London terror attack: Australians, too, should prepare for inevitable strikes

Aerial photo of London

None of the countries on US President Donald Trump's latest list of six countries of security concern (Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) appear on the Homeland Security list

The London terrorist attack seems to have all the usual characteristics of an Islamic State-inspired lone-wolf attack using basic tools available to any IS sympathiser – in this case, a car and a knife.

The immediate reaction in London and elsewhere is to heighten security in the aftermath in case another lone-wolf is inspired to do a copy-cat attack. It is important, though, for London and other cities to return to normal as soon as possible, lest the terrorists win by disrupting our lives and highlighting their cause.

In Britain, the Security Service and police will be looking at everything to do with the perpetrator: who his associates and relatives are, whom he talked to, who and what inspired him and, of course, examining any electronic devices he accessed to determine whom he was in contact with.

While IS-inspired lone-wolf attacks characteristically provide little intelligence warning, the plus side of their amateurish attacks is the relatively few casualties they usually cause. By contrast, the al-Qaeda-inspired bombings in London, in July 2005, resulted in 56 deaths, including Melbourne man Sam Ly. That attack injured 784 people, including Australian doctor Gill Hicks, who was severely injured and lost both legs.

The main defence against lone-wolf attacks is systems designed to minimise the damage they can do. This includes protective barriers against vehicles – bollards and so on – and security personnel to control access to potential targets. In the London case, these measures were clearly successful.

By contrast, IS "group" attacks – such as the Paris attack in November 2015 that killed 137 people – can be much more deadly. This is particularly the case when there is a clear failure of intelligence and a ready black-market supply of automatic weapons.

IS attacks outside Syria and Iraq mainly focus on members of the United States-led coalition against IS, although the governments of the coalition, including Australia's, are reluctant to admit this.

It is unclear whether the London attack was related to other events, such as the Brussels attack a year before, the high-level counter-IS meeting in Washington, the battle losses IS is suffering in Iraq, or the new aviation security measures for carry-on electronic devices, announced the day before. Possibly none of them.

To touch on the new aviation security measures briefly. It seems sensible to restrict some electronic devices from carry-on baggage from locations where security screening is suspect and where we know such devices have been built and, in one case, used (Daallo Airlines' flight 159 in February 2016). In the Daallo case, the laptop bomb was handed to the bomber after he had passed security screening.

The US Department of Homeland Security's restrictions focus on eight countries (Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) while Britain's restrictions focus on six (Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Tunisia). It is unclear why there are some differences between the two lists. (The new aviation security measures will not affect Australians unless they travel to the US via the Middle East.)

Ironically, none of the countries on US President Donald Trump's latest list of six countries of security concern (Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) appear on the Homeland Security list, which seems to show that the Trump list was intended to deny US entry to Muslim asylum seekers from Muslim countries with high numbers of displaced persons.

Random, Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks will continue to be a problem for Britain and Australia. So far, ASIO, the federal police, and state and territory police have done a good job of keeping on top of the situation. We have to expect, though, that lone-wolf attacks will still occur, no matter what intelligence we collect or precautions we take. We also need to be terrorism-aware when we travel – about 130 Australians have died in terrorist attacks overseas since the September 11 attacks – particularly in Indonesia, where 95 Australians have died.

This article first appeared in Fairfax Media's The Canberra Times, SMH and The Age on Thursday 23 March, 2017.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team