Nuts and Bolts of an anti-terrorism strategy

In the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Jakarta, terrorism is back on the electoral agenda, whether we like it or not. It has not really gone away of course, but the political parties in Australia seem to have had a mutual non-aggression pact to not discuss the issue.

That could be sensible – exposing an issue to the harsh light of publicity is generally not the best way to generate the best possible policy. Few sensible ideas survive a mangling by Australia’s media/political complex in good shape.

But what should Australia’s policy settings regarding terrorism actually be? I am not seeing this given much thought in the press, nor have the political parties had much to say about it. I am talking about the nuts and bolts. I do not have answers, but let us at least ask questions.

What follows is a long essay discussing Australia’s capacity to respond to terrorism from a policy level, and at a reactive level. I have absolutely no expertise in this field, I have just written a sort of “wish-list” of what a sensible policy platform should look like. I know Troppo readers are never short of a good idea or three so please feel free to make constructive suggestions, improvements, etc.

We have to look at the sorts of problems that we have to deal with. We can say that there are five possible scenarios that policymakers have to confront. Firstly, there is an offshore attack against Australian interests, such as yesterday’s bombing, or the 2002 attack on Bali.

Second, there is the possibility of an aviation based attack, such as what happened in New York. Also, the more ‘old fashioned’ hostage sort of attack has to be considered as well.

Thirdly, the threat posed by car bombs, and suicide bombers, where a mobile object or person is placed in a static facility with the aim of causing as much destruction as possible. This menace might also be subdivided into attacks that are designed to cause maximum casualties, and attacks which are designed to destroy infrastructure.

Fourthly, there is the nightmare of a “Belsan” type situation, where a large number of people are taken hostage by armed terrorists, and a resulting siege takes place.

Finally, there are the ‘known unknowns’, made famous by Donald Rumsfeld. The comic aspect of what he said should not deter policymakers from understanding his point- we must recognise that there are dangers out there that we do not know about, and may well not know about until they actually happen. A well-constructed policy should bear this in mind, and be mindful of its own limitations.

Intelligence is a key in any government’s anti-terrorism strategy. Attacks on Australian targets overseas are properly the responsibility of the ASIS branch, and countering domestic threats is currently a task that is divided between ASIO, the AFP, and state police forces.

My first thought is that it is silly to have two domestic security services. The AFP has gradually expanded from keeping law and order in Canberra to being almost an FBI equavilent; my initial policy instinct would be to abolish ASIO and greatly expand the AFP, or vice versa. However, since the goal here is to have an efficient domestic intelligence service, whatever works best is good. But in general there should be clear lines of responsibility, and everyone should be working together instead of having ‘turf wars’.

Having the federal system that we do, turf wars are a fact of life, and there needs to be smooth workings between the federal and state governments and their agencies. Most (if not all) state police forces have ‘tactical response groups’ or equivalent forces, and these groups will be the key response personnel in the case of a serious hostage situation. This brings up a point where I really do not have a clue what the best answer is- should there be a federal version of the ‘tactical response group’ to assist in such situations? I can see a case for both sides.

Some would argue that the SAS can be used, but I would say otherwise. The SAS is a military unit, and it is trained to be, well, efficient at killing people. It is very good at that, and while there is a lot to be said for killing terrorists, generally the focus of anti-terrorism forces should be to avoid killing people, as hostages, bystanders and other innocents get killed as often as not. This has obvious implications for the sort of training and equipment that is used in these situations.

In the other sorts of terrorist situations, such as a bombing, it seems best to me that the sort of high level expertise in the AFP is kept at a central level; for one thing, we do not have do deal with this problem at such a level that we need state police to develop strong skills in this area. But they will be at the front line at any given situation, so they do need to work with the AFP. I would guess that such things already happen, but in a nuts and bolts strategy, you do not overlook the basics, either.


There are a lot of political implications in all of this. There are fundamental debates that have to be had about the trade-off between security and liberties. Do we grant domestic security agents the right to bug phones, buildings and the like? If so, how are they to be supervised? Should police be able to invoke emergency powers to prevent a terrorist attack, and if so, how?

