Security services and governments around the world remain vigilant to the threat of lone-actor terrorists in our cities.
But when there’s often no indication of an explicit intention or ideology, questions about mental health and with groups like Islamic State willing to encourage and claim responsibility for almost any attack, how do we define lone-actor terrorism?
In this comic explainer, Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, explains the theory behind lone-actor terrorism and what we know about lone actors’ effectiveness, motives and behaviours that could help us to better understand and disrupt future attacks.
Kenya has suffered the far-reaching effects of repeated attacks by Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorist group for years. Tourism has declined. Jobs have been lost and foreign direct investment has withered. The greater Horn of Africa region bordering Somalia has also suffered, but statistics indicate that Kenya experiences an inordinate number of attacks by the terror group.
This trend cannot be explained by geography alone. Granted, Kenya’s porous and ill-guarded borders does make it easier for terrorists to infiltrate the country. But Ethiopia has a much longer border with Somalia than Kenya does.
Between 2006 and 2007 Al-Shabaab conducted few attacks outside of Somalia. There was only one terrorist attack in Ethiopia; there were none in Kenya. In contrast, between 2008 and 2015, the group executed a total of 272 attacks in Kenya and only five in Ethiopia.
Some scholars have focused on Al-Shabaab’s retaliation for Nairobi’s armed intervention in Somalia, beginning in late 2011, as the reason for Kenya’s woes. Yet Ethiopian forces have been in Somalia for more than a decade and both Burundi and Uganda contribute heavily to the African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM).
It is also worth remembering that the incursion by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) was itself a reaction to Al-Shabaab attacks within Kenya that date back to 2008.
So what explains Al-Shabaab’s focus on Kenya? Our research indicates that Al-Shabaab attacks critical Kenyan targets for both logical and opportunistic reasons. They are based on geographical proximity to Al-Shabaab’s bases in southern Somalia and reinforced by other variables that play into terrorist groups’ general modus operandi.
For example, attacks such as those perpetrated by Al-Shabaab in Kenya exploit existing opportunity spaces and can be referred to as “propaganda by deed”. In this, they seek to raise attention to the group’s existence and viability, thereby enticing recruits to its ranks and spreading fear. In essence, the larger and more brutal the attack, the more the group is perceived as potentially more relevant and powerful than it possibly is.
Indeed, Al-Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya have been characterised by their gruesome effect and have attracted critical news coverage internationally. This gives Al-Shabaab a level of publicity, notoriety and international relevance that often belies its increasing isolation in Somalia.
Why Al-Shabaab targets Kenya
Al-Shabaab’s current – though shrunken – stronghold is in southern Somalia. The geographic proximity of southern Somalia to targets in Kenya makes it easier to plan and launch terrorist attacks. The terror group has attacked not only Nairobi, but Mandera and Garissa in the north-east, as well as Kenya’s tourist-filled coastline. In contrast, potential targets such as Addis Ababa, Djibouti or Kampala are geographically distant and logistically difficult to reach.
Kenya is also one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most important states and East Africa’s hub. Its international visibility and status lead Al-Shabaab to make conscious decisions and efforts to attack it. Attacking targets in Kenya, particularly in Nairobi or on the coast, guarantees Al-Shabaab a level of international coverage that a similar attack in Ethiopia, for example, would not.
Most international media operate freely in Kenya. Many outlets, such as Xinhua, CNN and Al-Jazeera base their Africa operations in Nairobi. The media coverage given to horrific attacks here presents presents Al-Shabaab the “oxygen” it needs to survive and, potentially, thrive.
Kenya’s highly-developed tourism sector is another target. The cumulative result of attacks and terrorism related travel advisories has been a marked decline in the number of tourists visiting the country since 2013. This has also led to hotel closures and job losses along the entire tourism supply chain.
This appears to bleed into arguments that posit Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya to bring it to its knees economically, influence foreign policy and force it to withdraw from Somalia. We argue that while this is partially true, it is not the only reason Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya’s tourist spots. Rather, it attacks Kenya because it’s a tourist hub and offers ample, opportune targets for terror.
