Australia bolsters maritime defences after terror attacks

In the days after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the Attorney General Daryl Williams were able to refer to past accomplishments with the now established 'whole-of-government' approach in order to bolster public confidence in the face of a new global threat.1 With a general election looming less than a month later on 10 November 2001, the Howard government changed its priorities to put national security in top position. Howard promised, as a short-term measure, to significantly increase the capabilities of the government agency Coastwatch, to improve its ability to carry out surveillance, react to emergencies and counter people smuggling.

The government's past and ongoing focus on curbing illegal immigration would blend nicely into its future focus on anti-terrorism. But because of the election, no specific legislation relating to terrorism was introduced until March 2002. However, the Intelligence Services Act 2001, which had already been prepared, was passed in October 2001 and provided the legislative basis for the foreign intelligence service in the post 11 September 2001 era.

Starting on 12 March 2002, the Howard government introduced a package of anti-terrorism legislation. It contained eight new and amended bills, which were altered to tackle terrorism. The package covered areas such as hoaxes, financing of terrorism, bombings, border security and interception of telecommunications. Of note was the inclusion of legislation in each bill that dealt with information sharing between government departments and agencies for the purposes of national security.

The most significant bills were the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002, which inserted new terrorism offences into the Criminal Code Act of 1995, and the controversial Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002, which would enhance ASIO's powers to question and detain persons who have information important to a terrorist offence. It would take a year and three months with two withdrawals by the Senate before the controversial ASIO Act became law. Human rights organisations and legal and political groups in Australia criticised the whole package, and the ASIO Act in particular, for contravening internationally recognised human rights standards including the right to presumed innocence and a fair trial. However, the ASIO bill has a sunset clause, which takes effect in 2006.

While these bills were being debated, a significant meeting between the prime minister and the state and territorial leaders took place in April 2002. The Leaders' Summit on Terrorism and Multi-jurisdictional Crime was a landmark gathering, which led to the attorney generals in each state and territory agreeing to pass legislation to refer constitutional power to the commonwealth (federal government) in "national terrorist situations".2

Furthermore, the leaders agreed to "improve Australia's anti-terrorist intelligence capacity and to develop effective means for sharing intelligence… upgrade the central co-ordination capacity so that the operational arms of the commonwealth and the states and the territories can obtain information and strategic advice necessary to respond rapidly and effectively" and finally, to reconstitute "the National Counter-Terrorism Committee with a broader mandate to cover prevention and consequence management issues."3

This is very significant in that it helped to close the seams evident between different levels of government when they co-ordinate responses to terrorism. With regard to organised crime, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) replaced the National Crime Authority and focused on criminal intelligence collection and improvement of information exchange between the various law enforcement agencies on the links between organised crime and terrorist organisations.

On the port and vessel security front, Australia joined the international community in supporting the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) decision to increase port and vessel security through the worldwide institution of the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code. This code would be accepted and enshrined in the Maritime Transport Security Bill 2003. The wide-ranging requirements of the code for ship and port security organisations and standards were given a worldwide completion date of 1 July 2004.

The crisis of 11 September 2001 brought about a shift in the Australian stance on the need for security against the outside world. After 11 September 2001, Australians became unanimous in supporting "strong border patrol" policies - and the government made them a priority.4 The 'whole-of-government' approach in Australia became the accepted method of tackling security concerns. A battery of brief legislative amendments served to adjust departmental mandates across government to enable the cross-jurisdictional and cross-cultural information sharing that had been envisioned by the earlier joint committee.

