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Barcelona, its people and tourists are the latest victims to a low-tech terrorist attack in a public place. These victims sadly join an increasing list of similar attacks carried out in crowded public places in Paris, London, Berlin and Nice. The physical ‘caliphate’ of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is in its death throes and loyal Daesh fighters or locally Daesh-inspired terrorists living in global cities are motivated to continue the struggle with whatever they can. The use of low-tech attack methodologies (knives, weapons and vehicles) require little investment, yet have the potential to have significant, even catastrophic impact on innocent people in our cities’ crowded spaces.

Australia’s intelligence community, particularly the AFP and Asio, continue to absorb the lessons learnt from terrorist attacks overseas and adjust both operational activity and threat assessments in real time. In this context, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked Australia’s counter-terrorism machinery last year to review security arrangements in place to protect crowded places from terrorism given the increasing attacks overseas. The net result of that process was the release of Australia’s Strategy for Protecting Crowded Places from Terrorism.

Many of the underlining principles of the strategy are not new. They reflect earlier discussions on broad principles such as prevention and resilience echoed in other recent counter-terrorism policy statements (eg the 2016 National Security Statement on Counter Terrorism and the 2015 Australia’s Counter Terrorism Strategy: Strengthening our Resilience). It is, however, the first time I have seen an Australian government trying to create a national framework for preventing, disrupting and making more resilient crowded places that may be susceptible to a terrorist attack.

Sadly though, I think the strategy is another acknowledgement by policy makers that terrorism is now a multi-generational security challenge and just like the changes to aviation security since 9/11, there is a need to adapt again to other attack vectors by terrorists — in this case identifying additional steps to secure public, crowded places. With intelligence and security measures against an enduring yet evolving threat like terrorism, it seems wise to be proactive and disruptive rather than reactive. So the Australian government’s new strategy and from it the desire to create a national framework (Crowded Places Partnership) makes good sense to me.

The partnership includes several initiatives — some strategic and others operational. The strategic ones will provide advice to government through the Australian New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee on ways of best practices to provide nationally consistent measures of protecting crowded places from terrorism. At the operational level, the goal is for owners and operators of crowded places to have access to better threat assessment and protective security information from Asio and the police via crowded places forums. This seems like a continuation of Asio’s threat advisory role with industry. Though it’s less clear how Asio and the police will specifically provide threat assessment advice to smaller private sector owner and operators of crowded places. What sort of detail will be provided through these crowded places forums and how often?

But it’s the strategy’s focus on getting owners and operators to take on more formal responsibility (whether they be airports, stadiums, shopping malls, local government authorities) for risk assessment and implementation of appropriate mitigation measures that I think is the thing that most stands out in the document. The strategy even hints that in some cases personal liability might be attached to owners and operators of crowded places in the event of a terrorist attack, presumably if it was found that appropriate risk assessment and mitigation measures had not been implemented. Attributing liability in such cases would no doubt be a legal and policy can of worms, but it does demonstrate the government wants to put providers on notice that securing the public in crowded places is not just a function of Asio or police, but they must take on a greater role too.

But risk identification and treatment is a lot easier if you are BHP or Qantas than a small business operating in a public place, say in a city mall. There is some mention of possible education programmes (through the Business Advisory Group) to help companies meet risk identification and mitigation measures. Yet, at this stage, it’s still unclear how much help smaller, less resourced owners and operators of crowded places can expect in order to become resilient to terrorist attacks.

Of course the answer is partly that not all private providers will be expected to necessarily implement elaborate security mitigation and monitoring measures. Not all crowded public places can be secured regardless of the security principles underlying the strategy. But it mostly serves a more important point that goes beyond whether a public thoroughfare in an Australian city needs bollards or not.

If left to fully develop, it could provide a policy framework for a much more comprehensive and strategic approach about how we can design security resilience against future terrorist attacks. The national framework will be better served if strategic and operational intelligence on the terrorist threat trajectory is melded with other disciplines such as environmental and engineering assessments. Public consultation of course on any future significant changes to public spaces will also be important.

The strategy is another impost on a very busy Australian intelligence and policing enterprise that is still absorbing the government’s significant redesign of its member agencies through the soon to be ministry of home affairs and the office of national intelligence. Yet the strategy has many merits that require further careful consideration and development.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Patrick Walsh is associate professor of intelligence and security studies at Charles Sturt University.