TerroristCrowded places such as stadiums, shopping centres, pedestrian malls and major events will continue to be attractive targets for terrorists. The current National Terrorism Threat Level in Australia is PROBABLE (as outlined on www.nationalsecurity.gov.au). This reflects the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) that individuals and groups continue to possess the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia. The elevated terrorist threat is likely to persist for the foreseeable future and it is not confined to any one city or metropolitan area.

If a vehicle terror attack in other cities around the world sounds familiar, it is because there is a disturbing trend of terrorism that requires little organisation, manpower or technological know-how. Whatever the attacker’s identity, the method has become commonplace. Terrorist groups no longer must use sophisticated methods or weaponry to cause widespread terror and fear within society. The use of firearms, bladed weapons, explosive devices and chemical/biological agents are still the main methods of these attacks; however, as highlighted over the past several years, vehicle terror attacks have been effectively used in Australia, Europe, England and the US. Terrorist groups have realised that a simple motor vehicle is now a new and very simple, very accessible and very effective method to cause terror.

Australia is not immune to these types of threats and, although fortunate thus far not to have a major terrorist attack on our soil, terrorists have plotted similar attacks here, including several ‘lone wolf’ attacks inspired by ISIS to attack crowded places, and we should expect more plots and attempted attacks to occur. The Australian Federal Police has reported that, since the 12th of September 2014, when the national terrorism threat level was raised, police have charged 85 people as a result of 36 counterterrorism-related operations around Australia. Only as recently as July 2017, police and intelligence officials disrupted a plot to conduct a terrorist attack using an improvised explosive device (IED) against the aviation sector, and a plot to develop an improvised chemical dispersion device for use in a terrorist attack on Australian soil.

These planned terrorist attacks, if successful, would have created mass casualties and fear within our community. Although these attacks have been successfully thwarted by the excellent work of our intelligence and policing agencies, Australia is no longer protected from terrorism by our distance from the rest of the world. The Internet and social media has challenged and changed this advantage, coupled with the threat of foreign fighters returning to Australia, and we are no longer safer than any other country.

There is still a very complacent ‘head in the sand’ attitude in Australian general society, business and communities that we are safe from terrorism and that “it won’t happen to us”. Our intelligence and policing agencies are fully aware of the threats and are acting accordingly to combat and contain these threats/attacks.

Attacks on crowded places overseas, including London Bridge and Borough Market in June 2017, Manchester Arena in May 2017, the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016 and the Bastille Day parade in Nice in July 2016, demonstrate how basic weapons – including vehicles, knives and firearms – can be used by terrorists to devastating effect.

But a nation we are still vulnerable and a weakness can be exploited by a terrorist group and/or lone wolf adversary to gain access and damage our freedoms and way of life. They can disrupt a critical function because, when there is a weakness in identifying potential threats and a failure to act of adequate security practices, then the likelihood of a successful attack is increased.

Australian lifestyle is still, even in this fast-paced modern world, very casual and laidback. Enriched in Australian culture is summer time spent playing sports and enjoying barbecues and parties at the many beautiful beaches of the Australian coastline. We also have many local and overseas tourists that visit our beaches, beachside markets and shopping precincts and they are places where people enjoy summer and life in general. They are in fact areas of public mass gatherings.

Terrorists are always searching for new targets to inflict their terror attacks. ‘Soft targets’ are always in their sights, and places of mass gatherings are these types of targets. World leaders are growing increasingly worried about vehicles being used as weapons of mass murder after a spate of similar attacks over the past several years.

It is widely known throughout intelligence and policing agencies that Islamic State’s magazine, Rumiyah, has reported the virtues of using large trucks in these sorts of attacks that would help result in a “bloodbath”. A three-page article in Rumiyah, headlined Just Terror Tactics, included instructions on how to maximise casualties in a truck attack, the best vehicles to use, the targets and the way to prepare and plan such an attack. The disturbing and explicit article calls for a vehicle to be “plunged at high speed into a large congregation of kuffar (non-believers), smashing their bodies with the vehicle’s strong outer frame while advancing forward – crushing their heads, torsos and limbs under the vehicle’s wheels and chassis – and leaving behind a trail of carnage”.

Australian beaches and beachside areas are large open areas, frequently packed with large numbers of people and especially families. They are perfect targets for an attack and the terror, pandemonium and collateral damage to infrastructure and loss of human life would be huge. These areas would allow a terrorist group or lone wolf to cause as much damage as possible in a very short timeframe prior to intervention by police. Unlike many other countries in the world, Australian security guards at these types of locations are not armed with firearms, so would be of little assistance in stopping the threat.

Throughout the past several months during the summer period, the authors have visited several beaches and beachside communities in the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast areas of Queensland. It has been observed and recorded how a terrorist attack could be perpetrated easily using motor vehicle/s and a combination of motor vehicle/s and IEDs, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and personal improvised explosive devices (PIEDs/suicide bombers).

It was noted that access to the beaches and beach areas (carparks, picnic areas, playgrounds) are very open and not very restricted, with no locked gates, bollards/barricades or control points. It can be appreciated and assumed that these are not high security areas but, in the context of this article, they are high-risk areas for a terrorist attack.