There are trade-offs in all of these areas, and that is the nuts and bolts of politics- doing trade offs is what politics is all about. But the way in which these questions are answered have an impact on the way we defend ourselves against terrorism.

Another political issue that needs sensitive handling is relations between Australia’s Muslim communities and the government. It is a sad fact of life that most of the attentions of domestic intelligence agencies are going to be focused on terrorists using various Islamic teachings as a justification for their crimes, and as a result, there are undoubtly problems with the Australian Islamic community and the way that they feel about Australian institutions.

Building a climate of confidence will not be easy; if Margo Kingston thinks the Australian media and political community is controlled by “the fundamentalist Zionist lobby” one shudders to think what Australian Muslims feel. But it is still important to make the effort, both for Australian Muslims and the wider community. Nothing is more likely to cause a surge of ‘islamophobia’ in Australia then a terrorist attack here, and it is still vital to make the effort for the cause of preventing an attack.

Another political point that needs to be reviewed are a range of laws. It is alarming that there was no laws against what David Hicks might have done in Afghanistan- I am not sure if that particular situation has been remedied, but there may well be other legal problems that might arise in a terrorist situation. Also I think there needs to be thought given to protecting police and other law enforcement officers from over-eager prosecutions that might arise from the course of their duties.

I am not saying that there is a problem with that happening; there might be a problem with the perception of this happening. The last thing we need is for law-enforcement officers to have doubts in the back of their mind in a hostage situation that they are going to be prosecuted. This is a delicate balancing act between the need to support police and the need to prevent abuses of power. (Such as in this case, where a British soldier is under arrest for killing an Iraqi civilian while arresting him in Iraq). This is not at all easy, but policymakers need to take such dilemmas in mind before they become an issue.

Then there is the vexed question of foreign policy. At a broad level this is hard because there is so much heavy politicing going on. At a more specific level, what is needed is for international co-operation between law-enforcement operations. This actually seems to be going on quite well between Australian and Indonesian experts, and this relationship needs to be built on and protected. It needs to be protected from electioneering politicians, and loud mouthed whackos and pundits. Also it needs to be recognised that Indonesia also has electioneering politicians and loud mouthed whackos and pundits, and care needs to be taken to not take offence at same.

These are unavoidable in democracies; what is important is that trust and respect exist between the people that matter in this relationship (policymakers and law-enforcement people) and that not too much attention is given to the noise made by the troublemakers that exist (and are essential to any part of a democracy. Indonesia has elections too.) Trying to educate the wider Australian public about Indonesian politics, policymakers and issues through the Australian media may be a lost cause, but Australia’s key personnel should make efforts to keep informed about who is who in Indonesia.

Indonesia is the key relationship, but there are plenty of other important relationships that need to be worked with as well. As ever, a sense of pragmatism and making things work need to take a front seat and ideology and electioneering politiking needs to be kept in the background as much as possible, with due recognition of the fact that politics are also unavoidable.

We need to be tolerant of the differences that exist between nations, but also we need to work on educating our neighbours that we also are different; robust political grandstanding is terribly distasteful to Indonesian culture but indispensable as part of our own.


As a guiding principle, Australian governments do need to be honest with the Australian public, both in terms of what the government is doing, and as to what Australia’s anti-terrorism policy is, and what the goals of that policy should be. Given the sensitivities of this area, governments tend to be over-secretive, both for reasons of operational security, and also because cock-ups tend to have such a huge political price. If governments were actually honest about cock-ups, the public (though not the media/political complex) would be a lot more forgiving. And policymakers must accept that cock-ups will happen. The government should be upfront about it, and work to reduce them without having savage witch-hunts. I mentioned before that I am worried that law-enforcement officers may be in danger of being reticent when they should be bold out of fears of prosecution; it is just as bad if they hold back when they should not because of fears of scapegoating. Australia’s finest need all the support that they deserve and policymakers should look to remove any impediments that affect their work.

