Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and UK Prime Minister Theresa May visited Borough Market in London, England on Monday 10 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares
London: It was a quiet whisper, not meant for the cameras, which revealed the increasingly grim reality of terror’s ability to reach our shores from foreign soil.
“I don’t know how many times we’re going to do this,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop whispered to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as the pair wrapped up a media conference on the Sunday morning after the attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market in June.
Nurse Kirsty Boden and au pair Sara Zelenak, two vibrant young women enjoying that most Australian rite of passage – living and working in London – were killed that night.
It would take just two months for the foreign minister’s question to be answered in the cruellest of ways.
Amateur footage broadcast around the world showed the lifeless body of seven-year-old Julian Cadman lying face down at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, after a van was deliberately driven into tourists in the busy shopping strip.
Julian’s mother had taken him to Spain for a family wedding. She lay seriously injured in hospital while her husband and Julian’s father, Andrew, had boarded a flight from Sydney to make the excruciatingly long journey to Europe, only to have to identify his dead child. In June, Sara Zelenak’s mother had made the same trip.
In the UK the chance of dying from terrorism is 1 out of 964,531 per year, but partly due to the mass coverage – especially when an Australian is affected – terrorism feels closer to home than ever before. Caliphate crumbling
Two trends spell out why: one is our record levels of travel and the other is Islamic State’s shifting focus on tourists as soft targets as the military coalition against it makes progress in Iraq and Syria.
Last Sunday, Iraqi forces began their final assault on Tal Afar on the remaining IS presence in Iraq. The coalition-backed Syrian Defence Forces have been fighting for three months in Raqqa, which three years ago was a magnet for foreign fighters, including Australians Neil Prakash, Mohamed Elomar and Khaled Sharrouf.
“Our partners have momentum,” Major-General Rupert Jones, the spokesperson for the coalition, said this week.
“Raqqa almost had a mythical air to it. It doesn’t feel so mythical right now – it’s 55-60 per cent cleared.”
“We’re there to liberate towns and cities from [IS] … to make sure that that organisation cannot direct and formally export terror into the West,” General Jones said. “If you’re a fighter in Raqqa right now, do you think they’re plotting to attack Birmingham or Brussels? I’d wager not.”
But it is this very progress that is behind the increasing tempo of crude car ramming and stabbing attacks, often “inspired” by rather than orchestrated by IS.
“They know that the era of the physical caliphate is over but that doesn’t mean that [IS] is over or that its ideology is over and defeated,” said Julie Lenarz, an expert with two independent think tanks, the Washington-based Israel Project and the London-based Human Security Centre.
“[IS] has been very explicit in recent months saying ‘no longer come to the caliphate, stay put, stay in your home countries and try to carry out attacks there’, and this is what we’re seeing playing out on our streets at the moment.”
Ms Lenarz says even though the caliphate is crumbling, the ideology is “still kicking and alive” and can’t be destroyed with “bombs, drones and ground troops”.
“This is why we’re seeing [IS] moving into different kind of threat, kind of al-Qaeda on steroids but quicker, faster, more lethal than ever before,” she said.
“They have learned from al-Qaeda’s experience and other groups’ experience in the sense that they understand you don’t necessarily have to kill thousands of people at one time to cause chaos and destruction but that you can kill dozens of people at one time but do this steadily all the time.
“This is going to stay with us for quite a while,” she warned. Globetrotting Australians
Australians have long known they are targets for terrorists. Eighty-eight Australians were among the 202 people killed in Jemaah Islamiyah’s Kuta nightclub bombings in 2002. But those attacks and the subsequent bombings at Bali in 2005 and in Jakarta in 2009 have not stopped Australians from travelling abroad in record numbers.
Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded nearly 10 million short-term trips taken by Australians. Just five years ago that figure was 8 million.
At the start of the century the number of Australians holding a passport was a mere 38 per cent, but that figure has soared to 56 per cent, with DFAT confirming that as of June 30, 2017, there were 13,864,033 passports on issue. By comparison, just 40 per cent of the US population has a passport, according to the State Department.
Demographer Bernard Salt says Australia’s prosperity, driven by the mining boom, combined with a desire to throw off its colonial past for a more urbane and sophisticated image is behind the country’s burgeoning globetrotter status.
“There’s a lot of wealth, property wealth, washing over Australia so we convert that into lifestyle,” he said. “We like to Instagram it, it makes us feel good about ourselves and we don’t feel so cut off.”
A final factor was the growth in baby boomers taking some “me time”.
“You now have close to five million baby boomers who are in the reward phase. They’ve worked for 35 to 40 years as a teacher or a nurse and they’ve made sacrifices, paid their mortgages and they’re saying ‘it’s my time now’,” he said. “They’re aware they’ve got the means and a narrow time to travel.”
But choosing where to travel can feel like a gamble. As news of the attack washed over Barcelona, British tourist Frank Manning watched an American woman holding her baby scream out to no one in particular: “I didn’t go to England because I wanted to stay away from terrorism, and now this!”
The evidence is not just anecdotal. The latest data from Britain’s Office of National Statistics show British tourists shunning France and favouring Spain in record numbers.
Tim Jenkins from ETOA, a body representing hundreds of tourism operators across Europe, says terrorism does affect tourism but less than it did 30 years ago.
“Back in 1986 … there was a haemorrhage of demand from North America to Europe, due to really a couple of incidents in the eastern Mediterranean, and operators saw declines of up to 50 per cent. We see nothing like that now, the impacts of these events become smaller and smaller.”
Whether or not travel to Europe declines as a result of the increasing attacks will be seen in the next few years of statistics.
The Bali bombings have not dented Australia’s love for cheap holidays in Indonesia. Travel to the country has boomed by 20 per cent per year over the last decade, compared to just four per cent growth in trips to New Zealand. That growth saw Indonesia displace the United States for second spot in the top 10 countries Australians travel to, with fourth spot going to Britain, where terrorism has claimed 35 lives this year.
Julie Lenarz says it’s important to keep the risk of being caught in terror attacks, which receive disproportionate media coverage, in perspective.
“It’s the era that we live in that we have to live with, the threat that if we are travelling to Paris or London or Washington and visiting these iconic places that we are at greater risk, but on the other hand we always have to put into perspective.
“The likelihood that you’re getting killed in a car accident is still much higher than getting killed by a jihadist.”
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