Finally, Kenya’s security services are reportedly riddled with inefficiency and corruption. Al-Shabaab has exploited this fact. There have been strong allegations as well as hard evidence that Kenya’s police and military have occasionally colluded with Al-Shabaab.
What Kenya can do
Kenya needs to squarely face this reality and take appropriate measures to counter a persistent and therefore predictable threat.
This does not imply that the Kenyan government should anticipate the location or timing of attacks. But it should be aware of and take appropriate measures to counter this threat.
Research has demonstrated that the most promising way to reduce terrorism is to reduce the terrorists’ confidence in their ability to carry out attacks. Kenya needs to proactively address border security and revamp national security apparatuses.
But before shelling out money for the recruitment and training of more security and military personnel, Kenya must firmly deal with the omnipresent bugbear of corruption. Research on the proposed Kenya-Somalia border wall, for example, demonstrated it will have little positive effect if the design and construction are simply vehicles for corruption.
Walls may stop some determined terrorists but they are largely useless if guards are susceptible to bribes and let attackers through. In 2014 two Al-Shabaab affiliated border guards bribed Kenyan border guards to escort them from Somalia to Mombasa. The two were later captured in the city driving a vehicle stuffed with automatic weapons, rounds of ammunition and almost 50 kilograms of explosives.
The overall lack of training and professionalism in the security sector must also be addressed. Close attention should be paid to the well-being and quality of security personnel and equipment at installations ranging from shopping malls to private homes, government buildings and borders.
Third, the Kenyan government has been unable or unwilling to effectively counter negative news stories and Al-Shabaab propaganda that paint the country as a “hotbed of terror”. The fact remains that some states, including Kenya, appear to suffer more from the public perception of instability and danger from terrorism than others. These perceptions often correspond little to reality or statistics.
Terrorism is a region wide problem. It makes sense for Kenya to work with Somalia and Ethiopia on shared borders, refugees and the like.
Yet Kenya must also understand that it is the primary Al-Shabaab target outside of Somalia. No amount of regional cooperation will entirely alter that. As such, it must attempt to positively and consistently address the reasons why it is the target of attack largely on its own.
Dominic Ruto Pkalya contributed to this article and the research it cites.
As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging.
Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo
Like this recent attack in New York, many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by individuals the media have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, freelancers who act without the direct knowledge of the IS leadership. To avoid glamorizing them, the RAND Corporation prefers the term “flaming bananas.”
There are two theories as to why these individuals pledge allegiance to the group. The first is that they get “radicalized.”
Radicalization refers to a step-by-step process whereby individuals become increasingly susceptible to jihadi ideas. First, they cut themselves off from social networks such as family, which provide them with support and a conventional value system. They then immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi recruiter might bring them into the fold. Either way, the result is the same.
Some observers claim IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, IS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. IS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, the player destroys advancing personnel carriers and shoots enemy soldiers.
Perhaps, then, the radicalization model is wrong or not universally applicable. Perhaps there’s something other than religious zealotry at play.
Consider the widely reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham, U.K., for Syria, ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” to fill the gaps in their knowledge.
Newspaper stories time and again puzzle over the problem of how it happens that individuals who go on to join IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed some act of violence for the group. The most common explanation is that their dissolute lifestyle was a cover.
After the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 people in Nice, France, for example, the French interior minister was at a loss to explain how someone who drank during Ramadan – which had ended a week and a half before – could have radicalized so quickly.
Rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”
Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, thrill-seeking to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure?
In this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaida.
After a man barreled down a New York City bike path on Oct. 31, killing eight, President Donald Trump reacted by calling for an end to the “green card lottery” program that allowed the attacker to enter the country.
As someone who researches the impact of immigration on workers, I believe their plans to change who can enter the country legally is a big mistake. We would be giving up a program that benefits American workers with very little chance of a gain in safety.
