One of the challenges is how to monitor the activities of a large number of persons of security interest.
Tracking terrorism-related persons of interest.
One of the challenges posed by the large numbers of persons of security interest in Australia is how to monitor their activities. Foreign Minister Bishop says she has cancelled 80 passports, while it is estimated that 20-30 foreign fighters have returned to Australia.
Then there are the supporters here of Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda who have not been anywhere, but are prepared to act as a support element. I have seen no statistics for them, or the additional number who may have travelled overseas to terrorist training destinations and returned to Australia.
We are certainly looking at an unprecedentedly high number of persons of security concern in Australia - which is why the National Terrorism Public Alert System is set at High.
There are two dimensions to the monitoring problem – individuals who are a security concern and groups (two or more persons) that are of concern. A higher level of concern exists where persons in either category may have had some military training or bomb-making experience.
The followers of IS present a particular monitoring problem because there are so many of them - but their attacks are generally lone-wolf, and "low-tech high-impact" – in other words simple, confronting attacks that cause few deaths but attract a lot of media attention. The perpetrators are usually loners and misfits. It is often claimed that lone-wolf attackers have mental problems, as with Man Haron Monis.
These hard-to-prevent attacks are more likely to be carried out by persons who have wanted to travel to Syria to fight for IS but have been prevented from doing so by cancelling their passports. The Numan Haider attack in Melbourne and the two Canadian attacks are in this category. IS encourages those who cannot come to Syria to fight for the caliphate, to wage their fight on home soil – particularly if they live in "crusader" nations i.e., those providing military contributions to the US-led coalition to counter IS in Iraq.
By contrast, attacks by followers of al-Qaeda and its affiliates are more lethal because they are planned and intended to cause mass casualties - or they may be targeted assassinations of Islam's "enemies", as with the Charlie Hebdo attack. These sorts of attacks are more likely to be perpetrated by groups where at least one member has had military-style training - be that of an outward-bound kind, or from travelling to a terrorist training location in Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria or Chechnya.
In the past, we had cases of right-wing extremists joining the Citizen Military Forces, the predecessor to today's Australian Army Reserve, to gain military training. I am not aware of any Islamist extremists joining the Army Reserve for this purpose.
ASIO will probably know about most of the persons of continuing concern that return to Australia. The law allows for the conviction of persons who have been to proscribed areas, or who have fought for proscribed groups like IS. A difficulty is in producing evidence that would stand up in a court of law or not compromise sensitive sources. This means that known persons of concern may be able to re-join local communities where they soon become a security problem. Even if we do lock them up, at some point we will have to release them back into the community.
There will be others who return to Australia disenchanted and disillusioned from having been to Syria and Iraq, and in their case jail may not be the answer. We may be better off exploiting their disenchantment by getting them to talk to other young Muslims, or using them as information sources.
The pressing security question though is how to prevent persons who are a security concern from associating with others to plan attacks, recruit others to fight overseas, undertake group training activities etc.
Field security surveillance conducted on terrorism suspects 24/7 can require up to 20 persons to monitor one person. Alternatively, remote electronic monitoring can allow one person to monitor a number of suspects.
Electronic tracking devices are now commonly used in justice systems internationally as an alternative to jail or as a condition of parole. They are also commonly used for monitoring sex offenders. Publicly available data indicates that 200,000 persons internationally are currently being monitored with tracking devices, usually an electronic ankle bracelet. One manufacturer claims to be supplying them to 700 agencies.
Ankle bracelets are also being used to prevent gang members from associating with other gang members. They are so common in some parts of the US that wearers can purchase fashionable bracelet covers to match iPhones and other accessories.
The associated tracking software can limit persons to particular locations, prevent them from associating with other persons of interest, prevent them from travelling to proscribed areas - and even limit their internet access.
Legislative cover for such use in Australia already exists. Under our control order legislation: "A person can be subject to a control order if it substantially helps prevent a terrorist attack, or the person has trained or participated in training with a listed terrorist organisation, or engaged in a hostile activity in a foreign country, or been convicted in Australia of an offence relating to terrorism…"
"A control order can require a person to remain at specified premises for a maximum of 12 hours within any 24 hour period, wear a tracking device, report to someone at a certain time and place, allow themselves to be photographed and fingerprinted."
"A control order can stop a person from being in certain areas or leaving Australia, communicating or associating with certain people, owning or using certain things, carrying out certain activities, including work, accessing certain forms of technology, including the internet."
All we need now is some political will to make electronic tracking happen in a way that could substantially help reduce the prospect of another, more deadly, terrorist attack in Australia.
Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at Macquarie University's Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism and a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.This article originally appeared in the Canberra Times.