Terror attacks spark security rethink
Almost four weeks before a Somali-born Australian took a woman hostage in Melbourne on Monday, invoking the name of two terrorist organisations and shooting a man dead, one of those groups sent a message to supporters urging them to do just that.
The May edition of the Daesh organisation’s monthly magazine, aimed at Western sympathisers, proposed a new means for causing “as much carnage and terror” as possible: lure an unsuspecting stranger to a location, take him or her hostage, pledge public allegiance to the cause and then kill as many people as possible before provoking the authorities to kill you.
In stomach-churning detail, the magazine suggested placing a fake job ad or “for sale” notice on a website.
The unsuspecting respondent, it said, would have to come inside to inspect the non-existent goods or discuss the non-existent job and could then be captured, restrained and murdered.
The magazine outlined the kind of location, weapons options, nature of deception and killing techniques required for success. This, it said, was to honour Allah.
Yacqub Khayre did not go to as much trouble as the Daesh publication proposed. But his actions – following recent horrific attacks abroad, in Britain, and also a rare attack this week in Middle East Shiite stronghold Iran – appeared to echo its recommendations and have added a new dimension to counterterrorism efforts in Australia.
Khayre’s offence has been designated a terrorist act. The 29-year-old previously drug-addicted violent armed robber, a former child refugee who came to Australia with his grandparents, was a known associate of at least three convicted terrorists and had been charged alongside them and one other man, a Melbourne sheikh, with conspiring to blow up Sydney’s Holsworthy army barracks in 2009.
The court found Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmed was linked to the plan only because he was asked to give it his blessing. He insisted he had declined and tried to stop it and he was acquitted.
So was Yacqub Khayre. Although prosecutors argued he had sent a potentially incriminating text message, they could not persuade the jury beyond reasonable doubt that it came from him. The jury also could not validate the prosecutors’ claim that a trip he made to Somalia was seeking religious permission from an imam there to take part in a terrorist attack in Australia.
In the years since, Khayre had been convicted of and jailed for a string of violent offences, most recently a home invasion.
Apparently having otherwise met all of the conditions of his parole, and giving no obvious indication of what he was planning, he booked a serviced apartment in the bayside suburb of Brighton on Monday.
He called a sex worker to the premises, a Colombian woman living in Australia who became his hostage. She survived but he murdered newly married 36-year-old Chinese-born receptionist Kai Hao.
Khayre alerted police by forcing the woman to make phone calls to 000 and the Seven Network, dedicating his actions to both Daesh and al-Qaeda, and by hacking off the monitoring ankle bracelet he had worn since being released from jail late last year.
He was shot dead as he rushed at police, firing a sawn-off shotgun. Police believe this is the outcome he intended.
State and federal authorities are examining the episode and the recent attacks abroad for any changes they may demand to Australian policy, policing or public expectations of the levels of everyday security required to keep people safe.
Deakin University professor of global Islamic politics Greg Barton says that while the Daesh magazine won’t have been the only influence on Khayre – hostage-taking has been used before – the finale to Monday night’s siege fitted the magazine’s description, with the attacker provoking his own death.
“I didn’t expect that we’d see people picking up these ideas,” Barton told The Saturday Paper. “IS [Daesh] was throwing stuff against the wall to see what would stick … We’re no longer in a world of simple categories when it comes to terrorism.”
Federal and state governments are wrestling with how to respond. Some counterterrorism experts believe they should be urging Australians to be extra vigilant in their day-to-day lives.
Some say a new public awareness campaign may be required, with instructions along the lines of Britain’s “Run, hide, tell”.
It is 15 years since the Australian government rolled out a national terrorism awareness campaign, the “Be alert, but not alarmed” message that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Turnbull government says it is willing to consider such a campaign, should the security agencies support it.
“There should be a public education campaign directed at multiple audiences,” Barton says.
The head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s counterterrorism policy centre, Jacinta Carroll, also believes it would be useful.
“Yes, we probably need one now,” Carroll says. “We mightn’t have needed one so much before.”
She says Australia could develop its own version of the British “Run, hide, tell” message that gained international prominence following last week’s London Bridge and Borough Market attack.
“The beauty of ‘Run, hide, tell’ is it’s very simple, it’s easy to remember and it’s very clear,” she says.
Carroll especially emphasises the importance of reminding people to “tell”, not only as an incident is unfolding but before something happens. She says too many people notice things – especially changes within their own communities – and expect that the authorities will automatically know, too.
“The expectation of government shouldn’t be that government is actually seeing into everyone’s minds and knows what everyone is doing,” Carroll says.
The former United States director of national intelligence, James Clapper, currently in Australia as a visiting professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College, observed something similar in his address to the National Press Club this week.
Clapper described what he believes are unrealistic public expectations placed on intelligence.
“We are to provide timely, accurate, relevant, anticipatory intelligence but do it in such a way that there is absolutely no risk and … that if revealed, there’s no embarrassment … no foreign leader gets mad at us and … there isn’t even the scintilla of jeopardy to anyone’s civil liberties and privacy,” Clapper said. “We call this new paradigm for intelligence ‘immaculate collection’.”
The line got a good laugh but the message was clear: if we expect security agencies to be all-seeing and all-knowing to prevent attacks, there are consequences.
Jacinta Carroll says reshaping Australian laws to help prevent attacks remains a challenge.
“Our legal system in the common law environment is absolutely based on a criminal prosecution and that can only work after a crime has been committed,” Carroll says. “The challenge is how can we do things to prevent these things from happening before a crime has been committed.”
Ahead of Thursday’s election in Britain, British prime minister Theresa May said she was looking at significant changes there to combat terrorism.
“I mean doing more to restrict the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court,” she said.
“And if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it.”
