Re-calibrating our radar
The London bombings introduced a new threat - home-grown jihadists. Australia's surveillance and legislative response will need to take this into account.
If the government was ever inclined to ease up on the current counter-terrorism legislation which is now under review, that prospect vanished in the debris of the London transport bombings. The UK security services are regarded as being about as switched on as any in the world and a whole lot more than many, and if a terrorist plot of this magnitude escaped their notice then it's hardly prudent to be taking a step backwards at this juncture.
Quite possibly learned lawyers in the Attorney General's department are now working out to how to toughen the ASIO legislation even more, taking advantage of public support post-London plus the happy coincidence of a Senate majority for the first time since Malcolm Fraser graced The Lodge. There's already media speculation to that effect.
The London bombings underline the unfortunate reality that mass transit systems remain incredibly vulnerable to attack and Sydney or Melbourne are little different to London in that regard. Another unfortunate reality is that Al-Qaeda is an evolving organism, able to plan and conduct attacks in the enemy heartland despite the losses it has suffered since 9/11. On the plus side, by the standards of what has gone before, the London attack wasn't that spectacular - although those whose friends and relatives were dismembered will see this differently. It still dwarfs anything the IRA ever achieved on the UK mainland.
The benchmark remains 9/11 with 3,000 dead and there was much speculation at the time that Al-Qaeda would go onto bigger, better and more frequent outrages. It hasn't and intelligence services around the world believe that is indicative of a declining operational capability. Al-Qaeda needs be seen to be blowing stuff up to maintain credibility with its sympathisers and that seems to be the main benefit it gains from the London attacks.
It now appears likely the perpetrators were a group of young and disaffected British Muslims of Pakistani origin, no doubt inspired to conduct suicide attacks by dreams of martyrdom. There's been some commentary that such groups represent the new face of Al-Qaeda - formed from groups of acquaintances with no connections at all to the organisation of Osama Bin Laden but inspired by extremist Islamic thought. This remains a tough one for the security services and one consequence of the London attacks is likely to be a far more robust approach to Britain's Muslim community.
Traditionally the security service has trod lightly in this domain but that will change and there will inevitably be loud wailing and cries of racism - just like there's been in Australia every time ASIO has executed a search warrant.
Young disaffected Muslim fundamentalists are free to object all they like to the decadence of western society and declare how great life would have been under the Taliban, so long as they don't take the next step. And that raises the spectre of the expert bomb maker. It's not especially difficult to build a basic bomb but the practice is unforgiving of mistakes and learner bomb makers and their mules undergo a high attrition rate. In Northern Ireland, such occurrences were referred to as own-goals and this form of natural selection resulted in a relatively small group of experienced, dedicated and innovative people who were especially dangerous and much sought after by the security services. Every significant insurgency has produced a group of such experts and Al-Qaeda appears to be no different.
The London attacks seem to be the work of a bomb specialist and tactical director - who may be one and the same - who outfitted the suicide bombers and sent them on their way. It's been suggested the expert flew into the UK some weeks before the attack, did his stuff, then departed either just before or after. Al-Qaeda does not have enough such specialists to lightly squander their hard-won skills. Further, the crop of Afghanistan veterans appears to be dwindling in the worldwide roundup and the organisation lacks the unhindered training opportunities it used to enjoy in Afghanistan.
One worrying development relates to the war in Iraq where a whole new generation of bomb makers is gaining expertise. However for now they appear to be fully committed to their own struggle but that won't continue indefinitely.
The role of the terrorist bomb maker is highly relevant to this region. It's believed French-born terror suspect Willie Brigitte - arrested in Sydney in October 2003 and promptly deported back to France where he remains in custody - was the point man for a terror attack which would have involved an expert bomb maker from abroad.
At least one Jemaah Islamiyah member with bomb making skills, the Malaysian born engineer Dr Azahari Husin who is believed to have played a part in the Bali attack, remains on the loose in the region.
For Australia the best protection remains effective international intelligence and cooperation and border controls. There can be no bomb without explosives and new restrictions on supply of such materials as ammonium nitrate fertiliser should help. In that regard Britain was always up against it because of the proximity of the continent and its substantial stockpile of arms and munitions left over from Warsaw Pact forces and the Balkans conflict.
But no-one can say for sure there isn't a small group of home grown jihadists plotting in suburban Sydney or Melbourne or Newcastle, completely below the radar of ASIO or even of their own communities. This appears to be pretty much what happened in the UK and it's for that reason that ASIO will be thinking hard about what more it could do.
The federal parliamentary intelligence committee is currently reviewing a key section of the 2003 ASIO legislation amendment and must report by January 22. That section relates to the controversial powers to detain, hold and question anyone believed to possess knowledge of terrorist activities. This section sunsets on July 23 next year.
This remains a hot one and the committee has already received more than 100 submissions - even the Scientologists had a say - with the vast majority objecting to this grievous infringement of civil liberties and urging their immediate repeal. Not likely. More likely, the government, with Labor backing will cement these provisions and introduce some more.
By A Special Correspondent, Canberra