While Trump’s tweets about the lottery program are based on security concerns, the usual argument supporting curbs on immigration is that new arrivals hurt native-born American workers and the economy at large.
As for the economic impact on U.S.-born workers, the key thing to bear in mind is that the more homogeneous and similar immigrants are to natives, the greater the odds they’ll in fact have a negative effect.
In contrast, immigrants who come from diverse backgrounds with a range of skills – such as the lottery winners and the so-called “Dreamers” – tend to produce greater economic benefits. That may be one reason at least some Republicans and most Americans are in favor of keeping the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program that protects the Dreamers from deportation, which Trump recently ended.
A new approach
Currently, the U.S. receives a lot of immigrants without a college degree or with imperfect English. About half of immigrants fit either description.
It would also end the green card lottery, which awards 50,000 green cards a year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.
Importantly, it would also change who gets a leg up when applying for a green card. Currently, family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, including siblings and adult children, are able to apply. The new system would limit that to minor children and spouses.
Instead, the bill would create a point-based system like those used in countries such as the U.K. and Australia that use factors such as English ability, education and job offers to rank applicants. However, it would be stricter than point systems used in those countries, which admit immigrants through other programs as well.
Those who wish to restrict immigration often cite what they naïvely call “supply-and-demand economics” to essentially argue that the economy is a fixed pie that gets divided among a country’s residents. Fewer immigrants means “more pie” for the U.S.-born, as the story goes.
I am an economist, and this is not what my colleagues and I say. The commonplace argument that more immigrants, by themselves, lower wages and take jobs from Americans – an argument which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to defend ending the “Dreamers” program – has neither empirical nor theoretical support in economics. It is just a myth.
Instead, both theory and empirical research show that immigration, including people with few skills and little English, grows the pie and strengthens the American workforce.
Value in diversity
While all the recently proposed changes to our immigration system will make U.S. workers worse off, the English requirement is likely to be particularly harmful to U.S. workers, especially low-skilled ones.
Indeed, I have found the relative fluency of U.S.-born workers is what keeps them from being harmed from labor market competition from immigrants.
The reason for this is the following. Essentially, immigrants with imperfect English skills tend to specialize in jobs that are less “communication-intensive,” such as manual labor. Americans fluent in the language, on the other hand, tend to take on higher-paying, communication-intensive jobs that are out of reach of those without a strong grasp of English. In other words, these groups aren’t likely to compete for the same jobs, making them more complementary than adversarial.
In contrast, when new immigrants are more fluent in English, something the Trump-backed proposal would encourage, the types of occupations they are qualified for are almost identical to those of American workers. Thus, insisting on strong English skills as a condition of coming to America is likely to increase labor market competition and suppress wages.
Immigration that helps
Immigration that emphasizes diversity, rather than merely merit, tends to attract more people who specialize in occupations uncommon among U.S.-born workers. And, in fact, this is the key source of the well-known economic benefits of immigration.
Studies by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, for example, show this tendency toward job specialization is a key reason the large volume of low-skill immigration does not drive down incomes of Americans. Other research by Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano shows that simply encouraging immigration from diverse origins lifts wages.
Put differently, there is direct evidence that the sort of diversity that the green card lottery encourages makes all Americans better off. It would be a shame to give all of that up because of a tiny risk of terrorism.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 15, 2017.
Malcolm Turnbull this week is pushing for a further toughening of national security laws, including to allow police to hold suspects for longer without charges.
Turnbull and state and territory leaders on Thursday will hold a special Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on measures to counter terrorism.
The Commonwealth is proposing action on three fronts: ensuring nationally consistent pre-charge detention laws; new Commonwealth offences for people who possess “instructional” terrorist material; and strengthening laws against terrorism hoaxes.
On pre-charge detention, in New South Wales people can be held for 14 days but other states have a maximum of seven days or less.
South Australia only allows eight hours without charge. Western Australia allows six hours, before extensions of eight hours can be sought from a magistrate. Queensland allows eight hours and then magistrate approval for every eight hours after that.
