COVER STORY: by John MillerNews Weekly
Foiled terror attack on New York's JFK airport
, June 23, 2007
Australia has so far not experienced a terrorist attack on home soil. However, policing at our airports is running at only a third of capacity owing to national staff shortages. John Miller, a former senior intelligence officer, reports.I fear that the Australian public will not take the terrorist threat seriously until, one day, they find themselves picking up severed limbs and other body parts in Sydney's Pitt Street or Melbourne's Federation Square or some other popular tourist, cultural, business, government or sporting venue across the continent.
It will only be made worse by the intrusion of TV cameras to record the mayhem and grief caused by such a terrorist attack, along with the blood and gore.
After writing a sequence of articles on terrorism, I reluctantly conclude that Australians are inured to the possibility of a terrorist attack on home soil.Threat downplayed
Our attention has been all too easily diverted by such issues as climate change, the phantom election campaign and the relative merits of John Howard and Kevin Rudd. Not that these issues are trivial in any way, but it is disturbing that the terrorist threat can be so readily downplayed and dismissed.
One quiet Sunday morning (June 3, 2007), ABC News Radio reported a foiled terrorist plot to blow up fuel tanks, terminal buildings and the web of fuel pipelines running beneath New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
This came less than a month after the arrest of a group of would-be terrorists attempting to enter the armoury at Fort Dix (New Jersey), a US army base, and seize weaponry.
The interesting feature of both plots, apart from the fact that they were foiled, is that US newspapers accorded them so little prominence. By June 4, the foiled New York attack had already faded into obscurity.
One so-called expert on ABC radio opined that aircraft fuel was less explosive than the petrol we put in our cars; but, according to US homeland security officials and the FBI, that opinion did not exactly equate with the estimate of the likely damage, had the attack been successful.
I am not an explosives expert, but I know that tanks that are less than half full are more lethal and would spread fuel from ruptured full tanks through the air and across the ground.
It is further likely that any aircraft on the ground and buildings in the immediate vicinity would have been destroyed. Given the density of air traffic at JFK airport, giant explosions might well have downed fully-laden airliners. One can envisage another great pall of smoke across New York, with sirens blaring and lights flashing on emergency vehicles.
The bombers were convinced that their attack would be greater than that of 9/11.
Genuine experts have estimated that the blast radius would destroy a great part of the New York suburb of Queens. Although the threatened disaster did not eventuate, US officials pointed out the symbolic importance of JFK airport to their country - something also acknowledged by one of those apprehended.
The terrorist suspects arrested over the foiled Fort Dix and JFK airport plots were all Muslims. However, there are two further outstanding features about these two incidents.
The attempt on Fort Dix was led by an Albanian, resettled in the US after the Serbian atrocities in Kosovo (there's gratitude for you!). Those detained in connection with the plan to attack JFK airport were from the Caribbean, three from Guyana and a fourth from Trinidad.
While there was a probable Al Qaeda connection with the first group, the would-be airport attackers were said to be part of a loose group of revolutionaries from Central and South America. The United States is vulnerable to attacks from the Western Hemisphere and, with the emergence of left-wing, anti-American regimes to its south, the US Department of Homeland Security has a real job on its hands.
It is well-known that British airports, especially London's Heathrow Airport, are a major terrorist target. Very recently, international news reported that Al Qaeda was extending its influence from Iraq across North Africa into Morocco, Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world.
Jemaah Islamiyah, reported in 2003 by the International Crisis Group as having been smashed in Indonesia, was recently assessed by the same body as being resurgent. That has consequences for Australia, but are we conscious of it?
Australian reaction to the latest New York plot, after an initial flurry of interest, quickly died down - after all, it was
only American news.
Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Keelty told ABC radio on May 23 that police units at Australian airports are running a third of capacity owing to a national staff shortage, and that new security measures were taking longer than anticipated to implement because of the shortage of qualified police. Thereby hangs a tale …
The Monday after the foiled New York plot (Australia time), a spokesman for Attorney-General Philip Ruddock was quoted as saying, among other things, that "security agencies would examine the plot and liaise with their US colleagues to determine if the men had links with Australia.
"He said detailed threat assessments had already been performed on Australia's airports and fuel facilities, but authorities would re-examine these if the US plot revealed any weaknesses." (The Australian
, June 4, 2007).
All very reassuring, but most intelligence officers would say that there were too many "ifs" in this statement - especially as a whistleblower (former Customs official Allan Robert Kessing) is currently facing a Sydney court for sentencing, after being found guilty of revealing, in 2005, security breaches and problems with baggage-handling at Sydney Airport. (Mark Colville, ABC Radio National's PM
, May 25, 2007).
(Significantly, one of those arrested over the JFK airport plot was a former baggage-handler there).Explosions
Imagine a terrorist group attacking the fuel farm at Sydney or Melbourne international airports - the explosions, the damage, the panic and confusion, the distressed wounded and silent dead, with emergency service workers desperately trying to restore order out of chaos - all before the counter-terrorist forces swing into action.
The 9/11 attack on America was covered for a whole week by Australian TV as its lead segment. How long would an attack on Australian soil dominate headlines and TV news?
However, it would appear that the government finds whistleblowing illegal only when it has the capacity to embarrass. And if the alleged security breach happens to be true, the penalty is likely to be higher.
The truth is uncomfortable for government and dangerous in public hands; but what makes the whistleblower's statements any more detrimental to Australian security than the admission by AFP Commissioner Keelty that Australian airport security is seriously inadequate?
Why should a concerned public servant face jail for stating what might be described as "the bleeding obvious"?- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.