And if the government needs to keep things a secret (which is par for the course) it should say so. The government should work to educate people about the realities of dealing with the terrorist problem, so that people can make a more informed assessment about how the government is doing. By this, I mean the government should point out the limitations of intelligence, the legal difficulties involved, the balancing acts and compromises involved. I do not think they will get a great deal of assistance from the Australian media, but concerned Australian citizens will be able to make their own assessment if they care to try to find out.

I admit I do not have answers to any the questions I have raised here. However, I know that in policy, asking the right questions are half the trick. The end goal of Australia’s anti-terrorism policy should be to keep us safe while protecting our liberties, both as individuals and as a nation.

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2024 years ago

Just a few thoughts.

Merging the AFP and ASIO strikes me as a bad idea. The 911 commission report goes on and on about the failure to share data between the FBI, focused on prosecuting cases, and other US intelligence agencies. The skill-sets for police and spooks are quite different. We also do not want the AFP to regularly exercise the security powers vested in ASIO.

The police should not have the right to assume emergency powers. That should be exercised by the governor-in-council with a report to parliament when the crisis is past.

Lastly, this is all really about human rights. Societies that entrench human rights do not produce large numbers of terrorists. Australia needs to make human rights central to foreign policy. That does not mean endless preaching, but it does mean working towards improved human rights in a lot of Southeast Asia. It may mean thinking about a bill of rights at home.

Scott Wickstein
2024 years ago

Lastly, this is all really about human rights. Societies that entrench human rights do not produce large numbers of terrorists. Australia needs to make human rights central to foreign policy. That does not mean endless preaching, but it does mean working towards improved human rights in a lot of Southeast Asia. It may mean thinking about a bill of rights at home.

We need to work on the assumption, I think, that our ability to influence events in South-East Asia is going to be severely limited both now, and long into the future. Ideally, if the economic and political trends in South East Asia continue to improve, the incidence of terrorism is likely to subside gradually over time; however, this essay is thinking in the short term (say, up to 2010), and it is going to take South East Asia a long time to ‘catch up’ on economic and social development.

I’m in favour of a Bill of Rights myself, but I do not understand the thinking in an anti-terrorism context..could you elaborate please?

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2024 years ago

Two quick observations:

i) I do not see Bills Of Rights have been any use in entrenching and protecting human rights where they have existed. Much has been written on this.

ii) Apart from endless preaching what sort of action do you think Australia could take to encourage the development of human rights in South East Asia? I don’t think this is what Howard’s critics were meaning when they lambast him for not engaging the region.

Scott Wickstein
2024 years ago

It seems to me that as South East Asian nations make the slow transition to Western style democracies and economic systems, there is not a lot we can do either way apart from providing technical advice in the way we already do.

It is a really difficult time for them. Part of the current ‘terrorism’ thing might be part of Indonesian society’s ‘growing pains’, although really I do not know enough about the place to do anything more then speculate.

2024 years ago

You can’t win any war, including the WoT without winning the war of ideas. Broadly Australia’s human rights record is excellent. There are occasional exceptions when parliament let’s itself get stampeded by events. We actually already have an extraordinarily limited bill of rights that extends only to religion and the various implied rights that flow from representative democracy.

There is, for example, nothing to prevent discriminatory racial laws. It’s hard to advocate rights overseas when we’ve still got blots on the record at home.

2024 years ago

The model to use with regard to JI is the British response to the IRA – both operationally and policy-wise.
Yes, we are greatly hampered by not being able to simply bung on an accent to infiltrate JI which is why we have to really close to Indonesian Intelligence community.
Most of the threat JI poses is with bombs. The only way to counter this is with Intelligence.
Much of the anti-IRA intelligence was provided by the British SAS – standing in wall cavities, keeping watch over farms etc. The SAS is not just about dressing in black and kicking in doors.
Having a clearly defined division of labour between military and civilian arms is extremely useful – role specification as well as differnet rules of engagement etc.
All that said, it won’t be Aussie SAS or ASIO field agents that are used in Indonesia: they will all be Indonesian.
The fight against JI will be long and drawn out. The hope is that there will be some sort of generational change as the main leadership is killed or captured. Victory over JI will by them running out of steam or transforming themselves into something else.
An example of transformation is the PLO.
Of course a new JIO will arise (Hezbollah and Alaksar Martyrs Brigade).