It was also observed that at many beachside markets there was very limited and, in some cases, no adequate security measures apart from very limited traffic control. A highly motivated person/s inspired by a terrorist group could easily breach basic traffic control and cause maximum casualties in a very short time, similar to the terrorist attack on Bastille Day in July 2016 when Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel crashed a truck into a crowd in the Mediterranean resort of Nice, killing 86 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Over the past several years there has been an increase in the number of terrorist attacks against public mass gatherings, where vehicles have been used directly or in conjunction with attackers exiting the vehicle and using firearms and edged weapons to attack innocent persons. These attacks have only continued to compound fears. Several other examples include:

  • The attack in Sweden, where a truck was used to mow down people in Stockholm, was just the latest in a string of attacks where a vehicle was used as a weapon.
  • On the 21st and 22nd of December 2014, two men crashed cars into groups of pedestrians on successive days in France. On the 21st, 11 people were injured in Dijon. The following day, one person was killed and nine others injured in Nantes. Witnesses to both incidents reported that both men – who have never been publicly identified – screamed “Allahu Akbar” as they raced toward their targets, but authorities said in both cases the men were mentally ill.
  • In December 2016, a truck was deliberately driven into a Berlin Christmas market next to Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, leaving 12 people dead and 56 others injured. The terrorist was Anis Amri, a Tunisian failed asylum seeker, who was identified as being a supporter of Islamic State.
  • In March 2017, Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old convert to Islam, drove a car at high speed into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge. He then exited the vehicle and commenced a frenzied knife attack on a policeman guarding the parliament building. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, immediately ordered that bollards be erected around Westminster to prevent this sort of attack happening again in the same area.

In the aftermath of the Westminster attack, which killed five people, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said there was no guarantee that Australia would not be subjected to a similar style vehicle-attack. She told The Australian newspaper, “As we saw today in the United Kingdom these events can occur, what we have to do is to take every step including providing the resources and legislative power to our law enforcement agencies in Australia.”

Although the above attacks in London, Berlin and Stockholm were not near a beach, we will put forward the following scenarios of attacks that could happen here in Australia.

Scenario 1:

This scenario would involve a lone wolf attack by vehicle (for example, a 4WD) where beach access is by via the open roadway that exists around most beach surf clubhouses. The attacker enters onto the beach, crashes into the lifesaver station first then proceed to run down beachgoers along the length of the beach.

He could either then exit the vehicle and commence shooting or stabbing people who may not realise it is a terrorist attack and go to the aid of those injured. The attacker could then attempt to exit at one of the many beach exits and drive away, or remain on the beach attacking people until confronted by responding police officers.

Scenario 2:

This scenario would involve either a lone wolf or small group attack where a small watercraft loaded with explosives is backed onto the main flagged area of the beach and detonated amongst the crowd. To enable this to occur, the watercraft and/or attacker/s could easily be disguised as members of a surf livesaving organisation.

Terrorist groups are well known to conduct surveillance and have dedicated planning prior to an attack and there have been many examples where they have been disguised as police officers, security personnel, couriers and so on. This method of attack could be a controlled detonation or a suicide attack.

Scenario 3:

This attack would involve a much more organised structure. Either scenario 1 or 2 would be used, along with a secondary attack off the beach area as the public run from the beach in panic and confusion to so-called safe areas where the use of further vehicles, shooters or explosive devices are used to cause further terror, confusion, damage and loss of lives. This form of attack would also be aimed at the arrival and setup of responding emergency services personnel attending to the scene/s.

Local councils and relevant organisations located at the beach will have emergency action and crisis management plans for incidents occurring at their venues. These plans should include responses to possible terrorist attacks against their infrastructure, events and facilities. They may need to be reviewed and upgraded to take further action to upgrade actual physical elements of protection for persons on their properties. Plans should also include ongoing education and training for their employees.

Whilst these three scenarios are fictitious, there is a possibility that an attack of this nature or similar could happen at a public mass gathering here in Australia. To think otherwise is merely being complacent and we only need to look at the latest in a string of attacks where a vehicle was used as a weapon to understand that, as terrorist groups become more sophisticated with their attacks, so too does the attraction of soft targets such as beaches and beachside markets and festivals.

Nobody in Nice, Stockholm, Berlin, New York or London thought it would happen there. Australian society, organisations and the public need to start thinking and looking at the way we approach the threat and risk of terrorism in our country. It is here amongst us and it will become more prevalent unless we educate ourselves, prepare ourselves, work with our intelligence and policing agencies with even the simplest action of reporting something that does not look right.

Education and awareness of the threats and risks is the best defence that the community can use to help fight terrorists and terrorism. If the community continues to work together with our policing and intelligence agencies, then collectively we can ensure the safety and security of the community and protect our way of life in Australia.

Paul Johnstone
Experienced Security Advisor and Trainer/Lecturer skilled in Crisis Management, Law Enforcement, Counter Terrorism, Emergency Management, Investigations, and Physical Security. Strong military and federal law enforcement professional who graduated from University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australian Federal Police College and various tertiary institutions in Australia and China.