Counter-terrorism 'lawfare' and the ADF's covert security war

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Armed police at the Sydney Lindt Cafe siege (image via bbc.com).

Counter-terrorism "lawfare" and the lead-agency debate — how the Australian Defence Force is winning a covert national security policy war where other Western militaries have failed. Dr Allan Orr reports.

MOVING at breakneck speed to curtail Section 51 of the Defence Act governing the deployment of military units in domestic security scenarios, the Turnbull Government, very publicly supported by the Australian Defence Force (ADF), is about to go against the international grain and hand off future active shooter and hostage rescue situations to the military as fast as possible.

For its part, the Australian public seem equally culpable for the borderline panicked push to "streamline" the deployment of the military inside Australia, making it much easier for the ADF to cross the foreign operations dimension and step into domestic law-enforcement.

To this end, the ADF has publicly undercut the NSW Police Force during the Lindt Siege Coronial Inquiry, by repeatedly informing the media that it rapidly built a "mock-up" of the Lindt Cafe on the day. The ADF also let slip that the NSW Tactical Operations Unit (TOU) irresponsibly "rejected" the ADF offer of use and thus "failed" to utilise the invaluable tool. “Rejected” and “failed” could have more accurately been, which the ADF knew to be the case, "could not use" the mock up, as Inquiry SC Jeremy Gormly phrased it. The Commander of the NSW State Protection Group indicated TOU were stretched thin that night on multiple high-risk callouts.

In a "private" discussion, SASR sources very humbly informed David Koch, the media face of the siege, that they would have "taken out" Monis scary fast:

“That’s what we do in these situations in Afghanistan and Iraq -- you just take the person out as quickly as possible because you’ve got civilian lives involved.” 

TOU sniping elements used the same long range rifles that the SASR used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The reason "the shot" was never taken was that the double pane glass of the cafe was too thick to permit an accurate shot.

Some highly reported expert analysis from one former ADF Tactical Assault Group-East operator is one seed source of the tactical and strategic criticisms of the ADF.

Michell McAllister’s pieces on SOFREP possibly started the public firestorm over TOU equipment and tactics with one simple line quoting a serving Tactical Assault Group (TAG) officer who texted him at the start of the siege:

'Hostage situation in Martin Place. Lindt Café. Can’t believe we’re not on team for this.'

Given the secretive world of counter-terrorism, this equates to the Rosetta Stone. The serving officer needed to give McAllister permission to quote him and in so doing, deliberately made public the idea the TOU was never going to be good enough to handle the situation and that the ADF knew so all along.

The covert political campaign run through the national newspaper The Australian, which has cited some high ranking but anonymous ADF officers, became so public and critical that SC Assisting Jeremy Gormly of the Inquest this year took the extraordinary step of issuing an official request for past and serving members of the Special Forces commenting in the media about the shortcomings of the TOU during the operation, to represent at the inquest in person as a civic duty. None came forward.

To dead=end this line of inquiry, ADF members were quickly protected by Commonwealth lawyers who stated no Federal employees would be representing at the inquiry as no Federal agency had played a role during the siege. In the Government’s words, having ADF members attend would be pointless because

“... the ADF are not experts on police weapons or methods."

Counsel for Ms Dawson’s family replied there might be legal consequences for the senior ADF members talking to the media and they may have to be forced to attend the inquest. Being present at the situation room in numbers, approving action plans and positions, advising against tactics and equipment, building mock ups — it seems the ADF role that night was substantive, yet simultaneously indeterminable.

Inquest counsel for NSW Police, Ian Freckelton QC, has raged at such underhanded tactics of this "shadowy world of bloggers and [anonymous] figures, declaring their attacks should be given no credence from the safety of the sidelines. Privately during the siege, ADF snipers "approved" the positioning of TOU snipers and ADF tactical "experts" – who have never conducted a similar operation – "approved" the TOU’s Direct Action plan for storming the cafe in a planned, TOU initiated assault. When the operation went to a responsive "Emergency Action" plan, the ADF publicly jumped on the wounded TOU to help tear it apart — to the extent that their has been a mass exodus of officers from TOU post-siege.

No other Western nation’s military counter-terrorism unit is anywhere near as highly visible as the TAG teams, despite their purported preference for life in the "shadows". Fighting for media attention, not one but two ADF Special Forces units recently shamelessly hosted, even by British media standards, Prince Harry during a "down under" tour. Two commando and Royal Navy clearance diving teams going to the extreme of allowing the totally unqualified Prince (who has never served in UK SF) to participate in live fire, and coincidentally, domestic counter-terrorism exercises.

Multiple times each year for only one or two days at a time, the ADF rolls out to rock star media treatment public exercises with meticulously crafted statements and imagery that maintains in the public’s mind. The ADF’s tacit right is not just as back-up for law enforcement, but primary responder and so first in line in terms of CT training, funding and responsibility, hammering home the point that they provide the "highest level" of capability in the world. This denigrates law enforcement units as second class, not simply in terms of assets but in terms of people and training.

