Time to sound the alarm on terror levels

On September 12 last year, Tony Abbott raised the national terrorism advisory from medium to high on the advice of outgoing ASIO director-general David Irvine.

For 13 years we’d been stuck on a medium level alert; it had become background noise.

Nay-sayers suggested raising the level was security theatre. The government was “crying wolf”: it was about trying to push tougher security laws through the Senate.

The government communicates with the public in many ways about terrorism threats. But the question is whether our formal alert system makes a significant contribution to our counterterrorism measures.

Absolute security from terrorism via a public warning system will remain a pipedream. Unlike a fire or flood warning, a terrorism advisory will be much more general. It’s no easy task for our political leaders to find language that conveys the need to be alert while also creating a sense of calm.

Five changes could help make our terrorism warning system better meet the public’s expectation that the government will provide useful information on terrorist threats and advice about required changes to behaviour.

First, we’d endorse the finding of a government review of our counterterrorism machinery that there’s confusion between the terrorism threat level (classified by ASIO) and the public alert system.

It would be sensible to collapse the two systems into one public alert system, decided by the director-general of ASIO and which can be made public, and accompanied by an unclassified narrative. Rather than the prime minister announcing the warning level, ASIO’s chief would call the shots.

This would serve to eliminate confusion, assist in depoliticising threat warnings and give greater public confidence.

Second, cases of lowering the alert are almost nonexistent. There’s an inherent difficulty: unlike weather or fire alert levels, there’s no scientific data indicating when a terror threat has reached its peak, then passes.

But a sunset clause, whereby there’s a mandatory expiration of a raised level after six months, would allow the level to be lowered objectively. The mandatory lowering of an alert after six months, ­unless there’s evidence it shouldn’t be changed, would reduce the higher costs associated with remaining on elevated alert levels, such as for critical infrastructure operators or police, who may be required to provide extra resources for special events.

Third, a generic alert level system isn’t appropriate to a country as geographically large as Australian. Even the state level may not be appropriate: Victoria used to issue fire warnings for the whole state, but that system has been replaced with more precise geographic information.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provides public information on risks in different countries where Australians may travel, and the public is familiar with that system. Such an approach might be adapted to make our terrorism warning system more geographically discerning.

Other large countries, such as the US, have alert systems able to provide warnings for specific regions. This would strengthen our terrorism advisory system as an effective tool for communicating useful information to the public. It would help tap information from the community to prevent terrorist attacks.

Fourth, the language in the alert system is arbitrary (although it’s hard to be really precise). But if the language is too ambiguous, that’ll just reduce the utility of any terrorism advisories. It would be prudent to test the narratives at each level with the public to see how useful the community finds them, especially what the alert suggests people do at each level. There may well be regional or ethnic variations in how people perceive risk.

Finally, a public awareness campaign communicating any changes would be helpful. There should be a government national security Facebook page and a Twitter account to provide information on terrorism warnings.

In the long fight against homegrown violent extremism, the government’s responsibility isn’t just to produce advisories; it’s to ensure our terrorism alert system is understood by the community. Fair warning.

This article originally appeared in The Australian. Sounding the Alarm: Terrorism Threat Communications with the Australian Public was published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user latitudes-flickr

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