The Australian Federal Police and state counterparts want longer questioning and detention time between a person being arrested and either charged or released.
The federal government is proposing to develop Commonwealth laws that can apply nationwide.
Previously, legal and constitutional issues have been a problem but the federal government believes legal concerns can be overcome, with additional safeguards.
The proposal would:
increase the initial investigation period from four to eight hours before a person had to be released or an extension of the detention period sought;
increase the maximum investigative detention time for Commonwealth terrorism offences to 14 days; and
remove some legal complexities, making the law less onerous for police as well as clearer.
The Commonwealth uses the example of the recent plot to blow up a plane in Sydney to show why pre-charge detention laws need to be consistent. Under NSW law, suspects could have been held for up to 14 days but elsewhere the maximum would have been seven.
The proposed new federal offence to criminalise the possession of instructional material of practical use for a terrorist act is designed to enable authorities to intervene “at the lower end of the risk spectrum”.
The government argues this would be a strong deterrent – and uses the comparison of the possession of child pornography, an offence even if a possessor doesn’t intend themselves to abuse a child.
Law enforcement agencies are concerned at the amount of extremist material available online which doesn’t just radicalise people but sometimes gives specific instructions about how to commit a terrorist act.
The government also wants a nationally consistent regime against hoaxes, replacing the present various state and territory offences. It says a new federal offence would keep pace with the “evolving methodology of terrorists”, including false claims about knife and vehicle attacks, as well as traditional hoaxes about explosives and the like.
It would also make for consistent jail terms across the country.
Turnbull said Thursday’s COAG meeting was about staying ahead of the terrorist threat.
The Coalition government has enacted nine tranches of national security legislation; 74 people have been charged as a result of 31 counter-terrorism operations in the last three years.
Since the threat level was raised in September 2014, there have been five attacks and 13 major counter-terrorism disruption operations.
About 110 Australians are presently fighting or engaged with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Since 2012, about 220 Australians have travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight or support the fighting. At least 65 Australians, and possibly up to 83, have been killed. More than 30 people have come back to Australia after travelling to Syria/Iraq – most before the caliphate was declared.
About 220 people in Australia are being investigated for providing support to the Syrian/Iraq conflict, including through money and other help, or are wanting to travel.
Some 220 passports have been cancelled or refused in relation to the conflict.
The Australian government’s new strategy for protecting crowded places from terrorism draws heavily on other countries’ experiences of implementing similar strategies as part of a broader national counter-terrorism agenda.
The US and UK have had similar crowded places policies for a number of years due to persistently high threat levels. Places such as Abu Dhabi have adopted versions of such approaches and embedded security within large buildings and place-promotion programs.
Terrorists have significantly changed their modus operandi in the new millennium. Until 2001, vehicle-borne devices targeting major financial or political centres used to be the hallmarks of international urban terrorism. These have more recently been superseded by person-borne devices – especially suicide attacks – and subsequently Fedayeen-style mass shootings, targeting of crowds with fast-moving vehicles, as well as low-tech, difficult-to-defend knife attacks.
Consequently, traditional counter-terrorism approaches – the construction of defensive cordons to protect valuable and vulnerable assets – are seen as largely inadequate. Our defences have had to be rethought. Terror groups are adopting increasingly innovative methods and tactics aimed at soft targets and more generally crowded places, which cannot be altered without radically changing how citizens experience the city.
Like similar strategies elsewhere, the Australian government strongly emphasises partnerships between a range of stakeholders in providing protective security. Countering terrorism, the strategy notes, is “a responsibility shared by all Australian governments, the community and the private sector”.
A resilient crowded place has trusted relationships with government, other crowded places, and the public. It has access to accurate, contemporary threat information and has a means of translating this threat information into effective, proportionate protective security measures commensurate with the level of risk they face.
