Australia terror probe

Australia terror probe

A large crowd of passengers queue up at Sydney Airport on MondayPassengers in Australia have endured heavy delays at airports this week. The uncovering of a suspected plot to bring down a plane in Australia has prompted heightened security measures at the nation's airports. It has also generated debate over the best way to protect passengers, writes Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

Queues so long people ran out of space to stand on the footpath. The screening and re-screening of the same luggage. An unusually large police presence with sniffer dogs and security vests.

These and other scenes corresponding to the "new normal" of security arrangements have been playing out at airports across Australia since Thursday following the arrest in Sydney of four men over a suspected terror plot to blow up a plane. One person has since been released.

"These operations are designed to disrupt and prevent plans to undertake terrorist attacks in Australia," said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he addressed the nation about the incident on the weekend.

"Travellers should be prepared for additional scrutiny at screening points and while it is important that Australians are aware of the increased threat, be assured: we have the finest security and intelligence services in the world."

Image copyright @MaryLloyd4

The 2017 Independent Intelligence Review found Australian intelligence has "performed strongly since the most recent review of the intelligence community in 2011", citing counter-terrorism as one of three areas of particular success.

The latest arrests mark the 13th suspected terror plot foiled by intelligence agencies since the terrorism threat level in Australia was raised to "probable" in 2014. To date, there have been no mass casualty terror attacks on Australian soil.

But according to some counter-terrorism and aviation experts, the additional security measures put in place by the government last week do not necessarily make flying safer.

'PR' criticism

Mr Turnbull would not elaborate on what the extra security measures entail. However, when asked by a reporter if it was just a general beefing up of safety or if a specific weakness in airport security had been identified, Andrew Colvin, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, said: "The measures that were already in place were as good as you'd find anywhere else in the world."

But Roger Henning, founder of Homeland Security Asia Pacific, a counter-terrorism consulting firm in Sydney, disagrees.

"Our airports are OK, but they don't hold a candle to countries like Singapore where they're filming you from the second you step off your plane to the second you step into a taxi," he says. "Or Tel Aviv, where a student makes conversation with you while you're waiting for your luggage and by the time you pass through customs they know everything about your intended stay in Israel."

Mr Henning described the beefing up of security measures at major Australian airports as a public relations exercise designed to make people feel safer, but with no demonstrable improvement in airport security.

"There is no scanner in existence that can detect plastic explosives," he says. "You don't even need to be in a terminal to bring an aeroplane down. They [authorities] even had motorcycle police passing by traffic outside Sydney Airport looking inside cars. What were they hoping to find? All this extra security and screening and big beefy cops walking around - it's nothing but window dressing."

Prof Geoff Dean, a criminologist who specialises in policing and intelligence, voices similar sentiments.

"At the end of the day, it is a big public relations exercise by the government," he says.

Image copyright Reuters Image caption The Australian government says it will adjust security arrangements as required

"You see it all over the world, whenever a bomb goes off or there is a threat, the only response governments can make to reassure the public is being more restrictive with freedom and sending more police walking around airports. It's an over-the-top paramilitary-style show of force to make the public feel confident."

He adds: "There are loopholes in every system and all sorts of security breaches can happen."

Different factors at play

The Australian Federal Police, New South Wales Police and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection would not elaborate on airport security matters. The Department of Infrastructure and Transport did not immediately respond to inquiries.

But Dr John Coyne, head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank, said although is an element of "theatre" in the ramped-up security measures, there's more to it than that.

"You need to to understand that in the initial period after an attack or a disruption to a planned attack like this one there are a lot of factors that are unknown," he says. "So in the interim, they ramp up the level of security for many different reasons.

"Yes, they want to show the public the government is doing something about an emerging threat and they want to make people feel safe. But it also allows them to collect as much new information as possible about vulnerabilities that may be mitigated, and to see what new permanent measures may have to be put in place. And it deters other terror groups that may be planning something similar to push their own plans forward."

He adds: "So I don't think public relations exercise is the right way to describe it. It's more about the government and those accountable for airport security hedging their bets."

Days on from the arrests, delays persisted at Sydney Airport as passengers underwent more frequent physical inspections of luggage, additional time spent electronically scanning luggage and explosives-trace detection.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Police search a Sydney home as they investigate the alleged plot

Dr Coyne says he doesn't expect the additional security measures to stay in place for more than a week or fortnight.

"It takes police officers away from the city and away from ongoing investigations, it costs the airlines a lot of money, and while it may make people feel safe it also burns goodwill with the public," he says.

"People are very supportive in the first 24 and 48 hours after an event, but as time goes on that changes. Things will probably go back to how they were but with some new procedures and protocols in place."

He describes airport security as "not a one-dimensional thing". "It has to be constantly innovating to face new challenges and mitigate new threats when they arise," he says, pointing to a recent example of some nations banning laptops from cabin luggage.

Mr Turnbull has pledged his nation will not sit idle.

"The heightened security measures at the airport, as everywhere, are under constant review," he said on Monday.

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