24 Mar 2017
London attack reaction showcases the best of the West
By John Coyne
If yesterday’s Westminster lone actor attack showed us anything, it’s that “frenzy” tactics are becoming increasingly impotent when it comes to causing global fear.
I’m not saying that a great tragedy didn’t occur in the UK, or that empathy didn’t reverberate around the world. Nor am I arguing that the threats posed by Islamic State, al-Qaeda or their lone actor followers are irrelevant.
But the global reaction to this attack reveals to other would-be terrorists that they are no longer able to command the same level of global fear.
Increasingly, terrorist attacks are having the opposite impact on the West, and showcase the best of our shared values. Media in the immediate aftermath of the Westminster attack provided imagery of a British politician valiantly trying to save the life of a critically wounded police officer: Service.
Instead of panicking, members of the public on the Westminster Bridge guided first responders to victims: Selflessness.
Police at the scene took immediate action to stop the attacker: Bravery.
English paramedics tried to save the attacker’s life: Compassion.
Finally, the world seems to be catching onto the UK adage to “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
With this kind of powerful imagery the West is slowly defeating the IS propaganda machine. Future would-be attackers have to start realising that they will not be seen as heroes as they cannot spark fear.
The bigger problem we face, then, is that police are finding it ever harder to disrupt plots in which terrorists use everyday items as weapons.
Driving into pedestrians then attacking a surprised police officer with a knife is rather unsophisticated. But here in lies the problem for police globally.
Without access to guns and explosives, terrorists are resorting to everyday objects to attack our communities. And as seen in the UK and earlier in the year at the Bourke Street Mall, you don’t need guns or bombs to kill or maim.
In the past, legislators in the UK and Australia were incredibly successful in restricting the public’s access to guns and explosives. And in the process, they’ve created a regulatory framework that supports the police disrupting efforts by criminals to obtain these items. As one deputy police commissioner once said: “Even (Australia’s) good crooks have bad guns.”
Unsurprisingly then, those who would do us harm are looking to find new ways to kill multiple victims.
For legislators, the everyday nature of the objects involved in these attacks renders conventional prohibition or mitigation strategies impractical. It’s unlikely that prohibiting access to everyday objects such as knives, cars or matches is achievable. Nor is regulating or licensing access to such objects a viable option.
It is equally challenging collecting intelligence to anticipate these kinds of events.
Watching or tracking the sale of all knives to known criminals would be no easy task. Police face an even more difficult task trying to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an alleged offender is planning to buy a kitchen knife for an attack, as opposed to chopping vegetables.
There are no easy fixes for this current trend in mass casualty attacks. Following the Nice attack, the state government introduced requirements for the installation of barriers at public events to prevent vehicle attacks.
In January this year, arguments between RSL subbranches at Katoomba, Blackheath, Springwood and Glenbrook and the state government erupted over these new counter-terrorism measures. Unfortunately, the Anzac Day event organisers in these towns were unable to afford this new expense, so the marches were put in doubt.
The situation is far from hopeless, but governments will need to look beyond overly simplistic mitigation strategies. One of the fundamental keys to protecting Australians from these kinds of threats will be the community reporting suspicious behaviour.
Originally published: The Daily Telegraph. 24 March 2017
Dr John Coyne is head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Before this he was responsible for strategic intelligence in the Australian Federal Police