Learning from elsewhere – bollards are not enough
Given the nature of the areas being defended, authorities have had to consider issues that previous attempts have paid limited attention to. Security stakeholders in Australia should bear these issues in mind as their program is rolled out.
First, traditional security approaches may be of limited use against many types of possible attack and offer false comfort.
Many have advocated the use of crime-prevention ideas for dealing with the terrorist threat. These manipulate the built environment to reduce the attractiveness and physical access to target places while increasing the likelihood of being caught. In essence this means the mass use of security bollards and high-visibility policing.
While this might reassure many citizens, the emphasis on structures and deterrence models has limited use. Terrorists seeking martyrdom could simply move to other locations that are not as well defended.
Second, issues of risk and timing are really important. Here the Australian guidance has done something that other guidance often fails to do. It has provided a self-assessment tool.
This tool enables owners and managers of public spaces to assess their own risk (or pay a security consultant to do so). This is broadly a positive development, although it does raise the issue of whether or not such non-trained stakeholders feel comfortable doing this or have adequate skills and experience to do it effectively. Appropriate training courses and public awareness campaigns will be vital.
Third, a clear implementation gap is emerging in many countries in the prioritisation of locations that are protected. It is incredibly difficult to cost accurately for designed-in security. Hence a business case for measures that are solely associated with terrorism can be hard to build.
Developers are, in most cases, not legally obliged to adopt counter-terrorism measures. More often than not they will do so immediately after an attack. The cost and who pays for it is a huge issue.
Equally, who is responsible for implementation can be politically sensitive. Is it the government? Is it the owners of the crowded place? Is it the planning and urban design community?
The fourth issue relates to aesthetics. Over recent decades, urban revitalisation has increasingly emphasised inclusivity, liveability and accessibility. These “quality of life” values sit uneasily beside concerns to “design out terrorism” as security becomes part of the design process.
In the aftermath of attacks, or amid fear of imminent attack, obtrusive security features – notably temporary concrete or steel blocks – are commonly “thrown” around key sites to stop vehicle attacks. These are not necessarily aesthetically pleasing.
In the last decade the initial swathe of security bollards and defensive barriers that littered the landscape of many cities after 9/11 has slowly given way to subtler landscape alteration, although in many cases bollard-type solutions still prevail. The predominant view is that security features should be as unobtrusive as possible. This has led to security features being increasingly camouflaged and subtlety embedded within the cityscape.
What can we live with?
How our public places are designed tells us a lot about the type of society we are and the one we wish to live in. In this sense, providing guidelines on protecting against terrorism in crowded places is a difficult task, especially in societies that value freedom of movement and expression but are seen as under threat of attack.
In Melbourne in June, concrete blocks were artistically decorated in the #bollart protest against what many saw as an unnecessary eyesore. The temporary security measures were put in place to prevent vehicle attacks following the Bourke Street incident and the London Bridge terror attack. In time, permanent steel barriers will replace the blocks.
More broadly, counter-terrorism measures deployed in crowded public places must seek to balance security effectiveness with social and political acceptability. We live in dangerous times, but how we react to the risk of terrorism will have impacts on our public realm for many years. In many ways the threat to cities comes as much from our policy responses as the actual act of terrorism. Both have the potential to harm the freedom of movement and expression that define a vibrant city.
Experience tells us that, once permitted, hyper-security tends to become permanent. If we want a humane and accessible public realm and a genuinely open society, we should not let the exceptional become the norm as we seek more adaptable and effective ways of coping, in a calm and measured way, with urban terrorism.
Despite its (relatively) low body count and primitive execution, Thursday’s terrorist attack in Barcelona shocked many local and international onlookers. The Islamic State (IS) group was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, in which a van was deliberately driven into pedestrians on Barcelona’s famed Las Ramblas strip. At least 13 people are dead, and around 100 have been left injured.
The location and targeting of the attack deviates from IS’s previous efforts. These have typically focused on punishing countries directly involved in military operations against it in Syria and Iraq.
