As a companion piece to my initial analysis of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, I assessed the likelihood of similar attacks occurring here in Australia for the Lowy Institute. I discussed the article, and counter-terrorism challenges more generally on ABC Radio National’s ‘Counterpoint’. My interview is available here.
As the world slowly absorbs the full implications of the terrorist attacks in Paris, thoughts inevitably turn to whether events will be repeated elsewhere.
That ISIS or ISIS-affiliated groups and networks would seek to emulate the impact of the Paris attacks is almost certain. If an opportunity arises to attempt an attack on a similar scale, it is unlikely that ISIS would reject it. Its intent will persist.
The media has understandably highlighted repeated references to Australia and Australian fighters in ISIS propaganda, including in the most recent edition of Dabiq, its online magazine. But we should be clear about the role of ISIS propaganda. It aims to radicalise, recruit and inspire attacks in the West, not communicate ISIS operational priorities.
We don’t know where Australia features in the thoughts and strategies of ISIS senior leadership. Or if responsibility for external attack planning lies with ISIS senior leadership or local networks. But it is reasonable to think that ISIS might have greater opportunity to attack the UK, Germany or Saudi Arabia for example, and that this would have a bigger impact on events in the Middle East.
Is ISIS capable of carrying out a similar attack in Australia? One way of answering this is to look at elements critical to the scale and success of the Paris attacks: the expertise of returning foreign fighters; access to weaponry; the ability to transport both across international borders; and the inability of intelligence and security agencies to monitor the individuals involved.
Around 30 foreign fighters have returned to Australia, with a further 110 Australians known to be located with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Given the size of this group and what they will have learned, it is reasonable to assume that some will have the expertise and intent to conduct a similar attack here.
When returning foreign fighters are involved in a terrorist attack, it is proportionately deadlier. Their battlefield experience and expertise makes them a force-multiplier and a focal point for an otherwise inexperienced network. A home-grown network might attempt to replicate the attack, but its chances of success and impact are likely to be reduced.
Could Australian foreign fighters return undetected, as appears to have been the case in Paris? There are certainly no guarantees, as Khaled Sharrouf’s travel to Syria demonstrated. But a key difference for Australian foreign fighters, in contrast to France, Belgium, and the other 24 signatories of the Schengen Agreement, is they cannot travel home without providing identification by slipping from Syria into Turkey.
A lack of land borders gives Australia significantly more control over the flow of individuals in and (just as importantly in this context) out, and makes it more difficult for networks planning attacks to source weaponry and explosives from outside of Australia.
This control means that while Australia has contributed a significant number of foreign fighters relative to population size, numbers have remained relatively stable over the past 12 months. Unfortunately, this means that the number of radicalised individuals unable to leave Australia and turning their thoughts to domestic attacks has got larger.
If we’re still uncertain how the Paris attack network slipped under the radar, the emerging picture is not a positive one for European authorities. A key issue appears to be a lack of coordination between authorities internally in France and across Europe, alongside a growing list of radicalised individuals.
Successfully countering the threat, assuming that intent exists, will require Australian authorities to continue and expand their efforts in a number of areas.
The 30 returned foreign fighters will continue to be assessed and monitored. Existing measures to monitor known foreign fighters and prevent them unexpectedly returning will also continue and may soon be combined with the ability to strip the citizenship of dual citizens. Identifying any previously unknown Australian foreign fighters is also critical.
Links between terrorism and organised crime, which is a likely source of weaponry and explosives, will also be a significant focus. As will the need to encourage intelligence and information sharing across state, federal and international partner agencies. Most important will be the ability to prioritise available resources in efficiently and effectively, given existing workloads.
Authorities will also focus on minimising the impact that such an attack could have. NSW Police have announced a new ‘shoot on sight’ policy for terrorist situations. Training for multiple shooter attacks will be stepped up, and detailed response plans developed. These types of activities don’t prevent attacks, but can make a huge difference to the death toll.
The Paris attacks may inspire copy-cat attempts in an Australian city. We’ll hear reports about ‘terrorist chatter’. But there is no inevitability that it will progress beyond that, or that it will succeed. Panic, fear and a sense of inevitability is precisely what ISIS hopes to instill.
There are a number of factors working in Australia’s favour, particularly in comparison to France. Planning these types of attack takes time, expertise and people. Mistakes are likely. Australian authorities and their international partners will need to ensure they are ready.
David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.