The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will provide a “morale boost” to extremists plotting attacks elsewhere, and could again give them a base to operate as they did in the run-up to 9/11, the head of Britain’s MI5 domestic spy service says.
Ken McCallum, director general of the Security Service, best known by the initials for Military Intelligence Section 5, told the BBC the threat of terrorism was “a real and enduring thing”.
“We do face a consistent global struggle to defeat extremism and to guard against terrorism,” Mr McCallum said in an interview on the eve of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“Overnight you can have a psychological boost, a morale boost to extremists already here or in other countries, so we need to be vigilant,” Mr McCallum said.
“There is no doubt that the recent events in Afghanistan will have heartened and emboldened some of those extremists.”
The Taliban have promised they will not let Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks when they were last in power, again become a haven for militants planning to strike the West.
But Mr McCallum said there was a risk that this would be exactly what happens.
“Alongside the immediate inspirational effect is the risk that terrorists reconstitute and once again pose us more in the way of well-developed sophisticated plots of the sort that we faced in 9/11 and the years thereafter.”
Meanwhile former prime minister John Howard and intelligence chief Duncan Lewis have warned that terrorism remains an ever-present threat.
However they said key weapons against it were timely intelligence and a free and tolerant society.
Ten Australians died in the September 11 attacks and thousands more were injured.
Mr Howard said he didn’t believe al Qaeda had the capacity for such an attack these days, but there was the prospect of a similar organisation “regenerating” now the US and partners have pulled out of Afghanistan.
“Terrorism has never gone, it is an ever-present threat,” Mr Howard told a forum this week.
“The best weapon we have against terrorism is timely intelligence.”
The former prime minister was in Washington on the day of the attacks.
He recalls the greatest fear on the day was that it would be a series of attacks across the world, including Sydney.
Having been ushered to a bunker beneath the Australian embassy, the next major decision was how to respond to the attacks.
“I certainly have no regrets about committing our forces to help the United States get rid of al-Qaeda — it was the right thing to do and it had overwhelming support in Australia.”
Working hard at preserving freedoms within Australia and ensuring security alliances remain solid were key, he said.
Former ASIO boss, national security adviser and SAS commanding officer Duncan Lewis agreed good intelligence was central to tackling the terrorist threat.
The inquiry which followed the September 11 attacks pointed to a failure to fully understand an attack was imminent, he said.
But since then the world’s intelligence-gathering machinery has greatly improved.
“While not publicly visible, this capability has done much to protect our communities from terrorist attack,” he said.
Australia is one of the Five Eyes intelligence partners with the United States, UK, Canada and New Zealand.
“We must, however, continue to invest in our intelligence capability,” said the Australian National University professor in national security.
“As a middle power, Australia must know what is going on around us to enhance our strategic decision-making and reduce the chance of surprise.”
Like Mr Howard, he said building a more cohesive society was also key to reducing the prospects of attacks.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would be standing with “our great friend and ally” the US on Saturday, but it was also a deeply personal tragedy.
“First and foremost I just think about the terrible tragedy that took place in so many people’s lives,” he told 2GB.