ASPI’s Decades: Terrorism
ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.
Terrorism changed Canberra in ways big and small.
The 9/11 era and the Bali bombings caused a mushrooming of concrete barriers and bollards around Canberra’s government buildings, pushing out perimeters in a suddenly bomb-conscious city.
A fence went up around Parliament House. No longer could Australians freely stroll up the grass hill to the giant flagpole to stand above their elected representatives.
Australia’s security fears were galvanised. Australians broadly accepted that the risk was real—terrorism loomed as the great and immediate threat.
Government demanded more of the intelligence services and policing, and money and resources followed. That meant Liberal and Labor governments would have little tolerance for counterterrorism failures.
Cash tells part of the story. In 2000, the combined budget of the Australian intelligence community (AIC) was $325 million; in 2010, the figure was $1,070 million.
In 2004, Peter Jennings wrote that the AIC had received ‘a massive injection of new funding’ and had ‘doubled in size over a period of three to four years’. Intelligence agencies, Jennings wrote, had assumed ‘an even more central and high-profile role in Australian national security’.
The AIC, with six agencies, grew to become the gang of 10 in the national intelligence community (NIC).
By 2017, the independent intelligence review by Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant said of the NIC: ‘With an annual budget approaching $2 billion and about 7,000 staff spread across 10 agencies, it is clear to us that on size alone the Australian Government’s intelligence activities supporting national security are now a major enterprise. They would benefit from being managed as such.’
And that was written before the creation of the new super-ministry, Home Affairs.
As buildings express policy choices and bureaucratic growth, come for a walk around Canberra’s parliamentary triangle to see the national security effects. The buildings tell how the intelligence agencies and the federal police were thrust into the centre of government.
Leaving from ASPI’s office in Barton, follow Macquarie Street to the corner with Kings Avenue, and the headquarters of the Australian Federal Police, occupying the Edmund Barton building, previously home to agencies such as trade, agriculture and environment. The AFP shifted from Canberra’s city centre, Civic, in 2009, crossing the lake to the political and policy centre arrayed around parliament.
Turn up Kings Avenue towards parliament and within moments come to the Office of National Intelligence in the refurbished building named after Robert Marsden Hope, the judge whose royal commissions designed the AIC. The peak intelligence assessment agency moved into the Hope building in 2011; previously it’d been housed in Defence Department facilities and the old Australian Security Intelligence Organisation building at Russell.
Next to ONI are the executive offices of the Home Affairs Department and also the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.
Continue up to parliament to the side garden opposite the House of Representatives entrance, where a granite stone memorial bears the names of the 91 Australian citizens and residents who died in the Bali bombings on 12 October 2002.
To see the biggest marker of the terrorism era, go back down the avenue across Kings Avenue Bridge to walk around Lake Burley Griffin to Blundells Cottage (built in 1860). Raise your eyes from the tiny stone dwelling to see the Ben Chifley building (the most expensive construction in Canberra since the new parliament building) occupied by ASIO in 2015.
The policy in the architecture of this stroll is what national security built.
The first ASPI occasional paper, in July 2002, three months before the Bali bombings, was Recovering from terror attacks: a proposal for regional cooperation, based on a conference of Asia–Pacific defence ministers convened by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore (the Shangri-La Dialogue). The paper by Ross Babbage argued that few countries in the Asia–Pacific were well prepared for a terrorist attack and sketched a regional agreement to respond to terrorist incidents.
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, terrorist groups viewed Southeast Asia as a potential safe haven and even a ‘second front’, Babbage wrote:
Some parts of Southeast Asia do appear to be potentially attractive to terrorist groups, largely because of their extant armed extremist groups, the anti-US attitudes of many younger people, large pools of urban and disaffected poor, porous national borders, exceptionally large air/sea/land transport hubs from which people can disperse with little trace, and sometimes weak national security and law enforcement capacities.