Cameron Riley
2024 years ago

My first thought is that it is silly to have two domestic security services. The AFP has gradually expanded from keeping law and order in Canberra to being almost an FBI equavilent; my initial policy instinct would be to abolish ASIO and greatly expand the AFP, or vice versa.

The Westminster is bad for combating entropy to the centre. Where it comes from in Britain is almost entirely centrist, and Canada has combated centrism by rejuvenating their constitution in 1982. Australia has a wet noodle constitution, and insipid federalism; the federal government perpetually covets the states respsonsibilities. I dont like the federal government having a police force. Protecting individual liberty from federal government demands that the policing remain the responsibility of the states.

The Northern Territory and ACT should be made to become states and get their own police forces, or alternatively use NSW’s police force. I have no problem with the government having a federal police co-ordination center, but I would prefer it was peopled by state police officers and funded with federal money.

However I do not want the states having spy or intelligence organizations. What remaining liberty there is in Australia would be flushed down the toilet pronto if NSW got to set up an ASIO equivalent. I would dissolve the AFP at the federal level, let the fed fund a task force coordination center, but make them beg for bodies, skills and policing knowledge from the states. The federal government shouldnt be able to handcuff people, it is better if the states do that.

Some would argue that the SAS can be used, but I would say otherwise.
Totally agree, terrorism is a civil issue, not a military one. The military is far too blunt an instrument for countering terorrism. The most successful nations in bringing terrorist organizations to justice have been Pakistan, Indonesia and Spain, all used police work rather than military force. The most unsuccessful anti-terrorist operations have been the US led forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; while Afghanistan was justified, both have led to chatoic and disorderly environments. Environments that terrorism thives in.

Then there is the vexed question of foreign policy.

This is the area where the most can be done to combat terrorism. I wrote a bit on it after the Jakarta bombing. Indonesia has been taking the punches for us and has been handling it admirably. The brought the Bali bombers to justice, showed respect for the rule of law by not back dating a terrorist law. Jemaah Islamiah has already lost there. Indonesia is acting like an enlightened democracy, which is brilliant after all that period of being stuck under dictatorships.

Despite Jemaah Islamiah striking at Australian targets in Indonesia, I dont think their main target is Australia. I believe they are trying to isolate Australia from Indonesia by having that good old Aussie bile of racism rise to the surface. I also believe they are trying to get Indonesia to balkanize. Which will create the environment of chaos and disorder within which they can flourish (much like Iraq) and maybe even get a fanatical extremist state somewhere.

They will inevitably lose, despite the horrors, they have already lost. Australia and Indonesia are alrady working together, and will continue to do so. Terrorism against Australian targets in Indonesia will only bring our two nations closer together. Which is a good thing as IMO South Pacific and South East Asia prosperity and stability will reside with Australia and Indonesia having a strong relationship.

This can be hastened. Australia and Indonesia have complementary economies at this stage. Indonesia needs a great deal more wealth to be spread around as well. This is where Australia should be targeting a genuine FTA, between equals. In order to speed up the process of Indonesian prosperity. It should also be a genuine FTA with provisions for increased immigrant labor, education, etc. Not the managed trade agreement we got with the US.

Secondly, Australian vulnerabilities lie largely around Indonesia. As a trading nation our sea lines of communication (SLOC) are vulnerable in the North West shelf, the Timor Sea and Coral Sea. We also have fishing and oil assets up there. If Australia and Indonesia form a strong defence relationship, then those vulnerabilities will lessen. For at least a century Australia will be the stronger partner in that relationship, but there may come the day when Indonesia becomes the stronger partner and Australia enjoys a benign region in much the same way New Zealand and Canada do now. The leg work for that has to be done now.

