What does the foiled Australian terrorist plot tell us?

Last Saturday’s arrest in Sydney, Australia of four men in an alleged terrorism plot was the latest in a series of interdictions by Australian authorities.  In this supposed plot, four men are being held under special anti-terrorism powers for planning to place a bomb on an aircraft, hidden in a ‘meat mincer’.  Other reports noted that the terrorist cell may also have been thinking of putting poisonous gas (some kind of sulphur compound) in the device, with the possible ensuing death of all on board.

Kudos to Australian authorities for stopping what could very well have been a catastrophic act of terrorism.  While the Australian Federal Police (AFP) carried out the actual takedown, I imagine that my friends at the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), that country’s CSIS, also played an important role.  Well done, well done!

This alleged conspiracy has several elements of interest to me as a terrorism analyst and which point to some continual trends in terrorist plots.  Here are a few of those:

  1. The four men arrested all share some family affinity.  One couple is father-son and the other two are ‘related’ although details are wanting at this point.  You cannot underestimate the effect of family on the process of violent radicalisation.  We in Canada know about this very well in the famous (‘infamous’?) case of our own Khadrs – Omar Khadr’s ‘innocence’ notwithstanding.  The family unit can be a very important and effective incubator for violent radicalisation.  Just as in many cases parents and siblings claim to have had no idea that one of their members was going down the path to terrorism, so are there many cases of parental tutelage in the ways of violent extremist jihad or brothers who journey together (the Tsarnaevs of Boston Marathon fame or Ottawa’s Larmond brothers are great examples of the latter).
  2. Yet again an aircraft was the target.  Despite a decade and a half of improvement in airline security, much to the chagrin of travelers subject to increasingly annoying and (sometimes) inexplicable procedures, terrorists keep going back to that well.  The reasons should be obvious.  Airline incidents, terrorist in nature or not, get a lot of news coverage (recall the Rand Corporation’s Brian Jenkins’ wise adage that terrorists want lots of people watching).  A successful attack against an airplane is guaranteed to kill hundreds.  And we see air travel as a right and a daily occurrence.  Terrorists want to interrupt the banal and the everyday to make us pay attention.
  3. It seems that counter terrorism is Australia is working well.  I do not know whether the relationship between ASIO and the AFP is akin to that between CSIS and the RCMP here, but in any event there is sharing and effective investigative effort.  This is indeed encouraging in a world where many see counter terrorism as nothing more than hype and accuse authorities of engaging in ‘sting’ (or in Canada ‘Mr. Big’) operations.

The arrests demonstrate once more that terrorists are actively plotting mayhem and carnage.  They are sometimes also innovative and able to get around obstacles.  For instance, recent news suggests that the Sydney ‘quartet tried unsuccessfully to get their device onto an international  flight and opted for a domestic one when the initial attempt failed.

This incident should remind us all that terrorism is real and does pose a serious – albeit not existential – threat.  We all have a role to play in helping those responsible for stopping terrorism do their jobs.

Once again congratulations to the agencies in Australia who hold the responsibility for keeping their citizens safe.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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