Clive Williams, in The Australian, 30 November 2022, where the title reads thus: “Threat ‘lower’ but face of domestic terror is changing” ….
The announcement by ASIO director-general Mike Burgess that the terrorism threat level in Australia has been lowered from “probable” to “possible” reflects the view of the National Threat Assessment Centre that a terrorist incident here is now less likely.
ASIO’s NTAC prepares assessments of the likelihood and probable nature of terrorism and protest violence, including against Australia, Australians, and Australian interests here and abroad, and against special events and international interests in Australia.
The “possible” rating does not rule out a terrorist attack, but the expectation is that it would be a low-order one, probably involving knives or a vehicle as a weapon.
A person with a knife is likely to be neutralised fairly quickly and cause few casualties, but a vehicle attack can be deadly. I recently visited the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, where in 2016 a large truck was used to run down and kill 86 people and injure 458 others. (The driver was a Tunisian living in France who was shot and killed by police.)
Australia has been fortunate so far to have avoided a mass casualty attack – other than by Martin Bryant in 1996 at Port Arthur that resulted in the deaths of 35 people. Bryant was not politically motivated, but the deadly outcome was similar to that from a terrorist shooting attack. Bryant’s massacre led to the gun buyback scheme that removed 700,000 firearms from private ownership – although there are now more firearms in private hands (at least 3.5 million) than before the buyback.
Australian Brenton Tarrant carried out his 2019 anti-Muslim shooting rampage in New Zealand rather than in Australia. Counter-terrorism exercises here have planned for similar shooter scenarios, but it’s likely that had Tarrant been able to access similar weapons in Australia, the outcome would have been much the same in terms of deaths and injuries.
Since 2000, 151 Australians have died in terrorist incidents, but the number killed in Australia has been relatively small compared with the number killed overseas. Of the 151 Australian terrorism-related deaths, 135 were overseas – including 95 in Indonesia and 10 in the US (during the 9/11 attacks).
The overall terrorism threat to Australians overseas remains low, but there continues to be a potential threat to Australians in Indonesia from small cells that can be motivated by Islamist propaganda and stay below the police radar until they mount an attack. While firearms are hard to come by in Indonesia, explosive precursor chemicals are still readily available.
With the changed Australian terrorism threat assessment, ASIO may be able to redirect some security intelligence resources from terrorism to other areas. The obvious growth area for ASIO is countering foreign espionage and subversion, both physical and cyber-related.
In terms of allocation of resources, it’s not clear that the Australian government listing of terrorist organisations is useful as presently configured. Twenty-nine organisations are listed as terrorist organisations under Division 102 of the commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995 (Criminal Code). It would be more useful if listing were limited to organisations that actually pose a terrorism threat to Australians in Australia or specifically target Australians overseas.
Most of the groups listed are not active in Australia, nor are they active against Australians. Listing a foreign group just because it’s a terrorist group makes little sense and presumably consumes analyst resources that could be used elsewhere. Many of the listed groups seem to be there because they are affiliates of al-Qa’ida and Islamic State.
Sensible additions since 2021 have been right-wing extremist groups. Three are now listed by Australia as terrorist organisations: Sonnenkrieg Division (listed August 11, 2021), The Base (listed December 10, 2021) and National Socialist Order (NSO) (listed February 18, 2022).
Firearms access may be less of a problem for right-wing extremists than it has been for Islamist extremists. They are more likely to belong to gun clubs or bikie gangs and have access to firearms in the grey market of undeclared weapons. They are also more likely to have access to industrial explosives and precursor chemicals through mining and farming connections.
It’s notable that Australia is now the only Five Eyes country that assesses the terrorism threat level to be the second-lowest of five threat levels. All our partners – with the exception of the US (which does not use threat levels) – have their setting on the middle level, equivalent to our “probable”.
Clive Williams is a visiting fellow at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. He was formerly director of security intelligence at Defence.