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Aware but not obsessed.

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Friday 26 March 2004

Hugh White, Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute


Aware But Not Obsessed  

It can be hard to work out exactly what the government wants to tell us about the how serious threat of terrorism is for Australia. 


Even after the Madrid bombing, the Government’s official terrorist threat alert is set at ‘medium’. That sounds kind of reassuring. 


But top intelligence people and police say that an attack on Australia at some time in the future is more or less inevitable. That sounds much more scary, and seems hard to line up with that ‘medium’ alert level. So what are we to think? 


The first step is to understand what that ‘medium’ alert level really means. It means that the Government has no specific intelligence that suggests a terrorist attack is actually about to happen here in Australia. 


The Government is quite careful about this. They will not raise the alert level here in Australia just because there is a terrorist attack on the other side of the world, because an attack in somewhere like Madrid does not by itself make an attack on Australia more likely. 


On the other hand we can be sure that they will raise the alert level if they do get specific intelligence that suggests an attack might be about to happen. They would be mad not to. 


But there is a catch. The catch is that we can’t be sure the intelligence agencies will get any specific warnings of an attack before it happens. Terrorism is a very tough intelligence target; and the signs of an impending attack are very hard to pick up. No one can be certain, or even confident, that we will see the next attack coming.  


This is not a criticism of the intelligence agencies, or of the Government. They have spent a lot of extra money on our police and intelligence services since September 11, and John Howard has announced that they will get another $400 million in this year’s budget. 


And there have been some major successes. Our intelligence agencies have helped to detect and prevent major terrorist attacks overseas.  


But we could spend ten times as much on intelligence and still not be sure that we would have warning of a terrorist attack before it happens. So don’t be too reassured by that ‘medium’ level terrorism alert: it might simply mean we are about to have a nasty surprise. 


Well, how likely is that? The real answer is, we do not know. We tend to think of Al Qaeda as a structured and disciplined organisation with a unified strategy. If it was, we could make a more confident judgement about its capabilities and intentions to attack Australia. We know that bin Laden and his close followers have had Australia on their target lists for years. But Al Qaeda has always been at most a loose movement, and it has become more splintered as its has been hunted after September 11. 


Look for example at its regional affiliate, Jemah Islamiah in Indonesia. JI is not simply a local branch of a global operation. It is a very complex network in its own right. It has roots into long-established islamic radical groups in Indonesia that date back decades. During the 1990’s some of these dormant groups were revived, motivated and funded by people like bin Laden. They shared, and probably influenced, bin Laden’s hostility to Australia.  


But as the Al Qaeda structures have been dismantled, these groups are starting to go their own ways and follow their own agendas. The global movement is splintering, and many of the local groups are probably reverting to local causes and agendas. We do not know what their objectives are now. Nor do we know much about their capabilities to mount terrorist attacks on Australia. 


We do know that we are still on the target lists for some parts of the global terrorist network. A French terror suspect, Willie Brigitte, was found in Sydney and deported to France a few months ago. He was apparently sent by a group based in the Middle East to plan terrorist attacks here. 


So where does this leave us? Though they haven’t caught bin Laden, the global effort to hunt down Al Qaeda’s network over the last few years has been pretty successful. But that has not made the threat of terrorism go away. It has changed shape, and in the process become harder to track and harder to predict. 


My bottom line? We should take the threat of terrorist attack on Australia very seriously. But an attack is not inevitable. I’m not sure we have learned how to be alert but not alarmed. I would say rather, that we should be aware, but not obsessed.  


Guests on this program:

Hugh White  


Australian Strategic Policy Institute