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Lower terror threat level should not automatically mean fewer resources to keep nation safe

By John Coyne

While the global war on terror may never actually end, it is abundantly clear that Australia is winning at home. On Monday, for the first time in more than eight years, ASIO is lowering the national terrorism threat level from “probable” to “possible”. This change is, of course, good news for all Australians. However, we must be cautious in how we interpret this change and not underplay the law enforcement and intelligence work that must continue to keep our communities safe.

In September 2014, ASIO assessed the national terrorism threat as “high”. ASIO’s director-general at the time, David Irvine, faced growing evidence that despite the efforts of his organisation, the Australian Federal Police and border officials, the domestic terrorism threat was growing in terms of the capability and intent of would-be attackers. More specifically, they had credible intelligence indicating that individuals or groups had the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia.

Since then, Australia’s overall threat level has remained unchanged, although the government has introduced a new system – the National Terrorism Threat Advisory System, under which “likely” has become “probable”.

Since then, ASIO, the AFP and Border Force, and their partners have worked hard to disrupt and mitigate the terrorism threat. As time passed without successful attacks, terrorism threat fatigue gradually took hold in communities across the world. That reduced the effectiveness of mitigation practices.

The dilemma for police and security agencies was that if they raised the national threat level and no threat occurred, that was likely to be accepted by the community. But if they dropped the threat level and an attack occurred soon after that, there would be no saving the reputation of these authorities.

Australians and their governments have zero tolerance for law enforcement and intelligence agencies that fail to disrupt terrorist attacks.

On Monday, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess lowered the national terrorism threat advisory level to “possible”. To be clear, Australia still faces a terrorist threat with, in a numerical sense, a 50-50 chance.

ASIO’s terrorism caseload has moderated in recent years. The defeat of the Islamic State terror group in most of the areas it occupied has reduced the attraction of its extreme propaganda. Al’Qaida has withdrawn to conflict zones with weak governance and its propaganda, too, has failed to maintain its attraction for potential aspirants.

Of course, there remains a clear threat from issue and politically motivated groups: right-wing extremists especially. However, their appalling rhetoric is failing to metastasise into violence.

It seems that terrorism is no longer assessed by ASIO to be our top security threat – but it is vital to understand that it hasn’t disappeared and continues to be a predominant security concern for Australia and the region. It’s crucial for us to continue prioritising counter-terrorism and strengthening our national resilience against all forms of extremism.

A vexed question here is whether a reduced threat level automatically means fewer resources.

The key is that ASIO has assessed this moment in time and it still requires what it takes to identify changes and trends. If resources drop and something is missed, that will come down to a lack of resources, and a failure to learn from the past.

A reduced threat level must mean something other than reduced effort. A significant reason we have got where we have is intelligence and police effort, supported by governments willing to provide the necessary laws and resources.

It seems that today, Australia is a little safer from the terror threat. Whether it stays that way sits in the hands of our intelligence and security agencies, our government, and with continued community engagement and reporting.


Image: via WikiMedia.

Originally published by: The Australian on 28 Nov 2022