source of money, they'll come back for more. It’s how they think. It’s how they act.

We've seen it. We’ve seen it in Iraq. We’ve seen it in Afghanistan. We’ve seen it on the high seas with terrorism and piracy around the Horn of Africa. The scale of the problem is abundantly clear. And this conference will address many forms of terrorist financing.

During my time as a Cabinet Minister, I've seen our government's response to several cases of Australians kidnapped by terrorist groups. I've seen the devastating effect of these terrible crimes, on victims and on their families. I've also seen the enormous amount of work and resources that governments devote to resolving these extraordinarily complex cases – often in association or partnership with likeminded governments, who also have citizens held, or may be able to provide localised knowledge or assistance.

So this is not a theoretical subject for me. I am keen to share some of our perspectives on the payment of ransoms, and in doing so I hope to promote an international discussion about how we, as an international community, can address kidnap for ransom.

It's not always easy to quantify the value of ransom payments to terrorists, but the figures that are available paint a very sobering picture. According to one United Nations report, more than US$120 million in kidnap ransom funds were channelled to terrorist groups between 2004 and 2012 - US$120 million.

It’s a high number, but it became worse after Daesh rose to prominence with that group making up US$45 million from kidnapping in the 12 months between September 2013 and September 2014 alone.

And it's not just Daesh exploiting this tactic. In the Sahel, kidnapping put an estimated US$89 million, in the coffers of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb between 2013 and 2017. And as ransoms have been paid more frequently, so have ransoms being demanded have also increased.

In the early 2000s, the payment demanded for hostages held by Islamic militants was in the tens of thousands of dollars per case. By 2011, that figure was estimated to be $5.4 million per case. Kidnap for ransom is unfortunately an important and reliable revenue stream for terrorist groups.

And there is another point to consider. When the so-called Caliphate was at its height, it had revenues from captured oil fields, looted bank vaults, gold bullion depositories. It had imposed taxes and tolls on the region it had captured. Those revenues are now, with the defeat of the Daesh Caliphate itself, gone.

So that makes the kidnap for ransom business model an even more important source of the funds for Daesh. Breaking this model now can therefore have an even more significant effect on their revenue options and choke off their capacity to finance their broader terrorist operations.

This year the UN, the G20, the ASEAN Regional Forum, have all sought to focus attention on the link between ransoms and terrorism. And UNSCR 2133 specifically calls on, and I quote, member states to “prevent terrorists from benefiting directly or indirectly from ransom payments or political concessions to secure the safe release of hostages. Which gives us an obligation to work together towards a solution.

It is logical that kidnap groups would see some governments as easy targets. A government is often seen as having deep pockets and as facing public pressure to resolve kidnapping cases quickly. But in my view, it's clearly not in our collective interests to pay ransoms. Paying more ransoms means enduring more kidnappings. And then the growing demand for higher ransoms per kidnapping follows.

So as part of Australia's commitment to combatting terrorism, we have a longstanding policy, followed by successive governments, that the Australian Government does not pay ransoms. Because we know that paying ransoms only makes kidnapping more attractive to terrorists. And if we pay ransoms, we are feeding that. 

Let me say though, of course we want our citizens back when they have been kidnapped. However, returning one of our citizens to safety today is a very high price to pay if it means another is kidnapped for another ransom tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

I believe the answer is to work more closely together, which is why we're here today. I think there is a formula for action that we could look at, which would include the following steps. 

We reduce the likelihood of kidnappings by expressly and clearly warning our populations of the risks in dangerous zones, through government warnings on our diplomatic, our consular, our passport, our law enforcement, our travel websites.

We advise companies and international organisations that work in high risk environments, as well as with international partners and NGOs, to ensure that they are explicitly aware of risks and that they take appropriate security measures.

And then in the unfortunate circumstance where a kidnapping occurs, we mobilise our diplomatic networks, our law enforcement networks, our intelligence networks. We of course support the family of the kidnapping victim by providing information and support to reassure them, to keep them updated with developments, to encourage them not to pay a private ransom. 

We consider all of our negotiation and communication strategies to engage the kidnappers and gather information.

And we of course examine options to recover the hostages by force if that is necessary.

They are all important steps. But I do think we need to discuss how we can go further in standing together to commit to combatting kidnapping by terrorists. There is a good precedent which is the approach followed by some countries, including Australia, in Iraq in 2004 and in the years that followed.

Because in Iraq at the time, kidnap for ransom was a growth industry for terrorist groups. They kidnapped to order in fact, when a bounty was placed on the head of a specific nationality of foreigner, and there were freelance kidnappers who took random foreigners hostage and sold them to larger terrorist networks, knowing that the larger networks could get a higher ransom than small time kidnappers. 

So a hostage working group was formed. More than 15 countries participated. The Hostage Working Group exchanged intelligence and other information very freely. We pooled our military and our law enforcement resources to get our kidnap victims back. We took the approach that if a Working Group member nation had a kidnap victim, we would work collaboratively and collectively to get them back.

Nations weren’t left on their own to find their own solution using only their own resources. But there was one membership rule to join the Hostage Working Group: no member nation could pay a ransom, no matter what happened.

Our objective was to break the business model of the terrorist kidnappers, and it worked in Iraq. Kidnapping became riskier with fewer rewards for terrorists.

We could examine such an approach once more, and extend it more widely. That is an idea for delegates here today to consider. We have to be very clear of our objective. Our objective is to deprive terrorist groups of an easy revenue stream.

We have the capacity, and we should be imposing an unsustainable cost on terrorist organisations that kidnap our citizens for ransom. We can, we must, work together to break the business model of kidnap for ransom.

Thank you very much colleagues and I look forward to an interesting discussion this afternoon.

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