25 Sep 2018
Planning for the worst
Last week’s release by Victoria Police of its new counter-terrorism strategy for the next three years was timely.
There have been seven terrorist attacks and 18 disrupted attacks in Australia since 2005 and Melbourne has been the target of nearly half of these. Since 2005 police have arrested 41 people over alleged terrorist activity in Victoria, with 37 following Islamism, a radical political ideology distinct from Islam as a religion.
So, does Victoria Police’s new blueprint provide a useful framework to understand how law enforcement should approach counter-terrorism in the state? Does it assist us in getting ahead of the curve and advancing greater public safety when it comes to home-grown terrorism?
On balance I’d argue yes. The themes in the strategy are all pointing in the same, right direction: prevention, protection, disruption, and response. These themes provide a useful checklist to evaluate progress in Victoria’s counter-terrorism efforts.
As set out in the strategy, counter-terrorism activities are aimed primarily around community preventive measures, ‘off-ramping’ or early intervention programs before an individual has stepped over the Rubicon and the development of and support for community rehabilitation and reintegration programs.
Given that lone-wolf attacks are considered a key threat, it’s sensible that the strategy outlines an expanded role for the state’s Fixated Threat Assessment Centre. Included in that expanded role is online training for police to identify early indicators of radicalisation to violence.
One of the first critical steps to laying out Victoria’s counter-terrorism plan is to define key terms. The strategy cuts through a lot of murky arguments here. It states clearly that while there’s a need to scope the full landscape of terrorism threats in Victoria, the main threat is terrorism inspired by Salafi-jihadi ideology.
But the strategy wisely recognises that police efforts to address Islamist violent extremists will be more effective if they’re not wholly securitised, but rather part of a comprehensive approach that builds trusting partnerships with and within local communities. The term “community integration support” is used, for example, and not “countering violent extremism”, the latter being the catchphrase favoured by the Federal Government.
The strategy correctly notes that it’s not always possible to prevent individuals from wanting to engage in acts of terrorism. That’s a useful reminder that we could spend ourselves into bankruptcy and still not achieve perfect security.
The public reasonably expects that the threat of terrorism will be contained and plots will be disrupted. But the strategy is right to note that in the event of an act of terrorism in Victoria, an immediate response will be required to mitigate its effects.
Victoria Police’s strategy is spot on in not putting all its eggs in the detection-and-disruption basket. An equal emphasis must be placed on planning to respond and recover. The kind of response we’ve seen from Londoners in attacks over recent years – not just ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ but also helping first responders – provides some measure of deterrence to would-be terrorists who’d want us to panic and overreact.
This isn’t admitting defeat or neglecting efforts to prevent terrorism: it’s about minimising the costs of terrorism. Noteworthy here is the strategy’s commitment to upgrading police social media capability to ensure ongoing communications to Victorians during and after a critical incident.
The strategy correctly observes that the “nature of the terrorist threat is never static… terrorists routinely adapt to new technologies, including for operational security and propaganda purposes. It is critical that we also adapt and evolve to meet, and where possible, anticipate these developments.”
In this context it perhaps wasn’t surprising that media attention focused on the remarks at the launch event by the head of Victoria Police’s Counter-Terrorism Command, Assistant Commissioner Ross Guenther, on VicPol’s interest in using drones with cameras to monitor crowds for terror threats, discern exit and entry points, and collect information about behaviour.
The Assistant Commissioner also referred at the launch to the need to mitigate the threats from drones as terrorist weapons in crowded places. That’s sensible: drones can be adapted to carry improvised explosive devices to transform them into flying bombs. They can also carry jamming equipment capable of disrupting the ones used by police.
But overall Victoria Police’s strategy is sound in not focusing on technology. It correctly makes clear that the key is prevention through engagement, with communities able to push back against violent Islamist and other forms of extremism.
Counter-terrorism is a complex and dynamic policy area with no quick fixes. There are always some trade-offs and unintended consequences. Fortunately, there is no suggestion in the strategy that counter-terrorism is purely a job for law enforcement. It sensibly resists anything that smacks of creating a thought police.
Ultimately, the best approach to countering terrorism is one that protects lives and, one hopes, Australia’s way of life. But we shouldn’t expect the impossible from Victoria Police’s new plan – the strategy doesn’t make Victorians safer just by its release. Even the best strategy is worthless unless it’s well implemented.