FOR police and security officials responsible for stopping extremist attacks before they happen, events in the heart of Sydney yesterday were a reminder of the worst possible scenario. The use in the CBD siege of techniques used by lone-wolf operators was a chilling lesson in the risks faced by modern societies. Whatever the intention behind the siege, it triggered the extensive and complex response that authorities have developed to deal with terrorist operations.
Armed police outside the Lindt Café–Pic -Getty An injured hostage is wheeled to an ambulance after shots were fired during a cafe siege at Martin Place in the central business district of Sydney- Pic- AP photo.
It was not surprising that the authorities treated yesterday’s episode so seriously given all that has happened over the past year. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005, intelligence agencies have become adept at identifying sophisticated plots intended to cause mass casualties. And they have set in place processes to identify and deal with battle-hardened jihadists coming home from foreign wars with the potential to wreak havoc in Australia.
For the agile minds running global jihadist campaigns from the Middle East via social media, the lone-wolf operator provides maximum terror and disruption for minimal effort.
One of the last official acts of retiring ASIO chief David Irvine this year was to warn that a terrorist attack in Australia was highly likely — and then, amid some controversy, to raise the national security alert level to high. Irvine said then that the coming atrocity could be a Bali-style bombing or an attack by a loner.
The rise in the alert level brought tighter security at major public events and government buildings. Western security authorities have become increasingly concerned about a lone terrorist slipping the security net. While organised plots tend to create chatter on telephone networks and the internet, lone actors are more difficult to detect because they do not need to communicate with others.
The agencies have warned that extremist groups have been actively looking to Australia and the region to recruit potential fighters and their main tool is social media. When the threat level was elevated, Tony Abbott said authorities feared that men and women coming back from fighting in the Middle East, “militarised and brutalised and accustomed to kill without compunction”, posed a significant threat to the community.
But it soon became chillingly clear that significant danger could come from homegrown Australians with no training who were not desensitised by frontline service in the Middle East or anywhere else.
In September, the Islamic State terrorist group urged its supporters to use any weapon they could find to murder civilians in Australia, the US, Europe and Canada.
Days after authorities thwarted a plot to behead a random victim in Sydney, allegedly ordered by senior Islamic State figure and Australian expatriate Mohammed Ali Baryalei, the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, distributed a speech calling on jihadist fighters to hand out retribution for the attacks of coalition forces “and bring the war to their soil”. Australian intelligence agencies said then that they regarded the threat as “genuine”.
Islamic State urged individual Muslims to kill civilians by any means necessary, and to do so without waiting for instructions from the terror group’s leaders.
“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely on Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be,” Adnani said.
Those who could not find a bomb or a bullet should use a knife to “slaughter” or a rock to “bash” a victim to death, a car to run them down or poison to kill them. Adnani said civilians deserved to die because they belonged to a state waging war against Muslims and the gathering alliance against Islamic State was the “final campaign of the Crusaders”.
“It will be broken and defeated, just as all your previous campaigns were broken and defeated,” he said, “except that this time we will raid you thereafter and you will never raid us. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah the Exalted.”
Adnani said Islamic State was ready for a long war that would be fought by its children and grandchildren. “They will sell your sons as slaves in the slave market,” he said.
The agencies’ concerns were reflected in an official’s comment: “All they need is a knife, a mobile phone and a flag, and you’ve got a terrorist attack.”
The flag displayed in Martin Place was said to resemble that of terror group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as al-Nusra Front, which is considered as violent as Islamic State and is an offshoot of al-Qa’ida. Last night, authorities made clear the person at the centre of the siege had no known connection to any extremist group, nor to the targets of recent terror raids.
To lessen the chances of discovery by authorities tapping phones and checking records, the terrorist masters in the Middle East have urged young men and women living in the West to carry out attacks on their own initiative, without seeking further instructions, and opportunistically using any available item to kill a target. With no significant planning needed and with a weapon as simple and easily available as a household knife or a car, “capability” has converged with “intent”.
