Australia: Terror risk has escalated tenfold, says academic

The number of potential terrorists has risen tenfold during the past few years but it is implausible for security agencies to proportionately increase resources, according to terror expert Greg Barton.

The Deakin University professor said yesterday the Howard government-era was a comparative “golden age” for uncovering terrorist plots. But the more recent Islamic State-inspired terrorist iteration was the biggest security threat Australia had ever faced.

He said Islamic State was sophisticated in using social networking to recruit young Australians, with people under watch rising from an historical average of 40 to 400 in the past three years.

“Our Australian system was set up to deal with a volume of work which is probably a tenth of what we are currently facing. And the volume of work we currently face, the best we can tell, is the new normal,” he said. “We are told that number is not likely to decline and yet the system is designed to deal with 10, 20 or 40 people. You can see the challeng­es.”

Professor Barton noted that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and Australian Federal Police had been bolstered considerably. “But there is no way we can increase the ­resources tenfold to match a tenfold increase in the number of people of concern,’’ Professor Barton said.

“We are never going to have the numbers numerically. We just can’t justify putting 10 times the resources, it wouldn’t be right, so we have to deal with it in a smart ways and that means understanding the threat we are facing.”

Professor Barton pointed out added the Operation Pendennis counter-terrorism investigation in 2005 — where nine men were arrested in Melbourne and Sydney — was far less complicated than cases being dealt with today.

He said one area agencies needed to improve was “secondary intervention”, where identified potential extremists were counselled and given community engagement in the attempt to ­deradicalise them. That required the help of families.

Professor Barton, in Melbourne to launched an online ­database of terrorism research, the Australian Intervention and Support Hub, said Islamic State was the most evolved form of “al-Q’aidaism”.

“It has learnt from the various earlier iterations of al-Q’aida … it has picked up lessons. Unlike al-Q’aida it is not discriminate in membership, it welcomes anyone in and then figures out what to do with them. It is quite happy to give them credit … and in that sense it is going to the viral marketing ­approach,” Professor Barton said.

He said recruiting was driven by social networks and friendship circles. “On its recruitment ­(Islamic State) does excellent broadcasting but it does very specific narrowcasting and it is not ­relying upon powerful narrative and media to recruit members. It is relying on friendship.

“It can be organic: so kids that went to schools together or who are in the same geographical vicinity. But sometimes it is individuals who didn’t know somebody or who are online responding to a broad discussion: somebody saw their response and seized upon that as an opportunity to dive in a build a relationship.”