But how reliable are its claims of responsibility? And why was Spain chosen, given its relatively inconsequential role in the fight against IS?
Verifying the culpability of terror attacks can traditionally be a tricky affair. Given that organisations that engage in terrorism are doing so from a position of weakness, there is always an incentive to lie in order to bolster mystique and inflate the image of threat.
But in this regard, IS seems to differ from previous groups. It has typically been reliably truthful in what it claims to have been its actions.
One Australian example of this can be found in the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege. The perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, proclaimed he was acting under IS auspices. But despite this declaration, and the potential propaganda victory it could bring, IS resisted such advances and distanced itself from the incident.
This incident, along with many others, seems to indicate that while IS claims a butcher’s bill of heinous activities, it doesn’t tend to overtly lie about them.
Such a policy, while initially appearing counter-intuitive, maintains IS’s perception as a trustworthy source of information. This is particularly important in recruitment efforts, and makes it difficult for governments to challenge the IS’s claims in counter-propaganda.
For IS, maintaining a twisted sense of chivalrous virtue remains paramount.
Spain and the clash of civilisations
The Barcelona attack also reflects IS’s view of the world as a civilisational clash.
Described as a “reluctant partner” in the anti-IS coalition, Spain has resisted entreaties to join military efforts. Instead, it has opted for what it sees as a less risky role – providing logistical aid and training to local Iraqi forces, as well as preventing homegrown attempts to support IS abroad.
Spain’s limited role in the fight, particularly in contrast to other terror victims such as France and the US, might lead one to expect it to be relatively low on IS’s hit list.
But in terms of IS’s conflict narrative, Spain represents just another manifestation of a hostile Western civilisation in a state of war against the Islamic community. This leaves it more than open for reprisals.
At a spiritual level, Spain also holds a special place in IS’s mythology. Once a part of the Islamic empire, al-Ándalus, as it is known in Arabic, is seen by many IS ideologues as a natural territorial part of the end-state caliphate and currently under direct occupation by infidels.
Shock and bore
Terrorist reprisals like this attack are likely to intensify temporarily against Western targets throughout Europe and further abroad over the coming months and years, as the IS is systematically deconstructed on its home turf in Iraq and Syria.
IS remains heavily dependant on an image of defiant dynamism and a commitment to challenge the international status quo, which it claims subjugates the chosen community. As its ability to function as a “state” continues to decline, it will increasingly seek to maintain such a mystique through acts of spite against those that have prevented it from achieving its goal of a “caliphate”.
Despite a likely future increase in terrorist attacks, IS also risks a growing public disinterest and apathy toward its activities.
As one commentator has written, the banality and nontheatrical nature of IS’s approach to terrorism – particularly in contrast to al-Qaeda’s keen eye for spectacular symbology – has left many onlookers less than impressed and far from terrified.
In all of these cases the weapon of choice was a vehicle, driven at speed, into crowds innocently going about their daily business. Barcelona is just the latest in a series of targets of Islamic terrorism over the past year in which a vehicle has been used to mow down those in its path indiscriminately.
In all of these cases Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.
These sorts of terrorist attacks – like the 2001 al-Qaeda plane attacks on targets in New York and Washington – have elevated threats to the civilian population in urban areas to a new level.
In the latest – on Barcelona’s famous tourist precinct near Plaça de Catalunya and Las Ramblas in the heart of the city – at least 16 people have died and scores more have been injured. The death toll is likely to rise.
Terror is filling the hearts of the Crusader in the land of Andalusia.
Another outlet warned that Spain was now grouped with the UK and France as terrorist targets.
The use of vehicles in relatively vulnerable locations where crowds gather, to inflict maximum harm on innocent people, will add significantly to unease across Europe. This anxiety will now reach new levels of intensity, with German elections due on September 24, and and a Catalan independence vote on October 1.
This latest attack will cast a shadow over events that will require people to gather in crowds either to participate in political campaigning, or to vote in the election itself.
More broadly, the use of vehicles as weapons against urban populations will add to security concerns in Western capitals – including in Australia.