For the security agencies and police there are big issues with tracking down lone-wolf terrorists. They are hard to find because they are encouraged to act on the spur of the moment or short notice and using easily available items. They do not risk drawing attention to themselves by buying masses of fertiliser or obtaining an armoury of high-powered weapons.
But the biggest single problem is that they often do not need to talk to fellow plotters about their intentions. That allows them to fly under the radar and makes pinpointing the occasional contact more crucial.
If police identify someone they believe is a potential terrorist, or someone who has carried out an attack, they can call in phone record metadata to find out who the person has been talking to. They identify networks by seeing who made calls, to whom and when and where.
In Canada in October, a lone gunman murdered a soldier on ceremonial guard duty at a war memorial before storming the parliament building, where he was shot dead by an official. The gunman was identified as Muslim convert Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who reportedly fought in Libya against dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Fears of a copycat attack prompted security authorities to lock down Parliament House in Canberra at 2.30am as armed federal police officers patrolled areas around the building. Security was also stepped up at public buildings, embassies and defence bases.
An investigation this year revealed that while Australia’s Parliament was relatively safe from bombs because of security features added after the September 11 terror attacks, it was wide open to the sort of armed assault that took the killer into Canada’s parliament. To deal with such a possibility, the Australian Federal Police took over responsibility for security at Parliament House when the national terrorism threat level was raised from medium to high. Police carrying military-style automatic rifles are on duty inside and outside the building.
The Canadian attack was the kind of unpredictable lone-wolf activity ASIO feared was likely to happen in Australia, and such a killing was narrowly foiled when police disrupted an alleged plot to behead a random victim in Sydney, again in Martin Place.
The nightmare issue authorities face is dealing with terrorists who turn an item as common as a car into a weapon. Last year, off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby was run down and killed in London by two homegrown terrorists.
The Australian Defence Force warned personnel and their families to be aware of possible terrorist attacks and to use judgment about when to wear uniform off-base. Some ADF members and their families stopped hanging out uniforms on clotheslines.
Peter Jennings, a former senior Defence official who heads the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank and the advisory team for the Abbott government’s defence white paper, says it is clear that by flying the black flag the Sydney hostage-taker made it clear they wanted to be associated with the broader threat of Islamist jihad.
“You can’t ignore the fact it is taking place in the context of attacks in Canada and New York and foiled terror plots in the United Kingdom,” Jennings says. “It’s almost beside the point whether this person turns out to be a well-trained ISIL (Islamic State) operator or someone who is a loner who has self-radicalised. Their actions have shown that they see themselves as part of this broader movement.
“This person is making sure the flag is on display for the world to see and they are clearly influenced by propaganda.”
Jennings says that in an open society like Australia it will never be possible to stop people self-radicalising. “This will make us think harder about how we deal with that situation,” he says. “In the aftermath of this event, however it’s resolved, this person’s life history will be forensically analysed and their contacts and social media presence will be looked at.”
That may expose a broader network needing to be dealt with.
“Although you can never guarantee that you can shut all of this down, I think there are going to be further attempts to ensure we have the right systems in place to monitor individuals who could be open to suspicion that they could undertake an act like this,” Jennings says. “But you can never have 100 per cent security.”
Jennings says the self-radicalised lone wolf will remain very hard to counter.
“It’s exceptionally difficult because individuals can go down this path largely by themselves,” he says. “It is probably unlikely that this person is the product of some sort of extensive network of training because that would probably have been identified and disrupted. That’s possible but less likely than a self-radicalisation exercise.”
Jennings says there may be a need to increase focus on policing rather than at the national intelligence level.
“Do we have enough people to look forensically for the early signs of behaviour that might indicate that a person is about to move from being, perhaps, someone of radical views into someone prepared to act in a violent way?” Jennings says. “If past experience is any guide, there will have been indications that this person was on that pathway. Then the question will be asked about whether we could have done anything earlier to intervene. It will not have simply happened out of nothing. There will have to be a history which shows this person gradually radicalising and getting to the point where he wanted to perform a violent act.”
And Jennings sounds a warning: a solution is not going to be easy.