11 Nov 2018
Unfortunately, counter-terrorism has no quick fixes
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, as distinct from Islam as a religion.
On Friday we saw another lone-actor terrorist attack in Melbourne. Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, aged 30, with convictions for cannabis use and theft, drove a ute into the heart of Melbourne’s Bourke Street, set it alight and stabbed three people, killing one.
Shire Ali arrived in Australia from Somalia in the 1980s or 1990s. He may have had links to radicalised members of the Somali community and was known to ASIO. He had his passport cancelled in 2015 after trying to travel to Syria but wasn’t being actively monitored.
But from what we know Shire Ali wasn't recruited to a terrorist organisation, or trained by them, or sent on his Bourke Street mission with operational support from any group. But according to the federal police he was inspired by fundamentalism. It’s highly likely that online content would have played a part in his radicalism.
Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton says police are treating Bourke St as a terrorism incident, with Daniel Andrews calling it an 'evil' event.
Unlike members of organised terrorist groups, lone-actor terrorists usually use basic weapons like knives or vehicles as weapons. In Friday’s attack, Shire Ali used a crude car bomb involving gas bottles in the vehicle before stabbing innocent bystanders. These tactics have become all too familiar in Western cities.
Organised terrorism tends to more frequently use firearms and explosive devices and undertake suicide attacks involving more than person. It must be said, however, that many lone actors are in effect suicide attackers: they know they’ll probably be killed by the police.
It’s harder to find these lone actors because counter-terrorism against organised groups can leverage both human intelligence as well as communications monitoring.
In a terrorist organisation, there are usually many others involved in planning and executing the attack. They know the secret of the attack and share it with each other.
As Israel's leading counter-terrorism expert, Professor Boaz Ganor, has pointed out, in a lone-actor attack everything begins and ends in the mind of the perpetrator. But he also found that it’s not always the case that intelligence is incapable of dealing with the lone actor.
Many lone actors give prior indicators on social networks. So there is a crucial need to develop open-source intelligence capabilities when it comes to countering lone actors. This means exploiting real-time high-tech data collection and analysis around social media to identify attackers before an incident occurs.
Terrorism experts point out that terrorism is the outcome of motivation multiplied by operational capabilities. If you wish to decrease terrorism, it’s necessary to lower these two factors. In the case of decreasing the operational capability of a lone actor, that’s hard; for the terrorist, it can be as easy as picking up a knife or grabbing a set of car keys.
The countering of lone actors needs to be focused on motivation. Victoria Police will no doubt be looking at stepping up their efforts to train their members to identify early indicators of radicalisation to violence, particularly through the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre.
It will also involve prevention through engagement, with communities able to push back against violent extremism. More controversially, it might involve police using advanced "real-time" forms of facial recognition that allow constant scanning of live video feeds to match moving faces with a database of still images.
This could identify potential terrorists through such facial recognition algorithms. There will be increasing calls to adopt such technologies in our counter-terrorism strategies. Also relevant here is the use of drones. Speaking in September at the launch of Victoria Police's new counter-terrorism strategy, the head of Counter-Terrorism Command, Assistant Commissioner Ross Guenther, noted Victoria Police's interest in using drones with cameras to monitor crowds for terror threats. But in leveraging new technologies, we must ensure that we continue to strike an appropriate balance between civil liberties and security.
One measure to keep up to date with emerging threats is something like a new scheme that’s come into force in the UK.
More than 1000 companies across the country have signed up to a one-hour training scheme that could help prevent terror attacks. Called ACT Awareness e-Learning, the training was developed in a partnership between counter-terrorism policing and retail giant Marks and Spencer. It covers how to spot the signs of suspicious behaviour and what to do if an attack should take place.
Counter-terrorism will continue to remain a complex and dynamic policy area with no quick fixes. There will always be some trade-offs and unintended consequences.