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What raising Australia’s terrorism alert to high would mean for you

Retiring, but not shy: outgoing ASIO Director-General David Irvine has warned Australia may need to lift its terrorism alert level. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Why does Australia have a terrorism alert system? And what does it mean if the alert level is increased?

The National Terrorism Public Alert System is a way of communicating to the public what the current risk of terrorism is to Australia. It has four levels:

  1. low: a terrorist attack is not expected
  2. medium: a terrorist attack could occur
  3. high: a terrorist attack is likely
  4. extreme: a terrorist attack is imminent or has occurred.

Before 2003, we had a three-point system. Following the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the Bali bombings in October 2002 the alert level was raised from low to medium. Ever since introduction of the three-point system we’ve remained on Level 2 - Medium. So to potentially go to ,“high”, or number three out of four on our current alert system, indicates a significant shift in the risk environment.

We would only go to the highest “extreme” level on this alert system if there was already an attack under way or specific intelligence of one being imminent.

While the public threat level might officially be at “medium” at the moment, inside the intelligence community they’re working on even finer gradations of risk.

We got a bit of a sense of that last night when ASIO’s Director-General, David Irvine said on 7.30 that the threat level was “at a very elevated level of medium and I’m certainly contemplating very seriously the notion of lifting it higher”. That reflects a more calibrated approach to thinking about levels of risk within the intelligence community.

Australia’s current terrorism threat level: 10 September 2014.

Should Australians be worried about David Irvine’s warning?

Yes, I think we should. We shouldn’t dismiss this lightly. We’ve had this current four-point terror alert system since 2003 and it’s never been moved beyond medium.

But the purpose of these terrorism alerts is not to make Australians anxious; instead, the most useful thing we can all do is realise there is some urgency about this now, and feel emboldened to speak if we see something suspicious or if we have concerns about someone we know potentially being radicalised.

Are you surprised by the discussion of raising it from medium to high?

Not really, because we’ve heard this being foreshadowed for some time from Irvine. He’s really one of the few voices we hear from ASIO [the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation], and he’s very measured and careful. He’s been warning us of these growing dangers for the past couple of years, but particularly over the past three months since the fall of Mosul to ISIS.

It’s interesting that this discussion about raising our terrorism threat level didn’t happen immediately after the UK raised their threat level [from substantial to severe, meaning a terrorist attack in the UK is considered “highly likely, although there is no intelligence to suggest that one is imminent”. The fact that Australia isn’t simply following suit, but has waited and is now talking about it, indicates there may be some specific intelligence relating to Australia that has prompted this discussion.

Who is David Irvine? And should Australians take his warnings seriously?

David Irvine is sometimes colourfully described as Australia’s most senior spy. He’s the Director-General of ASIO, he’s been in that post for five years, and he’s retiring this Friday, September 12. He’s stepping down and his replacement will be former Special Forces chief Duncan Lewis.

Irvine has always been very professional and non-partisan, and he’s not given to loose rhetoric. Also, as he is about to retire has no reason to be saying any of this to curry favour with the government or anyone else.

His statements to the public are always very carefully crafted. He’s one of only a handful of people in ASIO and our intelligence community who can even tell the public what they do and where they work – current legislation prevents most other ASIO staff from doing that – and he’s taken that responsibility of talking with the public very seriously.

As ASIO’s Director-General, he’s gone out of his way to build greater rapport with the community. For instance, in recent weeks he’s spoken with a number of Muslim media outlets and community groups, as well as on national TV and at the National Press Club. [Editor’s note: you can read Michelle Grattan’s recent interview with David Irvine here.] On every occasion, he’s tried to explain the evidence and the reasons behind the increased terrorism threat.

Very importantly, he’s recognised and emphasised in his work with Australia’s Muslim community that when we talk about any radical homegrown terror threat, we’re only talking about a tiny minority and sub-culture. Our 500,000 Australian Muslims are not the problem; it’s the one-in-a-thousand that are the problem. In fact, very often Muslim community members have provided some of the best leads about potential security risks and their relationship with the intelligence community is crucial.

