06 March 2018

Israel and Australia counter-terrorism - looking out for your mates

From the The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), March 6, 2018, by Anthony Bergin, senior analyst at ASPI and senior research fellow at the ANU’s National Security College:



Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently revealed that Israeli intelligence had shared information with our security agencies that foiled an Islamic State plot to blow up an Etihad flight from Sydney last July.

Police arrested two brothers, Khaled Khayat and Mahmoud Khayat, and charged them with plotting to bring down the jet. They’re now before the courts accused of trying to smuggle an improvised explosive device hidden inside a meat grinder onto the plane. The attempt was aborted before they reached airport screening (the device was too heavy to pass through check-in).

The plot had been orchestrated by a senior commander of the Islamic State based in Syria, alarming our security agencies by demonstrating the ability of homegrown jihadis to access technical planning directly from terrorists in the Middle East. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has publicly thanked Israeli authorities for the intelligence tip off. He pointed out that Israel has an ‘enormous capacity’ within its intelligence community and it’s an ‘important relationship with ASIO and the Australian Federal Police’.

During his visit to Australia last February, Netanyahu pointed out that both states had ‘superb intelligence services’ that could be better if they worked more closely together to counter violent Islamist extremism.

Israeli intelligence is now taking a more global approach. It’s part of the international effort to fight radical Islamist terror, with Israeli intelligence bodies having ‘tightened coordination with counterparts in friendly countries in recent years’.

Last May, a storm arose after it was reported that President Donald Trump had revealed in a conversation with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador to the US details of Israeli warnings regarding a plan by Islamic State to blow up passenger jets flying to Europe using laptop bombs.

In January this year, Prime Minister Netanyahu told a group of ambassadors from NATO member states that Israel’s intelligence services had provided information that had thwarted several dozen major terrorist attacks, many of them in Europe. Many could have been the worst kind of mass attacks because they involved threats to civilian aviation, he said.

One of the main challenges our intelligence agencies face is working with fragments of information and trying to assemble a picture of what might happen. In the battle against global jihadism, it’s good to know that along with our core Five Eyes intelligence partners (Britain, the United States, Canada and New Zealand), Israel is increasingly being consulted on terrorism intelligence. Last November Israel and NATO, for example, signed an agreement on protecting classified information to expand intelligence sharing.

Israel plays a pivotal role in Middle East intelligence. We have good information on Islamist extremist groups in Asia that Israel would find of interest. It’s reasonable to assume that Australia and Israel security agencies have been working hard to build trust after the events of eight years ago. At that time, we expelled an Israeli intelligence officer in response to Israel forging Australian passports that were used in the assassination of a Hamas leader.

Last February we had the first visit of a sitting Israeli prime minister to Australia. And last October Malcolm Turnbull made the first visit of a sitting Australian prime minister to Israel since 2000. As a result, we’ve pursued closer ties to Israel through a memorandum of understanding on defence industry cooperation. Our respective defence officials will hold annual discussions on strategic and security priorities.

Consideration might be given in the near future to having a regular defence ministerial-level dialogue and undertaking a small-scale joint Australia–Israel military exercise in an area of mutual interest.

At a time when the cyber threat is growing, this year Australia and Israel will develop closer cooperation in cybersecurity by convening a bilateral cyber dialogue. We can learn lessons from the Israeli cybersecurity success story, particularly in start-ups and skills development. Last year, for example, Israel and the US formed a bilateral cyber security working group.

The intelligence cooperation we received from Israel in rolling up last year’s complex Sydney bomb plot continues a tradition of looking out for your mates, highlighted at last year’s centenary commemorations of the Light Horse’s military campaign in Palestine in Be’er Sheva and ASPI’s own strategic dialogue with Israel’s Begin-Sadat Centre.