This was originally published by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .
We still know very little about the circumstances that led to Friday’s tragic shooting of NSW police employee Curtis Cheng in Parramatta. But there are already indications that the seductively simple narrative of a ‘lone wolf’ teenager radicalised through social media and acting alone is wide of the mark. As investigations progress, a more complex and nuanced picture is likely to emerge.
But while the age of the attacker is shocking (and when it comes to terrorist attacks in the West, unprecedented), there is nothing to indicate that the attack is indicative of a new problem.
Instead, the attack and attacker appear to be examples of a problem the Australian law enforcement and intelligence community has been responding to for the past two years: an increased likelihood of unsophisticated but high-profile terror attacks and an increasingly youthful extremist demographic.
Over that two year period, the Australian response has included more money for law enforcement and intelligence agencies, a raft of new legislation targeting Australians fighting overseas and increasing Government data retention powers, and most recently nascent (if clumsy) attempts to identify individuals on a pathway to extremism.
Electoral advantage may have been a factor in the nature and timing of some of these initiatives, but introducing counter-terrorism measures in advance of an imminent threat, rather than in response to a terror attack, may prove to be of long-term benefit to Australia.
Because unsurprisingly, governments that introduce counter-terrorism legislation in the febrile aftermath of a terrorist attack do not have a track record of doing so in a measured, strategic way. We have seen this in the past 12-18 months as Canada, France, the UK and Tunisia have responded to terrorist attacks with an expansion of Government powers and an increased focus on security and law enforcement.
These responses were not necessarily inappropriate. But the speed with which reform has been pursued has tended to reduce scrutiny and debate, despite the long-term impact of the measures being introduced.
By contrast, and in distinction to the frenzy that followed the Sydney Siege last December, the immediate mainstream political response to the Parramatta attack has been measured and sensible. In part, this is due to the change in tone and language that the new political leadership in Canberra appears to have prompted. But the response has also been influenced by the nature of Friday’s incident: brief, initially ambiguous, in a lower profile location, and with limited impact on the general public.
We should hope that as the facts emerge and the picture of the attacker, Farhad Jabar, becomes clearer, this tone scan be maintained. As we discover more, it may be that warning signs were missed or (surely) that more could have been done to prevent Jabar getting access to a firearm. If this is the case, then the priority should be to identify how we prevent this occurring in future, wherever possible within the current legislative framework.
That’s not to say the current system is perfect. Despite succeeding in disrupting attack plans and preventing Australians from travelling to the Middle East to join ISIS and al-Nusra, there have now been two tragic terrorist attacks. No security framework can offer a 100% guarantee of success. But we already have a framework that should be more than capable of identifying almost all individuals at risk of conducting a terrorist attack.
So despite speculation about ‘prayer groups’, Hizb ut-Tahrir, or social media, we should wait and see what role these elements played in the attack, and use existing powers to prosecute individuals if necessary. Given Jabar’s age, there may be pressure to extend the role of schools in identifying radicalisation warning signs, as has been the case in the UK. Whether or not such an approach is correct, we need to ensure that the effects of any changes are debated properly.
There is, and should be, zero tolerance of risk when it comes to the terrorist threat. One attack is one too many. But in our response to Friday’s tragedy, we must be clear about why it occurred and whether it could have been prevented. And when answering the latter question, we should balance the chance of sporadic and small-scale attacks under the current framework with the risk that a reflexive, heavy-handed Government response could make us less safe.
David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.