Current National Security Environment: Security threat, fear and being the adults in the room


image003Against the national security events of the last week, the Security Profession would like to offer some thoughts to those in the community who might be wondering what it all means. In the last few days, Australia’s national security apparatus disrupted plans by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) sympathisers resident in Australia to select people at random and behead them. Since the rule of law applies in Australia, unlike in ISIL – occupied territory, charges laid against those arrested will need to be proven in court. The presumption of innocence applies. However, we should be encouraged that the police operation appears to have been an intelligence-led, well- coordinated and professional security response involving State and Federal Police and the Australian Intelligence Community. Since then, we have been exhorted basically to ‘carry on and keep calm’, although the national terrorism alert level was last week raised from ‘medium’ (an attack‘ could occur’) to ‘high’ (an attack ‘is likely to occur’). This is correct, but it does not mean that we should stop thinking.

The word ‘discipline’ needs to be added to the discussion. Security is about ‘culture’. We have national and state law enforcement and security authorities, and security advisors with various roles, but a secure society is first and foremost one in which people are disciplined in their actions and words. As individuals, we need to understand security threats, which in turn requires us to weigh facts rationally and not resort to impulse or knee jerk reactions. Otherwise the radicals have won. Australians are well-placed here. We have evolved a highly sophisticated, inclusive and egalitarian society, with a long and proud democratic tradition. Consistent with this, we are bound to act with leadership, restraint, sophisticated strategy and unity of purpose. We are, and need to be seen to be, the ‘adults in the room’. Those of us with a public voice doubly so.

What happened last week was not the first time that terrorist intent and planning in the community has been detected and thwarted. Alienated, angry men and women can be drawn to high-profile causes that offer simplistic answers to complex matters and that prey on their fears, insecurities and gullibility. Evil has always been done in the name of one dimensional ideologies–“four legs good, two legs bad” as coined by George Orwell in Animal Farm, or “Christian/Muslim/Jewgood, Christian/Muslim/Jewbad”. Talk back radio is replete with such messages right now. Easy jingoism is not needed and the three word slogan should be put away.

These are the reasons why:

ISIL will not last in any semblance of order– it will be a failed state and will splinter. Yes, ISIL’s destruction must be hastened, but to what degree is this to be done by external parties (theUS, Australia, UK, Middle East actors and others), and what interests exactly would external involvement serve? Remember, that the ‘Irishproblem’ in the end was solved by the Irish themselves. Washington and Westminster got out of the way. In the ISIL context, Australia’s ultimate strategic interest is for the Middle East region to behave in accordance with our needs, and right now, we would be well served by espionage, sabotage and cultivating the authority of friendly elements. Australia tends to do these things quite well, but a slide into conventional military operations on the ground will cost us precious lives and treasure, and may make us a bigger target for extremism. And what about the ultimate stakeholders? When will Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others take a hand and rein in the sectarianism that has so cynically been fuelled in Iraq and Syria through their proxies?

Effective action by these important participants would seem to be a necessary part of the mix. There is no sign of it occurring, which means that deep strategic consideration is needed in committing forces. Has this been done?

Such considerations would be much simpler were the current situation purely a military problem. It is not. With or without our encouragement IS will pass, but angry, alienated youth will still be recruited by remnant splinter groups, which will still be supported by sympathisers in the Arab world, Iran and elsewhere.

What we have seen in Sydney and Logan in recent days is the tip of a massively complex and tricky public policy problem – the mix of policy settings necessary to counter (over decades) the evolution of extremist home-grown elements, or CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). Despite the events of the last week, we must remember that Australia has been much more successful at integrating diverse immigrant populations than many countries. We can take great hope from this. It is amazing that a former Vietnamese refugee was installed as Governor of South Australia last month.

Successive governments have done a lot of work on CVE ( and must continue to, although there appears to be an absence of discussion of these matters in the public domain. Also, despite recent announcements, funding is still much more scarce for this ‘softer side of counter-terrorism’ than for the enforcement side. There needs to be more discussion, because the complexity of the mix of measures needed (health, education, employment, opportunity, public security, community policing) is substantial indeed, expensive and in need of long-term bipartisan political will to sustain. It requires community support, and because of that, high-level community awareness. Government will need to do better here, but at a fundamental level, this is an individual matter.

As the peak representational group of the Security Profession, and as a key thought leadership group on security matters, we in the Australasian Council of Security Professionals make a plea: as members of the Australian community, you are responsible for your own security. You have a duty to educate yourselves properly on the facts of the security threats that confront you. You need to think rationally about these facts, not be blinded by the circus that will no doubt continue for some time around the activities of these few dysfunctional individuals. If we panic, and blame all Muslims, the radicals win. People, whatever the label you put on them, deep down want the same things– love, life and happiness.

Health Professionals will exhort us to educate ourselves about personal hygiene and diet, but it is the individual’s responsibility to wash and eat properly. These professionals are committed to the health of the community. We in the Security Profession are similarly committed–to the security of the community. And our message is similarly clear: educate yourselves, do not be sucked in by three word slogans and simplistic answers to a series of problems that have been around at least since before WW1. Be rational and rely on evidence. Act, speak and think appropriately in the tricky years ahead.