What’s likely to come as a result are further security measures to combat the risk of vehicular attacks in crowded locations. But we know how difficult it is to prevent such attacks.
In Melbourne, Australia, for example, authorities have installed bollards around the city to guard against these sorts of acts. But ensuring people’s safety in free and open societies represents a huge challenge.
World leaders have condemned the Barcelona attack, but beyond pro-forma statements of support the reality is that the scourge of Islamic-inspired terrorism is here to stay for the time being.
These acts of violence, each one encouraging another, are part of a terrorist landscape. They will remain so especially at a moment when IS is under enormous pressure in its stronghold in Syria.
The expulsion of IS from Raqqa in eastern Syria will not lessen threats of terrorist violence in the West. Instead, it will probably heighten the risk.
What the Barcelona attack reminds us is that the West is embroiled in a long war against Islamic terrorism. Enhanced counter-terrorism strategies, making use of sophisticated technology, will lessen risks, but cannot entirely eliminate the threat in open societies.
The proposed changes may help to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the role of state police and the ADF in responding to terror attacks. However, to prove effective in practice, the changes will depend heavily on the willingness of state police to accept military advice and assistance.
Changes to call-out powers
The major change proposed is to relax the call-out powers for ADF assistance during a terrorist attack. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the existing law as “cumbersome” – and it certainly sets a high bar for requesting military involvement.
Currently, the Commonwealth Defence Act provides that the ADF can be called out to respond to violence within state boundaries, but only where:
a state government requests such assistance; and
the state “is not, or is unlikely to be, able to protect itself”.
This is consistent with the Constitution, which allows the Commonwealth to protect states against internal violence “on the application of the executive government of the state”.
A formal request for ADF assistance was not made during the Sydney siege. Despite the many recognised problems with its response, the NSW police force did not believe its capacity to respond to a single armed offender was inadequate.
Details of the proposed changes have not yet been released. But it appears that state governments will be able to request “specialist” or “niche” assistance from the ADF. For example, they may request assistance with specific weaponry such as sniper rifles or other high-powered weapons.
This will provide more flexible arrangements for state governments to request ADF involvement. Rather than admitting that its overall capacity to respond to a terrorist incident is inadequate, a state government could request assistance on more specific grounds.
However, it appears the process will still require state governments to request assistance from the Commonwealth. Whether state police forces will concede that their ability to respond to terrorism is inadequate – even on more specific grounds – remains to be seen.
It also appears that requests for ADF involvement will depend on whether state police classify an incident as an act of terrorism. This in itself is open to interpretation, and may prove difficult to determine in practice.
Changes to military liaisons
Another proposed change is to embed military liaison officers within state counter-terrorism police units. This will help build a closer relationship between the ADF and state police forces – if they can work together well.
During the Sydney siege, ADF liaison officers attended the police forward command post. In his report, the NSW coroner noted that the role of these officers was poorly understood, and that NSW police could have drawn on their expertise to a greater extent.
Controversy remains over whether police failed to heed military advice that their bullets would fragment on hard-tiled surfaces.
Formalising military liaison positions will help clarify the ADF’s role in circumstances that fall short of a formal call-out. However, it seems the key problem to date has not been an absence of military advice, but a lack of willingness to accept it.
Changes to training
A third major change is for special forces soldiers to provide enhanced training to state counter-terrorism police. This is likely to be the most effective strategy for improving operational responses to terrorism.
The ADF has two tactical assault groups – East and West – based in Sydney and Perth respectively. Realistically, these specialist units could only respond to a terrorist attack in one of those cities, or in the event of an extended siege. Having specially trained state police is crucial if first responders are to deal adequately with the threat of terrorism.
Improved training procedures will enable state police to draw on the expertise of Australia’s special forces, while avoiding territorial issues as to who should have jurisdiction in the event of an attack. They also avoid difficult constitutional and democratic issues regarding the expanding role of the military in domestic crime control.