Are there particular terrorism targets in Australia that are seen as being at greatest risk?

I think one of the nightmare scenarios keeping people awake at night are terrorists going for a so-called “soft target”, like a sporting venue, an entertainment venue or a public transport system. We saw that happen with public transport both in Madrid and in London.

We saw what can happen with those soft targets with the Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi last year. And that echoed the siege in Mumbai in November 2008, where just 10 guys using assault weapons killed more than 160 people over three days of siege.

That kind of attack could happen easily in any Western democracy, especially now that it’s not as hard as it was in the past to obtain assault weapons. The reason it’s so difficult to deal with situations like that is that you have a large number of people, you can’t easily move all of them quickly, there’s confusion, often confusion about whether hostages might be involved.

If you’re talking about a shopping mall or a sports ground, you simply can’t put everyone through a metal detector or be checking every bag or doing all the security checks you can do at places like an airport, because our society would stop functioning. We’re trying to balance carefully continuing to live life as we know it with managing these risks.

The best security we have comes from human intelligence – and that means having the involvement of people right across the community, but particularly within communities where there’s a degree of radicalisation going on and where people are being preyed upon by radical elements.

That’s our best line of defence. If we rely on having an armed official to stop a terrorist, then it’s probably too late.

British police officers patrol in front of the Olympic stadium in London. EPA/Michael Kappeler

The London Olympics were an excellent example of that. There were a lot more uniformed guards in the streets, but the reason the Games went so well was not so much because they were there. Instead, it was like ducks on a pond: everything looked very calm, but what you didn’t see was the furious paddling beneath the surface - the huge amount of work, watching people of concern, listening to patterns of chatter, as well as a lot of work with community. And it went wonderfully well, thanks to all that work beneath the surface.

That’s why I think David Irvine was right on 7.30 last night, to point out that while Australia has been very lucky to avoid an attack on Australian soil, we have had to work hard to stop terrorist attacks occurring here in Australia. So it’s not all luck.

Terrorism kills only a fraction of the people who die globally from disease and other causes. A number of readers have asked: could the motive for increasing the terrorism threat be political rather than real? Or has Australia got it right in what we’re doing and spending on terrorism?

As best we can tell, I think we’ve got it about right.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott announcing new counter-terrorism measures last month. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

We’ve just had a new federal government, which is very fiscally conservative, announce an extra A$630 million for counter-terrorism, including work with community groups.

The fact they’ve been willing to do this in the current budget environment suggests there must have been a very compelling case made to spend that money.

But it’s important to stress that the best counter-terrorism work is mostly done preventatively and through intelligence. Simply buying offensive weapons and equipment, as has been done by some US county sheriffs, won’t make communities safer.

What’s the most useful thing Australians can do in response to any increased terrorism alert?

The first thing is to recognise that Australia in a good place in terms of security because of the high degree of community solidarity that exists here. That means anything we do – especially any loose talk that rashly demonises entire communities based on their faiths or ethnicity – is a threat to our national security.

Trust between different ethnic and religious groups across Australia and with our security authorities is the bedrock of our security, it is of vital importance.

In making this announcement about possibly increasing the terrorism threat level, the hope would be to encourage more people to speak up, rather than keep their concerns to themselves. And if you do speak up and report those concerns, you will get a more receptive response from the authorities at the moment.

It might be something you see on your social networks, or in the community: if your gut reaction is that something isn’t quite right, then speak up.

That’s not asking people to peek through their venetians and spy on their neighbours. It’s just asking people to be thoughtful and observant; for instance, if you see a truck on your street for a couple of days that looks out of place, you can get someone to check it out.

Or if you’re worried about your brother, or your son, or your friend who hasn’t seemed themselves lately – maybe they’ve broken off old friendships or suddenly changed their views.

People speaking up about their loved ones and friends has been the front line of defence, saving those young people – especially young men – from going overseas and likely harming themselves and possibly others. In many cases where passports have been withheld in Australia, the tip-offs have come through the community.

When it comes to terrorism, prevention is far better than cure.

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