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Still room to improve on Australia-UK counter-terrorism collaboration

A stocktake of the many levels of cooperation would help both countries learn and identify gaps.

Australian police at Sydney Aiport following an aviation terror plot, July 2017 (Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)
Australian police at Sydney Aiport following an aviation terror plot, July 2017 (Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)
Published 28 Nov 2017 

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It's difficult to identify new areas for Australia-United Kingdom collaboration. The historic and sustained links and commonalities in defence and security, supported by the same in people-to-people links, have produced a level of engagement that is almost too rich and complex to track. Counter-terrorism is no different.

But if recent strategic shocks such as Brexit have taught us anything, it's to take nothing for granted. With the UK now emerging from its decades-long association with the European Union and seeking to re-establish its European Union-free state, it is natural that it should look more broadly around the globe. With Australia already a Five Eyes partner and fellow member of the Commonwealth and the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, as well as a close bilateral partner, it is also understandable that the UK should look with interest at its old friend. As British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated at the Australia-UK Ministerial Meeting (AUKMIN) in July this year, from Britain's point of view it is now 'more important than ever to nurture the friendships that we know best'.

The AUKMIN meeting produced a range of policy initiatives relating to defence and security collaboration, with counter-terrorism a common theme. From countering the spread of Islamist extremism to Southeast Asia to sharing policy on the role of the military in domestic counter-terrorism, there is a shared understanding of the key threats and a commitment to working together to address them.

But what can really be done that is not already occurring in some way cross the rich tapestry of the Anglo-Australian relationship? And what could be done to improve the great array of activity already underway?

A first practical step would be to undertake a stock-take of security cooperation, and a dedicated audit of counter-terrorism activity. The extent might surprise many, even those at AUKMIN who supported sharing information on key issues. That ASIO works closely with MI5 would be expected; that the Victorian Police Counter-Terrorism Command has a relationship with the West Midlands Police might be news to some. Having a shared dataset on the extent of the relationship would help both countries understand the value of the existing partnership, see where bodies of shared knowledge and collaboration already reside, and identify the gaps. It would also assist public understanding of the value of the relationship.

Australia's alliance with the US provides a cautionary tale. Soon after the Trump administration took office, some high-profile observers in Australia called for a withdrawal from the alliance. Commentary suggested that this might constitute something like a simple exchange of letters. Absent in some of the discussion was an appreciation of the hundreds of thousands of interactions across capability, planning, operations and personnel that gave life to this extraordinarily deep and rich relationship. Without clear and regular communication on the nature of the Australian-UK relationship, including public statement, it could potentially go the same way.

The second step is to improve coordination of the engagement that already occurs. Much, if not all, of the information-sharing on counter-terrorism called for at AUKMIN likely already occurs. Across Australian federal and state counter-terrorism agencies, policy officers, legislators, police and members of the Australian Defence Force are intimately aware of the arrangements in Australia and the UK on the employment of the military in counter-terrorism matters and in relation to most other matters of counter-terrorism law, policy and procedure. Given that both are common law countries sharing a similar threat, the same language and dozens of exchange officers as well as personnel who have transferred from one country to the other, Australia has studied the UK's approach to counter-terrorism as it has studied no other. Indeed, many of Australia's counter-terrorism reviews have included British advisors. Whether we retain and share that knowledge, and appropriately assess its applicability to the local context, is another matter.

So the key is to establish links and repositories for information-sharing and lessons learned, as well as a way for each country to analyse and determine relevance to their own circumstances. In the future, a Joint Task Force or group of task forces might work effectively to bring information and analysis together in real time. This already occurs in joint military staff, both in the home countries and on overseas operations. But it could be expanded beyond this to counter-terrorism and other areas of security.

An obvious candidate for this would be collaborative intelligence teams drawing upon tactical lessons learned from military operations against insurgent groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda-aligned terrorist groups (the UK advising its lessons learned in North Africa and South Asia, with Australia advising on Southeast Asia, and both on the Middle East). This advice could then be shared with police and intelligence agencies operating in domestic jurisdictions. The Marawi offensive in the Philippines and the recent Sydney aviation plot demonstrate that Islamic State in particular is exporting its tactics and methodology from one environment to others. The team could be partly virtual, linking into existing arrangements, but some core collocated members would be essential.

Such task forces could build upon existing links in the Five Eyes or 'Quad' groups. But more interesting and effective would be Australia and the UK sponsoring a South Asian or Southeast Asian multilateral fusion centre for a broader multilateral response. This would enable sharing information on terrorism developments across a region that is of high interest to both countries, and give effect to the strategic policy aspirations of both to use multilateral approaches in dealing with complex multilateral issues, such as terrorism.

Broader lessons learned for policy is a key area that could benefit both countries. The UK's experience of terrorist attacks and proximity to other attacks in Europe provide it with particular insight into how to deal with this threat through strategic policy direction and legislation. Australia's involvement in counter-terrorism activities in the Indo Pacific and the Middle East, as well as its own direct experience of dealing with terrorism, would provide a complementary perspective.

A higher level engagement for policymakers, strategic planners and legal advisers to build further upon both lessons learned from the current and emerging threat environments and how to translate our shared strategic guidance into practical multilateral and national activity would benefit not only the two countries but also Five Eyes partners. 

The building blocks already exists for these three initiatives: a stock-take, enhancing existing arrangements, and developing shared fusion centres at both the tactical and strategic policy levels. While our immediate environs are different and geographically remote from each other, we face common threats from terrorism and other non-traditional security threats, and have a shared interest not only in addressing these threats, but doing so in a way that upholds rule of law, democracy and human rights.

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