The Counterterrorism Yearbook 2017: Australia
24 Mar 2017|

Australia has invested significantly in counterterrorism (CT) policy, capabilities and operations since the 11 September 2001 attacks. These efforts saw continuing success in 2016, with the country remaining free of major attacks despite a persistent high threat.

Australia experienced one low-impact attack inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS). CT authorities stopped five plots and the year ended dramatically with the disruption of one of the largest in the country’s history. 2016 also saw three new pieces of CT legislation, terrorism-related arrests, coalition success in Iraq and Syria and progress in other international initiatives.

But agencies were stretched as never before in their attempts to keep the evolving threat in sight and to pre-empt attacks.

To better understand the picture in 2016, consider the types of plots that were foiled. One allegedly included multiple mass-casualty attacks in Melbourne’s CBD on Christmas Day using   bombs, knives and firearms. Arrests in Sydney and Melbourne involved charges of conspiring to obtain illegal firearms and to manufacture bombs. And the 2016 trials associated with Curtis Cheng’s 2015 murder confirmed that the weapon used was obtained illegally from local Middle East organised crime gangs. Terrorists in Australia clearly intend to mount mass-casualty attacks, where possible. A strict firearms regime means they’ll probably need to engage with criminal groups or settle for less capable, commercially available weapons.

That the parliamentary review process for CT legislation serves the country well was evident with the Criminal Code Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Bill 2016 passed into law in under six months without compromising Parliament’s public inquiry and review process. Where a convicted terrorist is approaching the end of a custodial sentence but is considered to present an unacceptable risk, a Supreme Court judge can direct ongoing detention for another 12 months, to a maximum of 10 years. With 55 Australians detained on terrorism charges the law is a sensible measure. It drew upon law relating to serial sex offenders, with enhanced protections for the individual providing assurance regarding proportionality and justice.

Other legislation passed during the year lowered the age limit for control orders from 16 years to 14 years, and introduced a new charge of advocating genocide, and the Criminal Code was also amended to protect ADF members from war crimes prosecution for targeting IS and other terrorists involved in the Middle East conflict but not actively engaged in hostilities.

Because Australia hasn’t experienced a mass-casualty attack at home, assessing the effectiveness of its CT arrangements is challenging. That agencies have disrupted 13 plots in less than two and a half years speaks to effective intelligence collection, analysis, people capabilities and investigative techniques. The existence of so many serious plots demonstrates that the threat is real.

One measure of effectiveness is what might have happened if plots had not been disrupted or if other developments hadn’t received appropriate attention. That could include up to 17 additional attacks since late 2014, the number of Australian fighters overseas almost doubling to 400, and the main foreign fighter recruitment network continuing to operate.

That CT isn’t the sole or even primary role of most agencies, and that domestic operations occur in the state and not national jurisdictions, speaks to highly effective interagency communication and cooperation.

However, it’s hard to maintain the focus and momentum of CT when it’s only occasionally a headline story, mostly after to successful operations. The challenge for Australia will be to adapt its CT regime in the event of an attack with a clear-eyed review of national capabilities and transformational change in an emotionally charged and contested environment.

In 2017 Islamist extremists are likely to continue to seek to attack Australian targets at home and in the region and CT investigations and operations will continue apace. Reviews of CT and related issues, such as Australia’s intelligence capability, will drive policy and legislative change. There should be some nuanced moves in international CT engagement as coalition operations in the Middle East move to the next stage and engagement with Southeast Asian partners adjusts to counter the threat in the region.

Decision-makers and policymakers must be ready for a mass-casualty attack. They need to articulate and institute arrangements and capabilities to put Australia in the best position to respond and recover.

A number of reports will provide an opportunity for the Government to change its approach to CT and place pressure on it to do so.

The findings of the Lindt Café coronial inquiry will attract the greatest public attention and produce an expectation that the Australian and NSW governments will take substantial action. Both would do well to establish their own broad CT strategic plans and objectives first, rather than risk being expected to respond to the inquiry as an authority on CT. The inquiry is charged with determining the cause of death of three people, not reviewing Australia’s CT arrangements and how they should best be postured for the future.

Australia will also need to consider how to react to IS conventional forces being defeated in Iraq and Syria, how best to contribute to stabilisation, and the form of future contributions—if any—to operations in the Middle East and North Africa.

Australia may need to refocus closer to home and should consider how to engage more, including possible operations with long standing regional partners including Indonesia and the Philippines.

Agencies are likely to encounter more low and higher scale terrorist plots, and additional attacks will occur. They’ll continue to focus on tracking possible returning Australian foreign fighters and dealing with the repercussions of the links and experiences they’ll bring with them.