Unlike the publicised metropolitan police counter terrorist special forces exercises, where opposing forces are seen in the streets firing blank ammunition and the messy nature of such contingencies are displayed for public consumption, ADF exercises hide from a distance or omit such elements because they are public propaganda shows, not exercises. The latter portray the clean nature of the ADF and keep focus on their spectacular aerial assets and ultra modern gear.

U.S. Delta Force and Navy SEALs are never paraded publicly training, neither are the UK SAS. Official internet hits are practically zero for these teams. Search ADF counter-terrorism in Google videos, and official Defence Department edited and released hits fill the entire first page alone. 

The ADF, in contrast to other Western nations, sets up media with ringside seats to shows of force revolving around spectacular aerial assets to guard its uncomfortably undemocratic and legally impractical domination of the country’s tactical counter-terrorism matrix. Only six days after the Brussels attacks, the ADF efficaciously rolled out its capability via its PR unit at short notice for the media, replicating in controlled conditions ADF responses to such attacks. The ADF exercise video included statements of the PM’s unquestioning support:

Counter-Terrorism Capability Demonstration from SldInfo.com on Vimeo.

In the last few years, defence force TAG teams have even repainted their vehicles a softer green, over the older, more militant black and wear olive uniforms over their official camouflage ones. These are all PR exercises to make the ADF’s domestic political violence transition, the move from warfighter to quasi-police officer, more easily digested by the public.

The ADF justifies this methodology as psychologically reassuring the Australian public of their presence in the shadows. The manner in which the exercises are delivered betray, however, the ADF’s real political agenda — to desperately avoid a U.S. style domestic security architecture. The U.S. paramilitarised its national law enforcement body’s tactical unit to parity with its special forces and shift responsibility for active shooter and hostage rescue operations to the FBI Hostage Rescue Team — rather than paralegalise its military and betray its foundational principles by designating internal security missions to its military.

National level paramilitary law enforcement tactical units as lead agency is also the model in the UK, Germany (GSG9), France (GIGN) and Israel (Yamam). These are all countries with far more experience in this new conflict — all countries who did not allow their militaries to devour their own and hoard all of the counter-terrorism budget and resources, let alone move to deputise their military the first time they were tested.

ADF generals deliberately wear civilian attire and not their uniform – which they are obliged to while on duty under military law –while standing in front of camouflaged helicopters for official briefings, explaining the nature of counter-terrorism exercises and how and why the ADF is best trained and placed to respond to domestic counter-terror incidents. This is done at every opportunity and is a dangerous, unprecedented incursion into domestic politics.

Screenshot via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUSTpHXches.

Through an effective and carefully worded double entendre in The Australian, the military has now indicated that SASR was indeed ready in the wings on the day of the Lindt siege to conduct the operation. 

The construction of the "mock-up" meanwhile has been questioned by some. Former Army Engineer Corp members have refused to believe any meaningful full scale model could ever have been built in the time frame suggested by the ADF. After attempting to find out more information on the Army’s role and actions that day at a Senate hearing, former Senator Stephen Conroy is said to have entered into somewhat of a confrontation with the ADF general for refusing to answer practically every question the then Senator asked for "security" reasons. The public release and conformation of the existence of the mock up, suspiciously without digital evidence and, more importantly, the very specific timeframe the ADF is able to respond in this manner (under ten hours), is apparently not classified.

As a global democratic pillar, we are about to hand off intra-security lead agency status to SOCOMD, a government war division that trains and selects its soldiers to the level where they apparently sever the hands of enemy combatants in Afghanistan without hesitation when ordered, and therefore are entirely justified in ignoring the Geneva Convention. Internally originating accusations of executing prisoners, multiple instances of irresponsible civilian deaths inflicted during operations and at least one cover up of such tragedies (of SASR soldiers levelling their handguns at the heads of attached female intelligence officers) have forced the ADF to conduct a systemic review of the corrupted "warrior" culture of SOCOMD.

Despite not being involved to any extent, according to the government’s own phrasing, the ADF has been the loudest official and unofficial voice in the media on events at the Lindt siege, using its opinions and ambitions to justify manipulation and active participation – despite laws designed to keep the military out of politics – in the internal policies, politics and Constitution of this country.

In the way of defending them is the ADF’s political ground game. It is no accident that the ADF has guarded and promoted its domestic counter-terrorism function since the tragedy of 9/11 and its future control of counter-terrorism praxis in this country since the Lindt siege. It seems the ADF never loses an opportunity, like any good investment banker, to profit when there is "blood on the streets".

Following 9/11, the Defence Department childishly and greedily lobbied for massive funding injections to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year for counter-terrorism training, at the expense of first responders, state and federal tactical units.

Following Lindt, the ADF is inexorably morphing in the final step of its patent grand design, from budgetary domination to political domination of the homeland security space. Yet there is some hope as the present ADF-driven government "review of callout powers" is additionally recommending police tactical units get better training and more specialised equipment — the fog of lawfare ironically blown back in face of the ADF.

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

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