NATIONAL SECURITY: by John MillerNews Weekly
Terrorist risk is fast approaching critical
, July 21, 2007
The Australian Federal Police and ASIO are finding it increasingly hard to attract, train and retain personnel at a time when clearly more are needed, writes John Miller, a former senior intelligence officer.Rather than dwell on the minutiae of the recent bombing attempts in London's West End and at Glasgow airport, it is probably more profitable to see what Australia can learn from them.
The two successfully disarmed car-bombs in London on June 29 were detected more by luck than good management. The actions of an alert passer-by and the bravery of the police officer in removing a mobile phone, presumed to be the detonator, from one of the vehicles are not standard practice.
|Attempted suicide-bombing |
of Glasgow airport.
The very next day, at Glasgow airport, concrete security posts prevented two men from ramming a Jeep, armed with explosives, into a busy passenger concourse. Police were able to seize the would-be suicide-bombers and prevent any further damage.
Only late last year, the former head of Britain's security service MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, stated that her agents and the British police were tracking "some 200 groupings or networks, totalling over 1,600 identified individuals" (from a pool of 100,000 sympathisers) who were "actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas".Authorities surprised
Nevertheless, the recent unsuccessful London bombings took British authorities by surprise. Peter Clarke, the London Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner and national counter-terrorism coordinator, admitted that there had been "no intelligence whatsoever we were going to be attacked in this way".
Australia faces no less a terrorist threat. A recent national newspaper editorial warned: "Government-funded research has found Australia has more young Muslims per capita who are vulnerable to the influence of radical Islam than any other Western country." (The Australian
, July 5, 2007).
How well equipped are our two countries' security services to cope with this threat? Britain's MI5 employs around 3,000 people; but, given the bureaucratic nature of security services and the need for technicians, the number on the ground trying to penetrate terrorist cells is probably fewer than a thousand.
The London Times
recently estimated that "covert monitoring of a single terrorist suspect can require up to 50 trained personnel", and therefore concluded that MI5 and the police lacked the resources to undertake adequate surveillance of some 50 alleged terrorist plots under investigation, involving several thousand suspects. (The Times
, May 1, 2007).
Similarly, there are too few Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers to meet all the demands placed on their services, says AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty. According to the Police Federation of Australia, the number of sworn AFP officers has shrunk by 16 per cent in the past two decades. (The Australian
, June 18, 2007) at a time when clearly more are needed.
To date, Australia has been fortunate that the combined efforts of the AFP, ASIO and state police forces have thwarted potential terrorist attacks. Operation Pendennis in November 2005 succeeded in apprehending 20 terror suspects, now facing trial.
However, Australia's run of good luck should not breed complacency. An unnamed security source recently observed that, since Operation Pendennis, Islamic extremists "are going more underground", and "are changing their methodologies, which then make them harder to detect". The same person warned that Australian security authorities were lagging several years behind their US counterparts. (Melbourne Age
, June 30, 2007).
The AFP and ASIO, moreover, face a severe problem in not being able to attract, train and retain personnel. Too few experienced high-calibre officers are available to act as mentors to new recruits.
It takes at least three years to get new intelligence officers "up and running", before they become professional and productive. And there is always the lure of life in the corporate sector, with far higher salaries, better chances of promotion and more agreeable hours.
It should not be forgotten either that, should a terrorist incident occur, Australia's state police forces - whether they like it or not - will be the first line of containment until federal reinforcements arrive. It is therefore disturbing to hear reports of Australia's anti-terrorist efforts being impeded by bickering and turf wars between rival national and state police jurisdictions. (Sydney Morning Herald
, July 8, 2007).
Counter-terrorist work often requires snap decisions and quick action, especially in the field. Sometimes, it may not be possible to refer matters to "headquarters" or Canberra. Flexibility at ground level demands availability of funding and resources at short notice: the bean-counters must be resisted by management.
The fact that ASIO is more like a regular public service department these days gives grounds for concern.
The Director-General of ASIO, Paul O'Sullivan, has delivered an unprecedented number of warnings to various gatherings about the terrorist threat. It is to be hoped that ASIO will become more flexible as its staff are deployed alongside the police. Its officers will need to be de-bureaucratised and learn to adapt to police procedure.- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.