18 Apr 2016
Greater effort needed to disarm terrorist bombers
Despite the fact that a significant number of Australian terrorist incidents over the past decade have involved explosives, chemicals used to make explosives, hoax bombs or the threat to use explosives, we are not prepared for a terrorist attack using explosives.
That’s the message behind general guidelines released last week by Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Counter-Terrorism, Michael Keenan, on dealing with the threat of improvised explosive devices for places of mass gathering such as transport hubs and shopping malls.
As events in Brussels and Lahore remind us, explosives can cause significant damage and fear for small material investment. And they can be introduced into a site in several ways.
Globally, Australia is one of the largest users of explosives. The explosives industry here supplies nearly 3 million tonnes of blasting explosives a year. Information on how to make bombs is all over the internet, while the mining, rural, pyrotechnic, law enforcement, military, construction and manufacturing industries have access to explosives and people trained in their use.
Access to commercial-grade explosives is effectively controlled through legislation. But commercial explosives are sometimes stolen and the new guidelines remind us that less restricted goods may also be used, with varying effect.
Recent attacks and disrupted plots demonstrate the desire of some to gain access to explosives precursors.
Largely through the good work of our security agencies, we’ve avoided mass casualty terrorist atrocities here, though there have been some close calls.
The new guidelines suggest developers of shopping precincts, malls and city centres should consider increasing stand-off distance around their buildings to mitigate the lethal force of an explosive blast. But the emphasis is on devices carried by vehicles. There is no mention of providing stand-off from places where a person can place a device.
Where possible, it suggests it’s preferable to block vehicle access to places where there are mass gatherings but sensibly points out, without spelling out exactly how, that consideration should be given to emergency services access as well as “surrounding traffic and transport imperatives”.
The guidelines provide sound advice on identifying the behaviours of potential terrorists such as continuously scanning an area, unusual perspiration and avoidance of security officers.
But the guidelines are largely silent on post-blast planning and response.
The document refers to “injuries” and “people hurt” rather than pointing out that multiple fatalities and a correspondingly larger number of casualties can be expected. And some casualties, such as pressure injuries to lungs, will not be immediately apparent.
It’s not clear how rehearsed we are to deal with the aftermath of a terrorist mass casualty event or multiple attacks within cities or across jurisdictions. This is particularly the case with our emergency medical teams responding to complex blast injuries.
We give insufficient attention to conducting rigorous no-notice disaster drills in our hospital routines to test our ability to handle a large number of casualties. We’re just hoping that we’ll rise to the big occasion. That’s a huge gamble.
The guidelines underscore the intensity of our counter-terrorism efforts and that cities are attractive terrorist targets: they have high population density, provide multiple targets and often possess cultural significance.
To enhance our security and mitigate the consequences of terrorism, we have to improve our ability to recognise indications of impending attacks and look at how our response capabilities can be improved.
Last month, the RAND Corporation found that in the fight against terrorist acts in cities, we need to enhance our use of technology.
Government agencies given the task of preventing and responding to incidents in our cities will rely on site management and the public to assist in response and real-time information.
It’s a lot of responsibility. But venue operators and the public have access to technology that could help prevent or respond to terrorist acts. CCTV, ticketing lists and social media websites all hold information that’s relevant to an unfolding event.
Our counter-terrorism agencies should work with business in advance to agree on the best way to gain access to relevant systems in designated events, while protecting business integrity and privacy.
Venue operators sharing high-resolution vision with intelligence and law enforcement to assess possible suspicious activity, for example, could boost preparedness and response capability.
Where small business and members of the public have the best access to an unfolding event, options could be developed to voluntarily link their technological capability to first responders.
Last week’s guidelines on the threat of improvised explosive devices for places of mass gathering remind us that when it comes to preventing and responding to mass casualty events here we need to invest more effort in our police, security services, business and the public working as one.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Jacinta Carroll is head of the Counter-terrorism Policy Centre at ASPI.
Published: THE AUSTRALIAN APRIL 18, 2016