Presenter Chris Bath and Chief Political Correspondent Glenn Milne spoke with the President of the Terrorism Research Centre, Matthew Devost, about the terrorist risk to Australia and what measures can be taken to prevent an attack.
Chris Bath, Presenter: Joining us now to discuss these issues and the terrorist risk to Australia is the president of the Terrorism Research Centre, Matthew Devost. Mr Devost, thanks for joining us this morning.
Matthew Devost, President, Terrorism Research Centre: Thank you.
Chris Bath: The US State Department has sponsored your visit here. Who have you been talking to and what have you been saying to them?
Matthew Devost: I have been speaking to representatives from within government, industry, and academic environment, about issues of terrorism, homeland security, and specifically an area of expertise for me personally, cyber-terrorism.
Chris Bath: And what have you been telling them about cyber-terrorism?
Matthew Devost: We have really been engaging in a dialogue to exchange ideas and look at how the threat has emerged. We really view it as an emerging threat. It is one of those areas where we have the opportunity to act now in advance of something being perpetrated against us. So I have been discussing with them some of our ideas with regards to the threat, how it might engage itself and then what steps we can do to protect ourselves.
Chris Bath: We will get to the specifics of that threat in a moment, but is Australia at risk of a terrorist attack?
Matthew Devost: Yes, absolutely. It is a global threat and it is a global target. You have to recognise that terrorists will seek targets of opportunity, and where those targets exist, they will attack them if the opportunity arises. We don’t want to be caught by surprise. We need to think from the perspective of “everything is a target” and then work from there.
There are some interesting quotes, after September 11, indicating it was a failure of imagination, that we didn’t anticipate planes being hijacked or used against the buildings in that capacity. So right now we really are trying to prevent that failure of imagination from happening again.
Chris Bath: So what would make Australia an attractive target?
Matthew Devost: For the fact that you are part of the Western global economy. There is a level of economic interdependence. We have a global media. An attack that was perpetrated here would have reverberations throughout the world. It would have impacts on the global economy. It could be used to demonstrate a capability.
If someone wanted to demonstrate the capability to use a truck bomb against a large skyscraper, it doesn’t matter, particularly, where that skyscraper is located, as long as the attack is successfully perpetrated.
Obviously, it becomes much more attractive if you can do it in the US, if you can continue that front. But it’s going to be a matter of resource allocation and determining where they think they can have the highest likelihood of success.
Glenn Milne, Chief Political Correspondent: The US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, was warning us just last week, actually, about complacency. How well prepared do you think Australia is against a terrorist attack?
Matthew Devost: I haven’t had the opportunity to evaluate particular security measures or look at the security posture that’s put in place. The dialogue that I’ve had with individuals from within government, the private sector and universities, they seem to be very cognisant that the threat exists and in trying to put some sort of security measures in place. It always becomes a balance.
It’s the same within the US to determine what security measures you want to put in place, what the cost of civil liberties are and what the economic costs are. And I think all of us are going through the process of that kind of collective risk management. What do we think the threat is, what do we hope to achieve by way of security, knowing we can never fully protect ourselves.
Glenn Milne: At a community level, though, do you think that we risk beingcomplacent because we think we’re so distant from the rest of the world?
Matthew Devost: I think so, yeah. Although I haven’t seen that level of isolationism here as I have seen in other nations. They do seem to be more aligned or aware that the threat exists. Complacency is a huge issue. We need to remember that this is a threat entity that has time on their side.
They will exercise a lot of patience with regards to planning and perpetrating their attacks. With the US Embassy attacks in Africa, we saw a five-year window from when they started planning those attacks to when they perpetrated them. So just because they haven’t acted yet, that they haven’t acted in the past year against a Western nation, doesn’t mean they that lack the capability or that they lack the intent, it just means that the scenario hasn’t been right for them to help ensure maximum success of the operation.
Glenn Milne: We’ve been seeing increasing reports about terrorist cells in Indonesia. What do you know of those cells and do you think they have links with al-Qa’ida?
Matthew Devost: Well, I think that the terrorist cells that are emerging throughout the world, we kind of have to assume that there is some sort of link to al-Qa’ida. We really are seeing a high level of convergence, where even traditional organised crime groups, or narco-type terrorists, are starting to have links to cooperate with organisations like al-Qa’ida.
Al-Qa’ida was developed basically as an umbrella entity to encompass multiple groups and to see other entities linking with them for them to find bases of support or some sort of alignment with other groups – it is a very safe assumption.