ANZUS is junk, it is an archaic Cold War document. It should be used as a doormat at the local national park porta-dunny. Security treaties now must include defence, proliferation and terrorism. Australia should be laying the ground work to create a document with Indonesia. it can build on the information sharing and police co-operation that is going on now between Australia and Indonesia. This can be the basis for South Pacific stability for the next 50 years.

It is important that Australia seek to create the conditions so that nations that are getting over authoritarian governments have the breathing room to continue to mature as democracies and market economies. Europe fully democratized with the Cold War, Asia hasnt yet but has started the process. It is imperative that Australia as a wealthy democracy and market economy use the nation-state to advance stability and security in the South Pacific and South-East Asia not by pre-emption, but by diplomacy and friendship.

I would go further as well, and seek a similar defence relationship on two axis. One in the Pacific with Australia, Japan and the USA as the major signatories; and one in the Indian with Australia, India and South Africa as the major signitories. All democracies and all market economies with an interest in liberty, trade and stability. It could help redefine the world as we know it.

Tom Davies
Tom Davies
2024 years ago

An alliance with India might mean that Islamic terrorists would see Australia as being on the wrong side of the Kashmir issue. Not a reason not to do it, but something to consider.

How about funding secular education in SE Asia to compete with Madrassas?

2024 years ago

That’s where 90% of this problem lies. The madrassas in Solo and elsewhere in central Java have been causing trouble for a long time. I remember travel warnings advising Westerners to keep clear of those areas in 1999. They are also responsible for much of the trouble in Ambon and Sulawesi. Education reform and regulation may slowly wind back some of the trouble Bashir and his clowns have created. And don’t forget to stop the flow of (legitimate) Saudi funding while you’re at it. If the Saudis want to fund schools, let them do so through the Indonesian education budget.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago

Without wanting to enter this discussion generally, I should point out that Cameron’s assumption that the Federal Police perform state police-type functions in the NT and ACT is wrong. Both territories have their own police forces. The Federal Police enforces federal laws (e.g. drug importation, anti-terrorism and a wide range of other stuff). You can no doubt mount an argument that federal laws could be enforced by state police, but not without a considerable expansion of their numbers. Moreover, I’m also not at all sure that that would improve the quality of individual freedoms (which seems to be Cameron’s primary focus). It would just mean continual co-ordination headaches, with 8 different police forces enforcing the same laws in different ways.

Cameron Riley
2024 years ago

Both territories have their own police forces.

Glad to be wrong there, since the territories are self-sufficient in policing there is even less reason to keep the AFP around.

It would just mean continual co-ordination headaches, with 8 different police forces enforcing the same laws in different ways.

I have no problem with inefficiencies being introduced by the Federal Government not having a policing capability. If the states are responsible for enforcing these laws, there is less chance of the states enforcing repugnant laws, or inconvenient ones.

I dont mind the states having this capability as if one state turns to a police state or tyrannical, I can easily and quickly move to another state. If the Federal Government becomes oppressive, it is incredibly difficult by comparison to move countries and get a work visa.

For this reason the Federal Government should be a shining example of minimal government. It is not, which is why I dont trust Canberra.

2024 years ago

I see it mainly as concentrating on law enforcement- giving whatever assistance we can to Indonesia to deal with JI and foreign policy engagement, which must look at the factors underpinning/fuelling Islamic international terrorism.

Even the hawk Dr Ullman who first used the phrase ‘shock and awe’ realised that these matters had to be addressed, which has also been backed up by the 9/11 Commission report.

My worry is that it will become -for those that who see it mainly as a clash of civilizations- like the war on drugs; a problem not capable of being solved and that can never be won.

2024 years ago

Jakarta, Terrorism and Foreign Policy

Short bit on an Australian response to terrorism, and how that pushes us closer to Indonesia.
I have moved my political diaries to here. I will still be posting more non-political and less heavy handed diaries here. Ones that fit with HuSi’…