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The Bourke Street attack and the tactical trolley

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Scene of the Bourke Street attack, 9 November 2018 (Screenshot via YouTube)

Every time Australian security agencies are tested at counter-terrorism, they fail, writes international security specialist Dr Allan Orr.

AUSTRALIA is just awful bad at counter-terrorism.

Bourke Street II was Australia at its best and worst. On the individual level, utterly heroic. Institutionally, not so much.

The incident immediately drew to mind Lara Bingle’s slogan, "Where the bloody hell are you?" In recent edged-blade terror attacks in London, the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Specialist Firearms Officers (CTSFO) – the equivalent of the Victorian Special Operations Group (SOG) – posted uniform response times of two minutes. By some accounts from vehicle ignition to felling shot, the Bourke St "incident" lasted eight minutes.

Other initial reports indicate 60-90 seconds for the first officers to arrive. Footage of the police engagement lasted for several more minutes. Add at minimum 30 seconds to initiate the Vehicle Born Improvised-Explosive Device (VBIED) and conservatively another 30 seconds to stab the three victims and trigger the 000 calls. Then the minutes those valiant patrol officers fought off a suicide bomber, unsupported by any other police officers – Special Operations or otherwise – and the attack lasted for the better part of five minutes. This on Bourke Street — the heart of the CBD.

The Victorian Police later stated they had tactical teams — namely the Critical Incident Response Team CIRT), on station within two minutes. How this is possible when it took 90 seconds for first responders to begin the engagement and several more minutes of fighting to fell the perpetrator, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, seems to contradict the laws of physics.

Rather, using Ockham’s Razor, the Victorian Police have started the "tactical" team’s response time from when the first patrol was initially engaged (on-scene). In blinding contrast, the UK CTSFO have one remit – counter-terrorism – and base staffing levels, as well as covert static positions and patrol routes within congested London, on a formula which includes variables like foot traffic, ease of escape path and iconography (media utility) of buildings and landmarks to get inside the head of the potential terrorist/s and so ensure a response time of no more than eight minutes. (Their learning models, in turn, were contemporary French terror attacks.)

The Victorian SOG, like all other state police tactical teams in this country, continue to mix policing and counter-terrorism — meaning the group could have been busy on drug raids, counter-gang operations and so on, at the time. Indeed, the first supporting officers to attend appeared to not even be tier two CIRT, no more heavily armed, with the same handgun the transit police employed to put the terrorist down.

A member of the public, for some reason, was even required to be the assisting arresting agent (backpack and jeans in the clip below). Had there been more than one attacker, had one of the officers been injured by the VBIED, scores more people would have been killed.

A key lesson of the Sydney Lindt Cafe siege was an overstretched tactical operations unit exhausted from running back to back drug raids and counter-terrorism operations. The Victorian SOG may not have heeded this lesson — their operatives appear to have been the last on the scene and far in excess of eight minutes.

Post Lindt siege, police officers, nationwide, were also given expanded authority to kill terrorists on site. There is, unfortunately, little practical utility in these powers if police recruits aren’t trained to identify terrorism. Australia has great trouble using the “t" word. Both at Lindt and yet again yesterday, authorities referred to an "incident" or "stabbings". Such references obviously crippled first responders, who can’t be blamed for following their training and acting so incredibly restrained.

There is an explanation and it lies in the politics of counter-terrorism. Knife-wielding members of the public on homicidal sprees are legally afforded, for good reason, the same minimum use of force protocols and legalities as a drunk driver or those involved in domestic disputes. Terrorism appears to be so politicised today the powers that be want to maintain control over the contingency, from narrative to response. What this meant for the two first responders is they were obviously confused on what they ought to do. And so, again, the "grunts" on the ground were burdened with just enough political baggage to cripple response efforts.

Responding to the incident, here, is what they should have been trained to see:

  • a vehicle with no passengers, 
  • no driver notifying the public of an out of control vehicle;
  • a cabin fire in the vehicle, indicating likely hidden explosives as opposed to an engine fire or tray backfire; and
  • members of the public screaming as the driver was indiscriminately stabbing people and, yup, threw a bomb into the vehicle.

The thought process of the police, however, and this goes to their training, was that they had an unstable civilian utilising a low threat knife and a burning vehicle. They were oblivious to the second stage threat of potential unexploded ordnance cooking off in the vehicle. Assuming they were required to use minimum force, they did what they were trained to do. Then they were lauded by ignorant, populist mouthpieces of state security — no more schooled in counter-terrorism than the politicians who endorse the operator first policies NSW and Victorian police have hidden behind, following recent attacks.

Had they received adequate counter-terrorism training and kit, one would have drawn a taser and one the lethal firearm. If the taser was not immediately effective, shoot-to-wound if possible (for intelligence-related interrogation), or shoot-to-kill if absolutely necessary protocols would have been followed (active shooter, hostage taking or suicide-bombing contingencies, for example). And regrettably, yes, in terms of terrorism, intelligence is more important than officers’ lives.

Thus when members of the public saw a terrorist and the police a criminal, "trolley-man" came to the rescue. For those who think shoot-to-wound is impossible, special forces train for head shots during counter-terrorism operations, so aimed shots are possible under pressure. More so, anyone can be trained to do it — see Keanu Reeves shredding targets during training for John Wick II in the video below.

The attacker was also acknowledged to have been known to police only because he had family members on the ASIO watch-list (that is, network-based). A tactical giveaway that he was part of a network, too, was the disciplined intent to commit suicide by cop. Lone-wolves are typically driven by rage. This attacker killed a few people surgically then waited for police to respond when he wasn’t consumed by his VBIED. His determination to die, obliged by a politically trained officer, betrayed an intent to hide a network, more than it did an effort at martyrdom.

Lone-wolf martyrs kill infidels and often try to escape to "fight" another day, such as, in San Bernardino and Paris). Cellular terrorists make sure they are one-attack wonders to protect the organisation. Lone-wolf designation, therefore, is not a simple function of the numbers of terrorists involved in a particular action, it is a function of the affiliated and/or support network or lack thereof.

The use of the tactical trolley was a strategic disaster of Lindt siege proportions. What it did in big pictures terms was, when combined with footage of seemingly feeble police officers struggling to subdue a sole perpetrator, made Australian counter-terrorism praxis a laughing stock in terrorist circles. Be on the look-out for satirical pamphlets from ISIS toward countering the trolley tactic in their lessons learned literature.

More serious is this: every time Australian security agencies are tested at counter-terrorism, they fail, abysmally. Australian Special Forces created exponentially more "terrorists" than they killed with their "counter-insurgency" strategy in Afghanistan. NSW TOU members killed and wounded more hostages than the Lindt Cafe perpetrator Monis, as they botched the final assault at Lindt. While Victorian Police have now managed, somehow, to introduce the tactical trolley.

A final note. If next time, the word terrorism is used, people may stop forming flash-mobs and filming to duck and cover instead. "Knife-attack, police on-scene" doesn’t carry quite the same weight as "terror attack" or "suicide bombing in progress".

Dr Allan Orr is an international security specialist whose publications revolve around the topics of terrorism and insurgency. 

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