The counter-terror raids in Sydney show police are increasingly prepared to pounce in earlier stages of planned attacks, security experts say.
Federal police said Saturday’s raids across four Sydney suburbs foiled a plot to use an improvised explosive device to bring down a plane, a threat they said was credible and elaborate.
Both the Australian federal police commissioner, Andrew Colvin, and New South Wales police commissioner, Mick Fuller, said authorities would have watched and waited for much longer – possibly for another week – were it not a terror-related investigation.
Australian police foil ‘elaborate’ terrorist plot to detonate bomb on plane
“That will mean sometimes the community will need to have patience with police because we’ll be taking action when we don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle to put together,” Colvin said.
“We may not be in a position to charge people straight away.”
Both John Blaxland, head of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, and Peter Leahy, the director of the University of Canberra’s National Security Institute, welcomed what they see as an increasing acceptance of the need for early, pre-emptive interventions in terrorism cases.
Leahy, a former chief of army, said police culture tended to favour waiting until enough evidence was gathered for a successful prosecution. But he said earlier interventions allowed law enforcement to not only reduce risk, but also gave the best chance for deradicalisation.
“You’ve got a choice between going for them early, or waiting until they’re well prepared,” Leahy said.
“My option would be to go a long way upstream to take away any of the risk, and you might be able to turn them around into the deradicalisation space,” he said.
Blaxland said it was likely police, if they’d found precursor ingredients for an improvised explosive device, possessed strong circumstantial evidence.
He agreed the raids appeared “more pre-emptive than we’ve seen in the past”.
Blaxland said the scale of the potential crime in terror cases warranted early action to ameliorate risk.
“There’s a recognition that there’s a greater tolerance in the community for a proactive approach by the police on these types of issues,” Blaxland said.
“No one wants to wait until after the fact to collect the evidence … that’s just not going to cut it these days.”
Blaxland said the raids demonstrated the counter-terror and intelligence structures were working well, and questioned why the government needed to introduce fundamental change by creating a home affairs department.
The new department, modelled on Britain’s home affairs department, will bring together immigration, border protection and domestic security agencies under the home affairs portfolio, which will be led by Peter Dutton.
Blaxland said the operation was “remarkable” and a “good news story” that showed counter-terror operations in Australia were working.
“This speaks to me of the high level of proficiency, the high level of coordination, and the well-oiled machinery of state that has effectively enabled Asio, AFP, state police and related threat assessment bodies … to collaborate effectively and be ahead of the game,” he said.
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“It does lead to the question of ‘if we’re this good, which the Brits don’t appear to be, why are we following the British model?’”
“That coordination is happening at a remarkably high level, a remarkably high and efficient level at the moment.”
Other security experts, including Leahy, have defended the decision to create such a department.
He said the terror threat was evolving and increasing in Australia, requiring a more sophisticated approach.
“What about the event of a much more significant, multi-location event?” he said. “I think we can make improvements, this backward-looking chant of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – it doesn’t consider the real opportunities that are out there to make us even more secure into the future.”