When Armenian terrorists tried to blow up the office of the Turkish consulate-general in Melbourne in 1986, the first the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) knew of it was a radio news broadcast.
A 1987 cabinet document, released by the National Archives of Australia, says VICPOL (Victorian Police) initially saw the attempt as one-off criminal act possibly directed at any of the occupants of the consulate building and nearby offices.
ASIO thought otherwise.
That was because there had been a wave of attacks on Turkish diplomats around the world over the previous decade.
In December 1980, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG) shot dead the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard in Sydney. ASIO and police thwarted two other attacks.
This terror group demanded an Armenian homeland, plus Turkish acknowledgement of the Ottoman empire’s alleged murder of perhaps 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-23. Its members conducted a series of deadly attacks against Turkish diplomats and interests throughout the world in the 1970s and 1980s.
From the previous attacks and its observations of a number of Australians of Armenian background, ASIO was well aware of the threat.
At 2.18am on Sunday November 23, 1986, a car bomb exploded prematurely in the basement of the Turkish consulate in Melbourne, obliterating Sydney man Hagop Levonian, subsequently identified as one of the bombers. There was widespread damage.
His accomplice Levon Demirian was jailed for 25 years for murder but that conviction was quashed on appeal and he ended up serving 10 years for conspiracy.
Australia’s counter-terror apparatus had improved over the years but this was still 15-years before the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.
In a submission to cabinet on October 16, 1987, the Secretaries Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) conceded things could have been done better.
It acknowledged Victorian Police had done well in arresting Demirian within 48 hours, aided by ASIO’s knowledge of his movements.
But other matters left scope for improvement.
The federal government only learned of the blast from a radio broadcast at 2.40am.
Communications with ASIO weren’t established until more than an hour later and it was another hour before the Commonwealth’s Protective Services Coordination Committee was advised.
SCIS said various factors contributed to this delay but the standout was VICPOL’s failure to appreciate that the presence of the Turkish consulate-general meant this was more likely a political rather than criminal act.
“It needs to be understood by all state agencies that any terrorist incident is relevant to national security and that the commonwealth’s interest was real and immediate,” it said.
That raised concerns about the adequacy of existing plans and procedures, especially in an era when terrorism was changing.
Much counter-terror planning had been based on protracted incidents, such as sieges, but more attention now needed to go to short duration incidents such as bombings and assassinations which required a speedy response.
That included better procedures to prevent rather than delay terror suspects departing Australia.
Australia’s counter-terror cooperation arrangements dated from the 1978 Hilton Hotel bombing and formation of the clumsily-named Standing Advisory Committee on Commonwealth and State Cooperation for Protection Against Violence (SAC-PAV).
Current arrangements are the result of steady evolution, boosted by incidents such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2002 Bali bombing. There’s now a national plan which defines responsibilities and arrangements.
To ensure speedy notification of unfolding events, there’s now the Australian Government Crisis Coordination Centre which operates 24/7 within the government’s emergency response body Australian Emergency Management.