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Terror we can avoid

By Anthony Bergin

Pyro-terrorism is now a genuine threat in our major cities. Thousands of Australian buildings are cloaked in millions of square metres of combustible aluminium cladding, much like the panels installed on London’s Grenfell Tower. Sadly, that fire killed at least 80 people.

Aluminium composite panels have been widely installed in Australia for about 25 years. The standard polyethylene core is combustible, doesn’t meet acceptable Australian building standards, and has been banned elsewhere in the world.

In 2014 there was a major cladding fire in Melbourne’s Docklands. Lives would have been lost in the blaze if conditions had been different. Fire experts are saying there may be more than 5000 buildings in Victoria alone that contain non-compliant cladding.

The vulnerability from unsafe cladding on our buildings deserves urgent national and state government attention to mitigate the risk of a future pyro-terrorist attack. We have been warned.

A recent Four Corners program on this issue pointed out that a kilogram of polyethylene is 1½ litres of petrol. A square metre panel on the side of a building equates to about five litres of petrol.

Fire is not a new weapon of war. However, through a massive regulatory failure, we have made homes and public spaces potentially unsafe and Australians vulnerable to pyro-terrorism.

While it may not be in chapter one of the jihadist manual, the deliberate ignition of fires to attack people, infrastructure, or natural resources to advance a political objective isn’t uncommon.

One study found that from 1968 to 2005, 56 terrorist groups worldwide used arson as a tactic. France and Israel have suffered and forest fires in Greece, Spain and Estonia are suspected of being lit deliberately for political reasons.

So pyro-terror is one of a wide range of scenarios to consider when looking to reduce the possibility of terrorist attacks in Australia. The online jihadist magazine Inspire, for example, published an article five years back giving would-be pyro-terrorists all they needed to know about starting forest fires. It described the best times and places to start fires in several countries, including Australia.

As a weapon of terror, fires are inexpensive and low-tech. They require little training yet have a big impact, with guaranteed media coverage.

But it’s not just about bushfire jihad. The potential for destructive energy that exists in building cladding could unleash massive devastation that could easily overwhelm fire safety systems. The numbers of people affected are likely to be greater with high-rise buildings.

Combustible building cladding means that many of our city buildings are potentially the next ground zero. Viewed from a counter-terrorism perspective, these buildings, with their enormous fuel loads located in and around population centres, constitute a potential destructive power that just awaits release by a pyro-terrorist or a careless accident or electrical fault.

It wouldn’t take much: the fire in Melbourne’s Dockland’s started from a burning cigarette in a plastic yoghurt container, which was being used for cigarette butts. The Grenfell Towers fire started from a faulty refrigerator.

We have recently seen trucks used as terror weapons so we know our enemies are adaptive.


Anthony Bergin is a senior research fellow at ANU's National Security College and a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.