The Brussels terror attacks and Australia’s response: is the PM right?

Image courtesy of Facebook user Jef Versele

In offering his condolences and support to Belgium in the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks in Brussels, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has assured Australians that we’re in a much stronger position than our European friends.

Let’s take a closer look at the Prime Minister’s comments this morning on Channel Seven’s Sunrise.

‘It’s a dangerous world. We can’t guarantee there will not be a terrorist incident in Australia. That’s why the threat level is set at “probable”.’

That’s pragmatic and realistic: it reflects the sensible tone used by Prime Minister Turnbull in the wake of November’s Paris attacks.

Unfortunately terror threat levels never resonate as strongly as after an attack. Turnbull’s taken the opportunity to remind Australians of the threat at home and, with Brussels as a backdrop, to understand the nature of Australia’s current terrorism threat.

‘It’s a sad state of affairs in Europe. They have allowed their security measures to slip and this is a lesson to all of us, to absolutely keep your guard up at all times.’

Europe does indeed face a plethora of challenges from extremism and terror. Part of the problem is that as a geographic and economic grouping of sovereign nations, there’s no single approach to security.

Other substantial issues include those countries losing control over entire locales of disenfranchised communities; the infamous ‘no go’ areas for police in Paris and Brussels’ Molenbeek, and the demands of human rights and security in dealing with millions of refugees from conflict in the Middle East.

At the tactical level, an airport and a train station were easily entered with explosives. Protecting soft targets like transport hubs is a difficult job that opens up discussion on the practical problem of security solutions. In Brussels, there’s already questions about whether the security perimeter should’ve been pushed back from the terminal check-in areas where the explosions occurred.

But these weren’t the terrorists’ target—mass casualties were. Security perimeters may be moved further out, at the cost of both finance and commuter comfort. But the dilemma remains of concentrated groups of people presenting elsewhere as a potential target.

Belgian authorities scored a major investigative coup in capturing Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam last week, who reported that more attacks were being planned. It now appears the technical elements of those attacks were mature enough to happen only days after his arrest. The Brussels attack wasn’t just retaliation for Abdeslam’s arrest; it’s the fulfillment of the goal of what appears to be a widespread terrorist network in Belgium.

‘We have a lot to learn from incidents like this. I have asked the Coordinator of Counter Terrorism Greg Moriarty to again convene the heads of the relevant agencies to ensure we focus on what’s happened in Belgium and learn from it.’

Brussels is on the other side of the world to us, but the threat of terror is global and Australia has been named a target. Australia has ranked an equal third with the UK as a target of Islamic State plots in 2014. The Prime Minister is right to immediately focus national security agencies on the matter to understand what happened in Brussels and what lessons we can take from it.

‘Having said that, we are in a much stronger position from a security point of view than Brussels, than the Europeans are. The reality is, of course, that we have the benefits of geography. We have much stronger control over our borders, as Australians are very aware.’

Turnbull has usefully linked the Brussels attacks to explaining how our border controls—which have recently been subject to criticism—are an important part of our security.

There’s no doubt geography has its benefits, but the threat remains. More than 100 Australian ‘would-be’ foreign fighters have had their passports cancelled and remain here; while around 40 are overseas and have a right of return.

Some will turn away from violent extremism, but others may respond to the calls from Islamic State and other groups to undertake attacks at home.

We’ve seen this with the murder of Curtis Cheng’s on the streets of Parramatta and Numan Haider’s attack in Endeavour Hills. The ANZAC Day plot and five others like it were disrupted last year. These are six Brussels-type events that didn’t happen.

Australia’s Muslim communities are a big part of what keeps our society safe from terrorism. These communities have worked closely with our security and police agencies as part of Australia’s counterterrorism efforts by helping to build cohesion within communities. By comparison, reports from Belgium indicate a wide network of terrorist supporters in the European country, where in some cases, whole communities are radicalised. To date, Australia has experienced more individual and small group problems with radicalisation.

But a warning: like Australia, Belgium has a high per capita number of foreign fighters. As the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and relevant agencies sit down to contemplate the relevance of Brussels for Australia, there’s a few things they might consider.

Belgian authorities are currently overwhelmed: they’ve got too many suspects and leads, as well attacks to investigate post facto.

Australia’s counterterrorism agencies aren’t in that space now. But what if we were? The Abdeslam case indicates some problems in intelligence sharing arrangements between European countries.

That poses several questions for Australia: how good are our intelligence sharing arrangements between agencies and across jurisdictions, including New Zealand who’s a member of the Counter-Terrorism Committee? How can we rely upon intelligence sharing with European partners? And what else might need to be done, especially with Brussels emboldening wannabes in the global jihadi cause? After the tragedy in Belgium, those are some of the key questions Australia will need to look at closely.