Combatting Terrorism

On 29 November 2019 two University of Cambridge academics opened a conference in London to celebrate the anniversary of the program they had created in partnership. They called it Learning Together. For five years the program had helped released prisoners to get an education and escape a life of crime. Just after lunch, following an uneventful morning, a man entered Fishmongers’ Hall, where delegates were gathered, shouting threats that he would blow up the building in the name of his religion. Drawing two knives from his sleeves, he began to indiscriminately stab innocent people. In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood movie but, tragically, all too real, delegates at the conference grabbed decorative historical weapons from the walls in a desperate attempt to defend themselves. Soon, driven out into the street, the man began attacking passers-by on London Bridge. It took the courageous actions of a plain-clothes police officer and a Ministry of Justice public servant, as well as the swift response of the City of London Police, to end the senseless violence. In just five minutes two young people in the prime of their lives had been killed and another three seriously wounded.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this incident is that the perpetrator of this barbarous act of terrorism was not an unknown assailant but an invited and accredited delegate at the conference. He was not a newly radicalised young man or an individual suffering from a bout of serious mental health. Usman Khan was a known and convicted terrorist. The Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command and the Security Service had files on him. Nine years earlier Mr Khan had been part of a very serious but, thankfully, unsuccessful al-Qaeda plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange, less than a mile from London Bridge. In 2018 he’d been released from prison and on the morning of the attack had been given additional permission to travel to the city to take part in the day’s events as a former participant of the program. He took that opportunity to fulfil the violent intention he had formed a decade earlier. Unfortunately this has not been the only case of convicted terrorists going on to commit further acts of terror after their release. Just last year another convicted offender, Sudesh Mamoor Faraz Amman, left a man and woman in a life-threatening condition after stabbing them on Streatham High Road in East London only weeks after his release from prison.

Here in Australia, this is an issue that we will increasingly need to face up to. We are far from immune. In September we saw the sentencing of three men for planning to undertake a terrorist attack in Melbourne. I remember this very distinctly, because I was in Melbourne, only a few hundred metres away from where the event was planned to take place, and I was there on that day. Each of these men has been convicted with a sentence of 10 years in prison. We need to think about what will happen when they and many others who have already been convicted of these kinds of crimes come up for parole.

Terrorism is a unique offence. It is not committed for personal gain or from animosity against a particular victim. Rather, its target is an entire civilisation, and as such its motive does not end with the commission of the crime. Our justice system is, rightly, built on the premise that offenders can be rehabilitated and that once they have completed their allocated punishment they return to membership of our society. However, when the ongoing aim of an offender may be the wholesale destruction of that society, unique measures are required to prevent the kinds of horrifying results that we’ve seen in London over the past two years

In Australia, a state or territory supreme court currently has only one option when approached to help prevent those who remain a threat to our way of life from leaving prison and committing a further act of terror. That is the continuing detention order. In short, at the court’s discretion, the convicted terrorist is kept in prison until they are no longer considered a risk to society. In a free country, this is a very grave measure. It must be used only in cases where an individual poses a very serious and ongoing risk. Rightly, it requires a high burden of proof to be imposed. However, at present, if a state or territory supreme court identifies that a convicted terrorist poses a less definite risk, their only alternative is to release that individual into our community with only the usual requirements of a person on parole. It is a high degree of trust on the part of our community to place on individuals who have already acted on their ideological desire to harm us.

The events in London in recent years show us that, in many cases, it is not a risk that we can afford to take. Currently, in these cases, only the Federal Court or Federal Circuit Court can offer a solution. A different applicant must make a separate application to one of these courts under a different standard of proof for the same offender to be subject to a control order. These control orders can stop a person from visiting certain locations, communicating with fellow terrorists or owning and using certain equipment. They can ensure that a person wears a tracking device or obeys a curfew. Such control orders can be an effective deterrent. However, as the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor found, it is not in the interests of applicants, the courts or the offender to run parallel systems in this way. It creates duplication in effort for law enforcement, significantly increases the costs involved and requires those who are the subject of these orders to go through multiple separate court proceedings. What is needed is an equivalent set of restrictions which can be imposed on the past offender in the community by state and territory supreme courts as an alternative to a continuing detention order where appropriate, and this is what the bill delivers.

The bill establishes an extended supervision order, or ESO, scheme for high-risk terrorist offenders. It will allow state and territory supreme courts to impose any prohibitions, restrictions or obligations on high-risk terrorist offenders upon their release which the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities are necessary to protect the public. It will mean that these courts have available an alternative to ongoing detention and with a lower burden of proof to reflect the less restrictive measures being imposed. These orders will be tailored to the particular risks posed by each offender, and the court will be able to gather expert assessments from psychologists and other practitioners to understand those risks more fully. The ESO will prevent the doubling-up that is required under the current system and ensure that terrorism offenders can be given a just opportunity to reintegrate into society while the public have protection from the most likely risks of possible further attacks. Under this bill, the ESOs will last up to three years. However, they can be extended if the offender continues to pose a risk to the community and can be modified if circumstances change. Equally, the court will be required to review these orders annually or whenever the Minister for Home Affairs applies for such a review. This will ensure ESOs remain appropriate and necessary for both the offender and the community.

With the global natural disaster of COVID-19 unfolding around us, it is fair to say that many Australians have ceased to think about the threat posed by international terrorism. However, the tragic events of the past few months in Afghanistan as well as the dreadful murder of UK member of parliament Sir David Amess in recent days are stark wake-up calls. Though the international community must do our very best to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a training base for international terrorists, we must also be alive to the fact that those who would seek to do us harm in the promotion of their radical ideologies can come from anywhere. We must be constantly vigilant. Since September 2014, 139 people have been charged as a result of 67 counterterrorism related operations around Australia. Some of these people will re-enter our society and make a positive contribution and some won’t. The unfortunate reality is that that threat may remain for a long time to come, and it will be difficult to tell the difference between the two. We need to ensure that we have a system that caters for every level of threat flexibly and efficiently. That is what this bill will do, and I commend it to the House.