A glaring omission: what about Australia’s CT response models and capabilities?
26 Feb 2015|

Bureaucratic machinery

There was a glaring omission in the Review of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Machinery released this week: an absence of discussion about the implications of the changed threat environment for Australia’s response models and capabilities, either domestically or offshore.

Logically, it should follow if there has been a major deterioration in the threat to Australia—both at home and abroad—such a development should prompt a detailed review of the capabilities, plans and procedures needed to respond. It’s inconsistent to only undertake an examination of the way Canberra’s competing bureaucracies interact, especially when singularly focussed at the most senior levels.

Don’t get me wrong. The review is a significant contribution to informing sensible public debate about the changing terrorist threat to Australia. The discussion about the need to boost longer-term community-based approaches to counter violent extremism, address its underlying causes and challenge extremist narratives is highly valuable. These approaches deserve far greater prominence. The recommendation to develop a new national counter-terrorism (CT) strategy is very welcome. Such a strategy will hopefully be binding inter-agency roadmap which clearly explains the ‘why’ rationale linked to the ‘how’ and ‘what’ necessary to achieve the objectives. An amalgam of semi-related initiatives from different departments and agencies cobbled together in one booklet won’t suffice.

But given what the review says about the contemporary home-grown threat and what the world has endured recently in Copenhagen, Paris, Nairobi, Boston and Mumbai, follow-up work to assess the efficacy of Australia’s existing CT response models and capabilities is essential. This should occur as soon as possible and before the national CT strategy is released. To be relevant, the review team should comprise experienced working-level practitioners from police, emergency services, the ADF and ASIO. Without it, the judgement that Australia has ‘strong, well-coordinated counter-terrorism arrangements [that overall] have been quite successful’ [p. iv] is premature.

Australia has a long-standing National Counter Terrorism Plan (NCTP), underpinned by an operational handbook, that specifies processes and procedures which jurisdictional and Commonwealth agencies would base responses to an attack or serious threat. But the current plan, though updated periodically, draws its design legacy from terrorist modus operandi of the 1970s and 1980s—particularly static location, demand/deadline-based hostage taking attacks.

The current threat—characterised by less predictable, small-scale but highly lethal attack methods against urban targets with no warning—behoves an appraisal of how effective the current NCTP and how relevant enabling legislation still are. A detailed gap analysis of specialist police and ADF CT capabilities and their operating methods is also needed. It’s a reasonable starting assumption that a more flexible NCTP and major update for specialist police and ADF special forces capabilities are necessary to match the deteriorating threat. State and territory jurisdictions should be equal participants in these reviews.

Hard questions, likewise, cannot be avoided. Is ‘negotiate and wait’ the best strategy against ideologically hardened and (potentially) combat experienced terrorists? How can advanced ADF CT capabilities better enable police and agency needs for high-risk tasks, both pre- and post-event? What else can Australia do to disrupt terrorist activity, at home and abroad, that we may not have considered previously?

In the very short-term, Australia should test its existing response models across all capabilities (from police and emergency first responders to ADF) and all aspects of government (including specific Authorising Minister participation). Such a test should be rigorous challenge—based on the terrorist skills and attributes exhibited by Australian terrorists fighting with daesh in Syria and Iraq—and occur with no warning. Too often, CT exercises are rendered meaningless by their highly scripted outcomes, overly simplistic threat actions and lack of senior participation. Such a test should naturally occur away from the public eye and help drive capability and response plan reviews.

In the offshore space, an immediate start point should be to review options if an Australian was kidnapped by daesh in Syria or Iraq. Australia has recent experience in foreign kidnappings with the Rodwell and Brennan cases. But these were primarily driven by monetary gain rather than ideological or propaganda value and undertaken by less sophisticated and violent threat groups.

There are difficulties in talking about these issues openly. Many aspects of specialist response capabilities and plans are classified. It will be sometime before the NSW coronial inquiry into the Martin Place siege concludes its findings. Nonetheless, it’s possible to release a public analysis which allows scrutiny, encourages community confidence and possibly deters terrorists while protecting operational sensitivities.

As Prime Minister Abbott said recently: daesh is a ‘metastasising threat‘ which has spread to our suburbs. The risk that Australian terrorist fighters, with training and combat experience in Syria and Iraq, could return here or to other Western countries to carry out attacks is a reality. If Australia ‘is not winning on any front’ [p. iv] and is facing ‘unprecedented operational risk’ [p. 30], more innovative work on our operational, not merely bureaucratic, machinery is essential.

Thomas Lonergan is an ADF officer who has served in Afghanistan and East Timor and has worked on counter-terrorism issues since 2010. He is currently on study leave. These are his personal views. Image courtesy of Flickr user SomeDriftwood.