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AFP plan to disrupt, divert

With the national terror alert level at "high" since September last year, meaning a terrorist attack is deemed "likely at any time", the chief of Australian Federal Police’s newly-formed National Disruption Group, Brian McDonald, has outlined his strategy of stopping terrorist attacks before they happen.

The plan is consistent with the Review of Australia's Counter-Terrorism Machinery, released in January - in the same week as the Martin Place Siege Review. It identified three cogs in government operations: disrupting terrorist attacks, undermining terrorist activities by blocking support, and building resilience to radicalisation.

But in the wake of high profile counter-terrorism operations, including the Operation Appleby raids in Sydney last year and the recent Operation Amberd raid in Melbourne, some remain unconvinced of the threat and claim that counter-terrorism police are unfairly targeting Muslims.

Joint counter-terrorism operations by the AFP and state-based police were "opportunistic raids on Muslim homes" and "in the majority of cases no crime was committed", according to a statement claiming to be endorsed by dozens of Muslim community organisations and individuals that was published online in February this year.

The apparent disconnect between community perceptions and police threat assessments is a challenge for police, who need to build community trust while continuing a strategy of disruption as a measure of last resort.

But police are now seeking community support as they roll out plans to refer individuals to the Diversion Team, which aims to disengage them from extremism and reintegrate back into the community.    

“The domestic threat of terrorism comes from an extremely small number of individuals with extremist or radical views. They are not representative of, speak for, or act on behalf of, any religious, cultural or national group. The AFP recognises this and all investigations are intelligence-led and do not target individuals of specific races or religions.”

– AFP National Disruption Group chief Brian McDonald

Appleby, Duntulm, Amberd 

On September 18 more than 800 police from the joint AFP-NSW Police force Operation Appleby executed search warrants on suburban homes across Sydney. In all, 16 people were detained - three were held on 24-hour preventative detention orders - and one was formally charged with plotting to kill a random member of the Sydney public.

Other disruptive operations have netted arrests and, in all, eleven individuals have been charged. Australian Iraqi Omar Al- Kutibi and recent Iraqi-Kuwaiti immigrant Mohammad Kiad were allegedly planning an imminent ISIS-inspired attack. Police allege a machete, hunting knife, flag associated with ISIS and video of a man discussing the attack were seized from their Fairfield home.

In Melbourne, three teenagers - associates of Numan Haider who knife-attacked two police officers before being shot dead - were arrested for allegedly planning an ANZAC Day terror plot.

Operation Duntulm is continuing to pursue those facilitating foreign incursion offences and funding terrorist organisations. In September, two men were charged after a raid on a Brisbane bookshop, suspected of recruiting foreign fighters for ISIS; in Melbourne, Hassan El Sabsabi was released on bail after being charged with providing $12,000 to ISIS and to Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra during 2014.

In Operation Amberd, counter-terrorism police in Melbourne allege they found three makeshift bombs and thwarted a plot by 17-year-old boy to commit a 'Mothers' Day massacre' at an unspecified target. 

Warrants do not target races or religions, AFP says

Brian McDonald, chief of AFP’s National Disruption Group, told The Point Magazine he had an operational focus to “stop potential terrorism-related threats to the community before they occur,” both in Australia and overseas.

“It is acknowledged that there may be situations where the number of search warrants conducted in the course of an investigation will appropriately exceed the number of prosecutions directly relating to these warrants,” he said.

Legislative and accountability frameworks ensure investigations and prosecutions proceed in accordance with law and community expectations, he added.

“The domestic threat of terrorism comes from an extremely small number of individuals with extremist or radical views. They are not representative of, speak for, or act on behalf of, any religious, cultural or national group. The AFP recognises this and all investigations are intelligence-led and do not target individuals of specific races or religions,” McDonald said.

Community resistance 

Police antagonist and defence lawyer Adam Houda believes the operations are unfairly targeting the Muslim community. Houda, who has represented notorious terrorists Khaled Sharrouff and Man Horan Monis in court, describes counter-terrorism police he’s worked with as “highly talented”, but he believes the “unprecedented and heavy-handed” operations are an “abuse of powers.”

In an interview with The Point Magazine, he called Appleby’s September operations “a fishing expedition and highly improper” and he’s subsequently received “hundreds of complaints.”

“I’m all for law enforcement agencies protecting us, but the reality is that on our front line, they’re going about things the wrong way. They’re alienating a very important weapon, the Islamic community, by failing to treat them with dignity.”

“In order for there to be effective policing, the number one resource is the community.... who could be their major weapon against extremism,” Houda said.

Community advocate and lawyer Miriam Veiszadeh has also criticised the government for not “winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim community.”

Veiszadeh, the convener of the Islamophobia Register that reports biased crimes, said there was a “deep failing to understand the correlation between Islamophobia and radicalisation.”

Irresponsible preachers who promote radicalisation will use incidents of Islamophobia to support their message, she warned. “They’ll say, ‘Look what’s happening in our country and nothing is being done about it'.” she said.

Disruption and diversion 

McDonald says the AFP would rather divert people from extremism before they become a danger to themselves or others. He believes his National Disruption Group also “has the capability of identifying suitable individuals for diversion activities and referral to the Diversion Team.”

McDonald's AFP counterparts in the National Diversion Team want to reintegrate and rehabilitate individuals rather than prosecute them. Working in partnership with communities, diversion programs will include counselling, mentoring, coaching and education and employment support to help individuals to disengage from extremism and reintegrate into the community.

“The aim of the program is to prevent people from committing violent extremist acts by identifying radicalising or radicalised individuals and diverting them away from this path.  The main goal is to intervene at an early stage and prevent persons from continuing down a path which could end in them either preparing and committing acts onshore or preparing to travel off-shore to participate in hostile activities,” McDonald said.

It comes as the Attorney-General’s Department allocated $1.6 million in Living Safe Together grants to 34 different community organisations in a bid to increase their capabilities in preventing radicalisation.

As yet, the main challenge for police is to convince Muslim communities that they can be trusted partners in tackling violent extremism. 

The Point

Police have outlined their counter-terrorism disruption and diversion strategies and are seeking community support

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