The Prime Minister’s address today explained the domestic terrorism situation using some confronting numbers, outlined some new initiatives, and provided a new emphasis that we’ll see our law enforcement and related agencies use in coming months.
According to the PM, 90 Australians are fighting with terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, while 140 people in Australia are providing support for extremist groups. Meanwhile, ASIO is said to be investigating 400 “high priority cases”.
It’s worth noting how these numbers have grown over the last year, despite increased government effort. The scale of the challenge, and the increasingly simple tactics being advocated and adopted by terrorists and their supporters, mean plots can develop quickly and with little real signal.
That’s why disruption has been selected as a strategic response. It’s a choice that will be supported in a number of ways.
We’ve already seen the threshold for action for intelligence and law enforcement agencies in key areas being lowered over the last six months. Based on today’s statement, the powers already in place to criminalise advocacy and lower the standard of proof for some important interventions will be joined by interventions further up the ‘attack chain’.
These will likely include rejecting visa applications where agencies have security concerns about the applicant, and proscribing groups who ‘spread discord and division’.
Supporting this, the Prime Minister said it’s preferable to lose a case rather than lose a life. This will encourage early action – and it is bound to lead to controversy when police are portrayed as ‘harassing innocent people’.
Further, the Prime Minister claimed that too many individuals had been given ‘the benefit of the doubt’. What this actually means in practice is unclear, but it could mean a shift of what is considered to be ‘reasonable doubt’ when claims are made. With new laws already on the table, visas are likely to be a primary focus, especially when people arrive in Australia without documentation.
Giving agencies more powers is reasonable at this time, but where this occurs, strong oversight provisions are also needed. Such oversight might include additional reporting, or parliamentary, ministerial or judicial oversight as appropriate. This is necessary to assure the Australian public that new powers are being used appropriately, that agencies can be held to account for the misuse of any power, and that agencies can maintain their own integrity.
The creation of a counter-terrorism coordinator is an interesting decision, and compares to the Operation Sovereign Borders model. But the decision raises a question. Pretty soon, we might see a ‘cyber security coordinator’. And it’s conceivable that other security issues might also require similar attention: witness the appointment of a ‘drugs czar’ in the United States a couple of decades ago. How many ‘coordinators’, with cross cutting remits and overlapping issue areas, are we likely to appoint?
Recall that Australia had a national security adviser until September 2013: an official charged to coordinate national security policy and agencies on behalf of the Prime Minister. So might it be worth reconsidering this position and leveraging the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s coordination role more fully, rather than creating a separate office.
Initiatives to counter violent extremism have been highlighted by the Prime Minister and Attorney General over the past few days. They’ve expressed major concern over the speed of radicalisation and the role of social media in this process.
The Prime Minister also mentioned the estimated 30 individuals who have returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The possibility of returned foreign fighters committing terrorist acts in Australia is a genuine concern. However, another threat is that returned foreign fighters and supporters – whose actions overseas already made them criminals – will turn to serious crime.
These individuals are already trained in combat-like skills, and so can use violence and standover tactics to achieve objectives and generate income. We should be concerned about those who remain attached to, or are unable to escape, their criminal exposure and want a piece of the multi-billion dollar organised crime industry in Australia.
While this evolving situation is concerning, the greatest threat to our national security would be a loss of public confidence in our national security agencies.
A loss of confidence would result in less funding for agencies and limit their ability to assess and disrupt plots, and protect the community. New measures should ensure appropriate and measured actions are taken to maintain the integrity of Australia’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and allow them to refine and continue their vital work.
This article originally appeared in The Drum.