Chris Bath: We saw a preliminary Congressional report come out saying that intelligence authorities were repeatedly warned about movements by al-Qa’ida and the possibility of an attack, but the report also found that they were woefully prepared. Why do you think US intelligence agencies failed?
Matthew Devost: There are really two aspects to that, the international aspect and domestic aspect. On the international front, we’ve had our focus more on the technical aspect of intelligence, on doing signals intelligence, eavesdropping, things of that nature, being very reliant on the technology and have focused away from some of the traditional human elements of intelligence.
These are groups that operate with a very high level of operational security, so without that kind of forward-leaning human intelligence component, it’s going to be difficult to try and derive information with regards to what they’re doing. Then on the US side, on the domestic side, it was a matter of information sharing, I think, that caused for us to not have as much insight into the threat as we should have.
There is no saying that we could have ever have prevented the attack, but there were things that should have been analysed together. There were disparate pieces of information coming from different organisations within the FBI, different cities that went up to the same office, but because of the bureaucratic culture, because of the organisational structure, those two pieces of information were never analysed by the same person.
Chris Bath: It certainly sounds like, as you say, that some sort of human intelligence was there. I mean, an FBI agent warning that one of the hijackers of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon was a danger and wanting to pursue that fellow and being told that he couldn’t. Surely, this is always going to be a problem. I mean, there are going to be in a year, thousands of terrorist threats or potential terrorists identified by intelligence agencies. How do you know which one to pursue?
Matthew Devost: It becomes a matter of investigation. And in that regard, the two specific warnings in the form of the Phoenix memo and the Moussaoui arrest. Those were two pretty strong pieces of information. Analysed individually, there were measures within the bureaucracy of the FBI that kind of quelled each of them.
Analysed together, that should have served as an indicator that there was something worth investigating further, that there was maybe a reason to go and see who had been obtaining flight training, there was some sort of indication of threat. Because those two pieces of information weren’t analysed together, because it is very expensive and resource consuming to go and launch an investigation like that, it didn’t happen.
Glenn Milne: You mentioned the five-year window on the attacks of the embassies in Africa. Are you saying that we have to stay on alert for that length of time? That’s the period that we have to be on alert?
Matthew Devost: You can’t pin it to even five years. I think it’s going to need to be very persistent. This is a threat that isn’t going away. We had literally thousands of people cycled through the training camps in Afghanistan, operated as a safe harbour for a decade. So there are going to be entities from that community that are dispersed throughout the world. And they will continue to perpetrate their attacks where those opportunities arise. Complacency really does become an issue for us moving forward.
Glenn Milne: You mentioned earlier your expertise with cyber-terrorism. What is that and does al-Qa’ida have the capacity to carry that sort of threat out?
Matthew Devost: Cyber-terrorism, the way that we define it, is a sustained attack against a critical infrastructure. So if you think of financial infrastructures or telecommunication, power, gas, oil, water distribution, transportation. We focus on those infrastructures that, if attacked, would have some sort of course of impact on the society, people would begin to panic, they would distrust, it would have economic consequences. And cyber-terrorism, we define as acts by terrorists against infrastructures to try and have that influence.
Chris Bath: Would that necessarily involve computer hacking into an electricity grid to shut it down, for example?
Matthew Devost: To a certain extent, yeah, that’s one aspect of what they would do. Where they would try and obtain, via some sort of electronic means, access to those infrastructures to cause failure. With regards to al-Qa’ida having the capability, our belief is that they don’t currently have the capability to have that sustainable impact.
There’s a big difference between hacking a web site on the Internet and taking the power down. However, given their resources and given what we’ve seen with regards to some of the capabilities of individuals within the group, they could acquire that capability. We do have some indicators that it is now on their radar screen, that they are interested in it, specifically for those systems that might augment a physical attack.
So if you took down emergency communications after there was a physical bombing, it would augment the impact of the attack. So it really presents us with an opportunity now, to say, “We’ve got the indicator. What are we going to do from a security perspective?”
Glenn Milne: Mr Devost, just finally and quickly, do you believe or do you have any evidence of a direct link between September 11 and Saddam Hussein?
Matthew Devost: That’s not an area that we focus on, so I would be reliant on information that you see in the press or in the public domain. In which case, there has not been a direct link established. Whether other evidence exists in the intelligence community that’s being shared at a national strategic level, I don’t have insight into that.
Chris Bath: Mr Devost, enjoy the rest of your trip and thanks for coming in this morning.
Matthew Devost: Thank you.
Chris Bath: And Glenn, thanks for joining