Prime Minister Turnbull returned from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in Peru all fired up about counterterrorism and that was the theme of his national security statement to the House on Wednesday 23rd November 2016.
Terrorism is often included as a safe topic at international talks because just about everyone can contribute without there being major disagreements. However, there are many types of terrorism and it is frequently the case that separatist terrorism – which is usually down to central government mismanagement – gets included in the mix, particularly if there is any possibility of the regime concerned connecting it to Islamic State (IS) or Al-Qaeda. In East Asia, terrorism in China, the Philippines and Thailand is mostly of the mismanaged separatist kind.
The Prime Minister noted that Australia has increased counterterrorism spending by $1.5 billion since September 2014, and there is no doubt that within Australia the security agencies have done well – and done a good job of protecting Australia’s security.
Australia’s regional efforts have been less convincing. For example, the Australian Bomb Data Centre (ABDC) was a key part of the regional network of bomb data centres, most of which the ABDC had been instrumental in setting up post-Bali 2002. However, in 2015, the Australian Federal Police, which hosted the ABDC, quietly closed it down and moved the function into its forensics area. I was told at the 2016 International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators Conference in Canada in July that the level of regional support from Australia has declined significantly. (Most regional terrorism incidents are bombings.) In addition, the ABDC’s well-respected annual ‘bomb’ conference that brought together international experts will not run this year for the first time since 1996, and may be permanently discontinued.
It is certainly true that the world faces a new type of threat from supporters of IS, but perhaps not as dangerous as the threat faced from Al-Qaeda, which had always been more interested in causing mass casualties. IS generally prefers simple operations using knives and vehicles because it thinks that the newsworthiness of the killing is more significant than the number of casualties. The brutal killing and attempted beheading of Fusilier Lee Rigby in London in May 2013 was an example of how a low casualty attack can be very effective in generating publicity. While knife and vehicle attacks usually kill only a few people, the Nice attack using a large cargo truck on 14th July 2016 killed 86 people, showing that a large vehicle can be a deadly weapon at a mass gathering. There should be no large vehicle access for major events in Australia like the ANZAC Day marches.
Where there are combat-hardened IS returnees from Syria and/or availability of automatic weapons, IS-influenced attacks can be particularly deadly, as in Paris in November 2015 or Orlando on 12th June 2016, where 137 and 50 people were killed respectively. Firearms attacks with automatic weapons are far less likely in Australia. Australia does, however, need to be wary in the long term of a resurgence of Al-Qaeda, which has been quietly rebuilding capability while the West has been fixated on IS. The most likely type of Al-Qaeda attack is a person or vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED); pressure cooker IEDs are also favoured.
The Prime Minister also mentioned the potential threat to Australians overseas. This is certainly an ongoing security concern. The Sinai affiliate of IS was responsible for bombing a Russian Metrojet passenger aircraft in October 2015 with the loss of 224 lives. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a plane carrying Australian tourists out of somewhere with inadequate airport security – like Bali – could be similarly targeted. Australia could probably be doing more to help Indonesia improve its airport security.
President Obama is still travelling to international meetings and assuring all and sundry of the US’s enduring security commitment to its friends, but the reality is that he is a lame-duck president trying to protect his legacy and American interests. We will not really know where the US stands on national security until President Trump is in office. Trump is talking about stepping up US defense expenditure, which is already at 4.35 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). While Australia has always been a willing coalition ally, he may look at Australia less sympathetically in terms of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) and pulling its own weight when he learns Australia is spending only 1.71 percent of its GDP on defence.