In 2004, Aldo Borgu set out some fundamental thoughts: agreeing on a definition of terrorism was as hard as agreeing on the best strategies to combat it; root causes needed to be addressed but doing so wouldn’t stop all acts of terrorism; terrorism does sometimes work; the war on terror was not a war and it wasn’t against terrorism—you can’t wage a war against a tactic; and intelligence was the frontline defence and offence against terrorism.
Carl Ungerer wrote in 2008 that a non-traditional security risk only becomes a national security priority when it meets the benchmarks of scale, proximity and urgency. Thus, Australian statements on national security had come to be dominated by counterterrorism.
As director of ASPI’s national security project, Ungerer called for a single national security budget and an annual risk assessment. An integrated strategy should assess national capabilities and vulnerabilities, as well as the resilience of government and civil society: ‘Beyond contingency planning, national resilience requires the inculcation of an understanding of what membership of a diverse, complex, modern state entails not only in terms of individual rights but also of obligations to both governments and fellow citizens.’
The institute studied healthcare preparedness for a mass-casualty attack; what terrorism meant for Australian universities, both as targets and as recruiting grounds; the media’s role in covering a terrorist attack; and the impact of terrorism on tourism—the need for the industry to review physical security and evacuation procedures, evaluate staff vettin, and consider security investments.
The threat of maritime terrorism had led to fundamental changes in the international maritime security environment, Sam Bateman and Anthony Bergin wrote. They described the gaps in Australia’s maritime thinking:
Aviation and maritime security pose very different challenges. There’s a relatively high level of aviation awareness in Australia, but this isn’t so with maritime awareness. While airports are basically similar, every seaport is different. The security of ports and ships must consider all environments: land, air, sea surface and subsurface. Most importantly, however, their security involves a fundamental division of responsibility between the Commonwealth, the states and territories.
ASPI did a joint research project with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on countering internet radicalisation in Southeast Asia. Terrorist groups in the region were increasingly using the internet to radicalise people and to recruit and train supporters, and the average age of terrorists seemed to be declining:
Most extremist activity on the internet aims to communicate a narrative, to draw in support and to incite action. The operational aspect is certainly there, but it’s much smaller than the communications and propaganda side. To put this bluntly: security agencies may detect the bomb manuals, but miss the process of radicalisation that produces the bombers.
A further ASPI–RSIS effort was to understand how individuals became terrorists. Based on face-to-face interviews inside the Indonesian prison system with more than 30 men convicted of terrorism, the report detailed how and why the men first became involved in terrorist operations; why some of them, despite having served time in prison, later chose to re-engage in violence; and why others decided to disengage from violent activities altogether.
When the Australian government’s inaugural national security statement was released in 2008, Ungerer and Bergin wrote that ‘the concept of national security has shifted from its traditional moorings in the defence and intelligence establishment’. National security was no longer a synonym for terrorism, and terrorism was relocated ‘within a broader spectrum of transnational security risks’.
In its first years in office, the Rudd Labor government commissioned two dozen policy reviews on all aspects of national security, from terrorism to transnational crime. The problem of all those reviews was ‘connecting the docs’, in Ungerer’s apt headline. He identified the tensions in integrating the strands of security policy into an ‘all hazards’ concept:
- The internal–external divide—the assertion ‘there is no longer a sensible distinction to be made between internal and external security and between domestic and foreign policy’ was not matched by government processes.
- Cops versus spies—the culture of mistrust and lack of communication between intelligence and police was a serious weakness.
- The diplomatic drought—the lines separating war, peace, diplomacy and development had blurred. Yet Australia’s diplomats had suffered two decades of ‘chronic underfunding’. Australia should take note of US debates about the creeping militarisation of foreign policy.
Bergin and Ungerer wrote in 2010 that the Howard government’s counterterrorism strategy had focused almost exclusively on preventing terrorist threats from reaching the Australian homeland: there was a strong emphasis on the US alliance, the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ and border security. Although the Rudd government acknowledged the need for international action, the new emphasis was tackling violent extremism at home.
The post-9/11 era was arriving.