Fallout from Bali bombing

While the US forged ahead with supercharged energy on its vision for national security strategy, countries like Canada and those of the European Union began to coast after their initial 11 September 2001 energy was spent. This was not to be the case in Australia. The bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002 again stoked the fires of those in Australia calling for increased national security. "Although it [the Bali bombing] was only 200 citizens, this was seen by Australians as an attack specifically against Australians by foreign enemies. It was the first time since the Second World War that so many Australians had died - it had a huge impact on national acceptance of strengthening national security."5 This revelation tapped into the concurrent concern over people smuggling and asylum seeking that had been the focus of security policy before the attacks on the US. "Taken together, these two issues have incited 'fear' within the Australian community towards the security of the 'backyard'; echoing sentiments of previous generations whose concerns with invasion from north Asia or the spread of communism in south-east Asia dominated Australian security thinking in the past."6 The very day of the bombings, the government ordered a review of counter-terrorism policy that resulted in several major changes 12 days later. New measures included the assumption of responsibility for counter-terrorism policy co-ordination by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from the Attorney-General's Department and the introduction of an extra-territorial murder offence where Australians have been victims of atrocities overseas. In the ensuing months, the government worked through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to initiate and sign a number of bilateral Memoranda of Understanding on counter-terrorism with regional counterparts in Singapore, Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines. These understandings will include the placement of Australian transport, federal police, and ASIO intelligence officers in regional embassies to provide assistance. Also in March 2003, Australia announced the creation of an Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism who would provide a focal point for promoting and co-ordinating the anti-terrorism effort through international advocacy and representation.

The emphasis on the regional aspects of terrorism had been brought into clear focus after Bali, yet at the same time, evidence of Al-Qaeda involvement in the Bali bombings infused a global dimension to local problems in Australia.7 Furthermore, the important lesson had been learned that military forces are limited in their capability to respond to a terrorist attack - response came primarily from the Australian Federal Police and Australian Security Intelligence personnel. Thus, Australian policy would reflect that security cannot be thought about in terms of military capability alone; there is a definite need for any response to involve, at the very least, an integration of military with non-military assets.8

Notwithstanding this new requirement for capability balance, Defence Minister Robert Hill announced on 4 February 2004 that the government intended to spend more than A$50 billion (US$37.94 billion) over the next decade in an effort to better position the ADF amid a situation that was increasingly threatening. Border security, a key priority for defence, received funding for 10 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), a renewed Maritime Air Patrol aircraft fleet, and upgraded electronic surveillance equipment.9

The terrorist attacks in Madrid on 11 March 2004 "had very little additional effect on the public, possibly due to a familiarity with bombings and violence in neighbouring countries."10 However, the government utilised the distant crisis as confirmation for their policy direction and continued to bolster security and defence apparatus. The National Counter-Terrorism Committee (NCTC) met that day and commenced work on a White Paper on Terrorism.11 At the same time research funding for homeland security became the government's top priority.

With the deadline of 1 July 2004 for implementation of the ISPS Code, maritime transport security resurfaced as the front-running issue after Madrid. At a Maritime Security conference on 29 March 2004, Alexey Muraviev, a lecturer in strategic and defence studies at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, announced that his research led him to believe that militant Islamist terrorist organisations such as the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia "both have operational capabilities to mount a terrorist attack at sea".12 Thus, the maritime threat to Australia was perceived to be getting more specific and severe. Efforts across the country to meet IMO standards for ports and ships were increased.

The regional aspect of counter-terrorism also led the government to contribute to the Regional Trade and Financial Security Fund under APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). This collaboration will involve the development of two Advance Passenger Information (API) systems: the Secure Trade in the APEC Region (STAR) Initiative, which allows real-time exchange of information on travellers between departure and destination ports; and a Regional Movement Alert system, which enables authorities to check specific travellers against a criminal activity database.13 These initiatives will dovetail into the overarching US plan called the Regional Maritime Security Initiative, which was being directed by Admiral Thomas Fargo of US Pacific Command. The plan involves all the collaboration of all Pacific countries to share information in order to prevent maritime terrorist activities, particularly those involving weapons of mass destruction.14

By 5 May 2004, the prime minister surged forward again on the front of intelligence capability and domain awareness. Opening the new National

Threat Assessment Centre (NTAC) in the ASIO headquarters in Canberra, Howard said that the centre was "an important element in the fight of our lives that we have as a nation against the scourge of international terrorism".15 He also announced that ASIO, ASIS, and Defence Intelligence and the Office of National Assessment would receive A$232 million ($US 176.06 million) to improve intelligence on domestic and foreign fronts. Clearly, the three periods of security evolution resulted in large-scale changes to the way the Australian government was able to assert control of their security environment in the post 11 September 2001 battle space.

In the next issue, Captain Avis will filter the changes from this evolution in security through four key security activities to identify the set of maritime security approaches that now make up Australia's maritime security system.

Captain Peter Avis of the Canadian Forces Maritime Command is currently seconded to the Privy Council Office as Military Advisor to National Security.

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