IN the latter half of last year, an extraordinary closed-door meeting took place in Canberra. The thrust of the colloquium was counter-terrorism.
Last year a much vaunted “white paper” policy setting out Australia’s counter-terrorism strategy was to be released. But it has again been lost in platitudes and promises about the nation’s need to have a coherent doctrine on the issue.
And none are more worried than those working behind the scenes to keep us safe at night. They see clear gaps in security that politically are not being addressed.
Primary among those gaps was the one played out over Christmas in the US where, in President Barack Obama’s words, someone forgot to “join the dots” on the threat from a known 23-year-old al-Qaeda-backed Nigerian who tried to bring down an airliner en-route to Detroit.
The threat was thwarted through luck, not due diligence. The systemic failures that allowed the suspect to board the plane with a makeshift bomb device should be a warning to all Western governments.
There may be a reason for the white paper’s continued absence – those familiar with the draft describe it as wishy-washy with lots of buzz words but little strategic substance. That is a concern.
It is understood the Canberra meeting found that while geographically Australia’s isolation did not make it the easiest target, home-grown threats were very real – evident in the recently uncovered terror plots based on Sydney and Melbourne.
Risk to an Australian is still highest while travelling abroad, but elements in the local community are plotting and making threats, while lack of co-ordination between agencies, as seen in the US, also exists.
The growing population of convicted terrorists in Australia and the poisonous thoughts and intentions they continue to promulgate from behind bars was also highlighted as a significant risk to our national security. This was a serious issue in the UK recently, when some released terror sympathisers picked up where they left off and with new followers.
Lastly, it highlighted that various state and commonwealth security agencies were hamstrung by their own rigid operational doctrine that prevented a decent and practical level of intelligence sharing. It’s an intelligence structure driven by a Cold War paradigm and, despite countless expensive inquiries and reviews, it has apparently yet to be overcome. Terrorists are flexible. So too should be our security agencies.
Professor Ross Babbage, patron of the not-for-profit Kokoda Foundation that is researching solutions to Australia’s future security challenges, said the nature of intelligence arrangements in Australia were good but far from perfect.
Professor Babbage, who has had extensive experience in the intel world, including service as a former head of strategic analysis in the Office of National Assessments (ONA), confirmed current terror prisoners and lack of co-ordination between agencies were chief among concerns. He said counter radicalisation programs were needed in jails to ensure a change in mindsets.
“There is clearly a need for tailored programs that need to be run in the jail system to make sure these guys are brought into a new way of life, so that when they leave they don’t try to run terror operations or don’t encourage others to do the same thing,” Professor Babbage said.
“The problem is most of the jails are in state jurisdictions and the Commonwealth is particularly concerned about this but it’s not for the Commonwealth to do very much about it because it’s a state responsibility.
“Now the states, I suspect, are not doing enough. It needs to be ramped up and quickly because there are a few guys in the next couple of years getting out and frankly we know from Guantanamo Bay that a significant number of guys who were released to their countries have actually gone on to run terrorist operations.
“This is not Mickey Mouse stuff and if we’re not careful, we could cause more problems for ourselves down the track.
“This is something all states have to get serious about and get co-ordinated and it has to be done well.”
Another issue that needs addressing in the Federal Government’s white paper is clarifying competing interests in counter-terrorism where one agency, say ASIO, is out to disrupt a plot while the AFP is about ensuring there is enough evidence to bring the accused to court.
The grey area is at what stage to move, highlighted by the case of now convicted terrorist Faheem Khalid Lodhi whereby authorities were forced to move for fear of an imminent attack, thus disallowing cases to be mounted against others suspected of being involved in his plot.
A final concern, as agencies themselves highlighted, is their “need to know” culture that makes it a breach of law for one agency to get hold of technical intelligence from certain others. It is counter productive counter-intelligence.
Professor Babbage suggests the way to resolve the issue is to have multi-agency operational teams, with domestic (ASIO) and international (Defence Signals Directorate or ONA) focus, working from one table, on one issue, from various angles. This would require significant legislative rewrites, which in turn needs politicians to act. Public perception in some quarters may be that counter-terrorism is not a priority or a concern, but it should be, as should the white paper to set strategic direction.
“It’s a bit like a duck, it looks calm on the surface but below people are paddling like crazy to protect us. We’re reaping overall success but no one is feeling complacent about it,” Professor Babbage said.