Terrorist Threat to the Australian Olympics

TRC Threat Assessment – August 25, 2000

The terrorist threat to the Australian Olympics is currently assessed as low. This assessment is based on the following considerations.

A number of terrorist groups, both regional organizations such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and transnational groups such as Usama Bin Ladin’s Al-Qaida network, are capable of conducting major acts of terrorism against the Olympics. These groups, along with longstanding anti-Western groups such as Lebanese Hizballah, are skilled at planning and executing terrorist operations in difficult operating environments. Lone militants may also hold violent grudges against the host, or participants of, the Olympics.

Historically, the Olympics remain a clear terrorist target and terrorists have attacked the Games in the past. The Palestinian group Black September took several Israeli hostages in Munich in 1972. In 1996, a lone militant bombed Atlanta’s Olympic Park. A heavy international media presence is expected at the Games.

Fortunately, Australia is not believed to have a large number of terrorist operatives or supporters residing within its borders. Terrorists generally have not conducted acts of terrorism in the past. There were no known attacks conducted by terrorist groups in Australia in the last five years.

In addition, the organized and exercised security framework in Australia will challenge terrorists who may be considering attacks against the Games. Australian authorities, with assistance from a variety of governments to include the United States, appear to have prepared well for the potential terrorist threat against the Games and have conducted at least one major exercise to test readiness. Further, on June 24, 2000, Australian press reported that authorities had deported five people linked to extremist groups in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. In May 2000, Australian authorities reportedly arrested a man near Sydney’s Olympic Village whose home was packed with explosives.

Any terrorist group that conducts attacks against the Games would face worldwide condemnation. Some groups may feel that the publicity they receive for punishment they inflict is worth the price. Others may feel they will not be discovered. However, there are potential risks to conducting attacks at the Games that some terrorist group may consider to be too high.

In his last know public statement concerning the terrorist threat, in late April 2000, Australian Attorney-General Daryl Williams was quoted by the London Times as stating that there was “no specific threat of terrorism against the Sydney Olympics.”

Background and Assessment

The terrorist threat to the Olympics consists of four potential sources: state agents of terror, formalized terrorist groups, loosely-affiliated extremists and lone militants. Each presents a different potential threat and set of challenges.

State Agents

State agent terrorism includes terrorist planning and execution of the official agents of a nation or government. Attacks from these actors are unlikely. The Games are an international goodwill forum and the discovery of direct terrorist planning by a nation-state, either before or after a terrorist attack, would produce international revulsion and condemnation. The state’s potential benefits from an attack against its enemies at the Games are low. State agent terrorists traditionally engage in assassination or other attacks after careful planning, plausible deniability and with a clear purpose in mind, such as the methodical elimination of dissidents overseas.

Longstanding Groups

Formalized terrorist groups, however, could pose a threat. Within the Asian region, Philippine terrorist groups may view the Games as an effective platform to demand change. Recent hostage-taking events and gun-battles with government forces could lead extremists like the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to stage protests or engage in violence in Sydney and elsewhere in the country. Ethnic rebels in the region such as Sri Lankan separtists, also continue to engage in political violence against local authorities and civilians. The LTTE poses a significant security challenge to the Sri Lankan government and specializes in suicide bombings and the assassination of Sri Lankan government officials. Sri Lankan dignitaries, tourists and athletes are scheduled to attend the Games and may be a potential target. Finally, Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo–recently renamed Alpeh in February 2000–continues to operate, recruit new members and reorganize. Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for a sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995, has expressed anti-US sentiments and could threaten the Games in general based on its bizarre, doomsday world-view. Other terrorist groups outside the region, especial ethno-nationalist groups such as Basque separatists, Palestinians, could target specific government officials at the Games. Longstanding regional terrorist groups, such as Lebanese Hizballah which opposes the Middle East Peace Process and recently threatened the United States if Washington moves its Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem, could also target specific interests at the Games.

Loosely-affiliated Extremists

Apart from formalized terrorist groups, loosely-affiliated extremists likely pose a greater threat to the Games. The US Department of State publication Patterns of Global Terrorism for 1999 stated the locus of terrorism directed against the United States continued to shift for the Middle East to South Asia. Afghanistan in particular continued to serve as a training ground for Islamic extremists from North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. These terrorists, driven by an extreme interpretation of Islam, have few constraints on the use of violence and pose a clear potential threat. Loosely-affiliated extremists have operated in the Pacific region in the past; in late 1994 Ramzi Yousef and an ad hoc grouping planned to destroy eleven airlines in midflight.

The Asian region also remains home to Saudi Usama Bin Ladin, the first among equals in this loose web of transnational religious militants. Wanted by the United States for twin bombings against US Embassies in Africa on 7 August 1998, the Afghanistan-based Bin Ladin could clearly inspire unaffiliated extremists and like-minded member of terrorist groups in the region–such members as the Abu Sayyaf Group–to target the Games. Reports of divisions within Bin Ladin’s inner circle and a corresponding lose of influence are overblown, as reports of his allegedly failing health have been in the past 18 months. Bin Ladin is assessed to exercise continuing influence among Islamic mujahedin, or religious warriors, worldwide. As with other religious militants, Bin Ladin has few constraints on attacking the Games.

Bin Ladin has not threatened the Games publicly to date, but a call by him to target the Olympics would create a dangerous situation in which some like-minded supporters would feel obliged to act. There are risks, however, for Bin Ladin. If he were discovered actively planning attacks against the Games, the Taleban clique which rules approximately 80 percent of Afghanistan–already under intense international pressure to surrender Usama–may be forced to expel him; an event Bin Ladin apparently wants to avoid.

Lone Militants

The last threat to the Games may stem from lone militants, not affiliated with traditional terrorist groups, who have political agendas and may be spurred to engage in political violence. This is the most likely potential threat and most difficult to detect and disrupt.

An attack by a lone militant is unlikely to cause serious damage, but as witnessed in the April 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, some militants do have access to bomb-making techniques that can produce powerful improvised explosive devices. A more likely scenario, however, would be a smaller-scale attack similar to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that caused relatively limited damage and injury. Lone militants may be inspired by any number of real or imagined political causes. Emotions in the region are currently running high, especially among some members of Muslim communities in the Philippine and East Timor. Elements of the Australian aboriginal community are also planning to stage protests at the Games. The international media profile the Games bring may prompt lone persons or rogue grouping to consider an extreme form of political expression.

OODA Analyst

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