The Australia–New Zealand counterterrorism committee has been working on a strategy for upgrading security in places of mass gathering, which is likely to lead to a much more visible security presence, including more metal detectors, bollards and bag-searching.
Jacinta Carroll says that in the wake of the kinds of attacks seen in Manchester and at Westminster and London Bridge, further protective measures are required.
“Whether it’s planned, whether it’s copycat, whether it’s just a person high on drugs like we saw in [Melbourne’s] Bourke Street Mall – the risk is too high not to do something about it,” she says.
Carroll says security agencies also need to be properly resourced to do the job asked of them.
“There should be a range of things that make it easier for prevention to occur,” she says. “There’s a very high expectation about what government should know and be able to do after an attack has occurred. But we haven’t necessarily provided the capability and the resources for them to do this.”
Carroll insists business must also play an active role in protecting citizens from harm.
In the wake of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is a renewed focus on what is known as “the exit period”, the time as people leave venues when there is often little or no security after an event. It was as crowds left the Manchester Arena concert that the bomber struck.
The Council of Australian Governments, meeting in Hobart on Friday, had been previously scheduled to receive a general security briefing from the prime minister’s director of counterterrorism, Tony Sheehan, and director-general of ASIO, Duncan Lewis.
In the wake of the Manchester attack, it was due to be briefed on the almost-completed public-places strategy as well.
After Monday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also put the issue of parole on the agenda, demanding tougher and more nationally consistent parole arrangements to avoid having violent offenders with links to terrorists being released from jail without adequate monitoring, as he argues Yacqub Khayre was.
In the lead-up to COAG, there was inter-agency claim and counterclaim about the information available to the Victorian parole board on Khayre’s past connections and activities.
Following this, and last fortnight’s report from the Lindt cafe siege inquest, there is also renewed debate about the intersection between drug abuse, mental health problems and terrorism. On Thursday, the attorney-general announced all 12 of the inquest’s recommendations would be adopted, including information-sharing for bail and parole and possible changes to callout powers for the defence force.
Late this week, the New South Wales government announced it would legislate urgently to clarify the state police’s authority to use lethal force in terrorist situations and that the riot squad would have access to rapid-fire weapons by the end of the year.
Jacinta Carroll argues links between drug abuse, mental health problems and terrorism – including with more traditional organised crime – need to be more openly acknowledged and discussed. She points to Khayre’s background, including an ice addiction, and his possession of an illegal weapon.
Having studied the Holsworthy case, Professor Greg Barton believes the convicted conspirators left Khayre out of that plot because he was unstable and unreliable.
But he says that as organisations such as Daesh become more desperate, they are increasingly willing to use such people – or at least to claim them after the fact.
“In the past, these groups wouldn’t have touched them,” Barton says. “But in the case of IS [Daesh] they’re seeking them out … The upside for IS is you get a wide pool of idiots who will act in your name. The downside is you get a wide pool of idiots, not reliable foot soldiers.”
Security and law-enforcement agencies must try to detect both the people activated by such groups, who act on instructions, and those who are inspired by them, as it seems Khayre was.
Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton said the authorities were aware Daesh had described Khayre as one of its soldiers, after he was killed.
“That’s the sort of thing they jump up and say a lot,” Ashton told journalists. “We’re not seeing anything at this stage suggesting he’s got messages from overseas to do this at all.”
Particularly in cases involving someone inspired but not necessarily activated by a terrorist organisation, there is not always a visible communications trail. The federal government has expressed frustration that where there may be signs – for example, on social media platforms or messaging systems – encryption technology means they can’t always access them.
Federal Attorney-General George Brandis has now asked that the upcoming meeting of the so-called “Five Eyes” – intelligence-sharing partners the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – in Ottawa at the end of the month discuss the legalities of this as a matter of urgency.
Jacinta Carroll says social media companies should apply the same energy to policing extremist posts as they use in developing algorithms to bombard users with advertising.
“This isn’t just something that is just government responsibility,” she says. “We all have a responsibility.”
James Clapper expressed a similar sentiment on the issue of encrypted devices, including smartphone messaging applications.
“I think there needs to be a very serious dialogue about giving criminals, terrorists, rapists, murderers et cetera a pass,” Clapper said. “I would hope that at some point our technology industry would use all the creativity and innovation and energy that they apply to creating such miraculous technological things as iPhones … to figuring out a way that both the interests of privacy as well as security can be guaranteed. I don’t know what the answer is – I am not an IT geek – but I just don’t think we’re in a very good place right now.”
Another issue arising from the Khayre case and the recent debate about links between refugees and terrorism is the extent of efforts to connect migrants with the wider community.
The head of ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Professor John Blaxland, favours the introduction of community-led sponsorship of refugee families to help them settle and lessen isolation and resentment.
“There’s something they do in Canada, which we really need to pick up on,” Blaxland says. “I think that’s a very important measure. That’s not a punitive one, it’s a positive one.”
Greg Barton argues there should be more official engagement, particularly with people who have had their passports cancelled or been stopped from leaving Australia to join conflicts abroad.
“There are going to be many young Australians for whom a weekly or fortnightly visit could make the difference,” he says. “Some of those several hundred kids are ticking time bombs.”
He believes a program of this kind should be run by police and that 100 new full-time liaison officer positions are needed nationally. He argues it would be expensive but worth the investment. “That’s the area where we’re weakest.”
While it’s not clear if more contact with liaison workers or greater support from the wider community in his younger years might have sent Yacqub Khayre down a different path, there is no doubting the violent, angry man he became.
The mammoth challenge facing Australia now is to track down any others like him and stop those in the next generation from turning out the same.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 10, 2017 as "Terror attacks spark security rethink". Subscribe here.