23 Mar 2016
Brussels attack: Islamic State is moving the battle and Australia must be prepared
Yesterday afternoon in Australia, we were shocked to hear, first, of two explosions at Brussels airport.
That was followed by the sinking feeling of familiarity as another attack occurred at a central Brussels metro station.
We watched the familiar scenes of carnage and chaos, but knew well before Islamic State claimed responsibility that it appeared to be another attack.
So what has happened at Brussels and what does it mean? And should we be worried in Australia?
The first and most important point to remember is that this is a sign that Islamic State is hurting in its heartland of Syria and Iraq.
It may seem strange to look away from Belgium or even Europe to find the main factor here, but now more than ever it is vital to understand the bigger picture at play.
With around 40 per cent of the territory claimed for Islamic State in Iraq lost in the past few months, and with territory also lost in Syria, they are reeling.
And so they have moved the battle to where they can inflict some hurt.
The strategic game for European countries (it varies for others also targeted by Islamist extremist terrorist groups) now is to pressure their neighbours to either leave or drop support for coalition efforts in the Middle East, or be goaded into deploying ground troops, which would add to Islamic State's rhetoric of invasion.
Since the November Paris attack, and again in the disrupted Jakarta plots before the largely unsuccessful Sarinah attack, we have seen evidence of attacks being planned from the Middle East.
We also know Islamic State has been using the Syrian asylum seeker stream to move its people into Europe, partly to undertake these attacks.
And remember, some of these people are former Iraqi military.
Professor Robert Pape at Chicago University has identified the same style of tactical planning used by Islamic State to take Ramadi in Iraq last year to that later used in the November Paris attacks. Multiple locations, in a rolling sequence, aiming to disconcert and overwhelm.
Which brings us to the second point, which is that Australia should expect this type of attack.
Our intelligence and police who are focussed on preventing attacks know this and have been looking at this type of scenario at least since Paris.
We also need to be focussed on quickly enabling the best way to respond to the this type of attack.
Our first responders, primarily police, have been looking at this in order to revise their tactics, and engaging closely with partners to learn the lessons.
But our ability to comprehend and learn what needs to be done above that tactical level needs to be improved. The coronial inquest into the Lindt Café deaths in Sydney started only this week to look at the event itself. Fifteen months after it occurred.
We do need to understand how three people were killed that day, but we also need a far more efficient form of inquiry to understand other elements of a terrorist attack and learn from them in a timely manner.
Fortunately, Australia does not have experience of the type of attack seen in Brussels. But we have had six plots disrupted in the past year, and around 110 foreign fighters who have a right of return should they survive being with Islamic State and other extremist groups.
How would Australia respond to a multiple-location attack? How would the Commonwealth Government's crisis machinery respond and assist a state jurisdiction? What if an attack occurs in more than one jurisdiction?
Is the counter-terrorism legislation process - running at around six months to a year with parliamentary review - responsive enough to provide what Australia needs to prevent and respond?
Brussels provides some lessons for Australia.
First, expect that these types of attacks will occur for the foreseeable future. And plan how best to respond. Even when Islamic State itself is defeated, other groups will use its model as a precedent.
Second, take the opportunity we have to learn from the events overseas to put Australia in the best place to prevent terrorist attacks. Develop a counter-terrorism strategy that outlines to all parts of Australian society what is to be done and how, that provides direction to Government agencies and jurisdictions, and industry, and report on this regularly.
Third, reassure all Australians that the most important weapon we have against terrorism is a strong and healthy community. This is not a time for blame amongst ourselves - or defensiveness.
French and Belgian authorities have themselves spoken of regret that some within their Muslim community have not been treated as they should. Alienation, unemployment and racism aren't an excuse for terrorism, but they are a powerful additive.
As Belgium attempts to recover from this terrible attack, and we offer our sympathy and comfort, let us also watch with interest what they find from this experience. And how we can apply these lessons in Australia.
Jacinta Carroll is senior analyst and director, Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Originally published on ABC's The Drum, 23 March 2016