Calling all aspiring novelists – your nation needs your help to identify the next terrorist attack.
A Canberra-based think tank has come up with the idea of asking people how they would behave as terrorists.
The short story competition, Australia’s Security Nightmares, will hopefully prod some professional security officials to think outside the square.
The Australian Security Research Centre wants to ‘‘foster imaginative thinking’’ so Australia is better prepared to deal with the varied threats facing our security.
The competition comes on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and as debate grows on the federal government’s proposed two-year web and telecommunications data retention laws.
Writers who Google ‘‘bomb Canberra airport’’ are unlikely to be detected by ASIO, but the federal proposals could result in internet service providers retaining customer data for two years and allowing law enforcement agencies to access any person’s computer to get to a suspect’s device.
To help writers get in a malevolent mood, the centre helpfully provides some scenarios.
They range from cyber attacks shutting down electricity grids during heatwaves, to vehicles carrying nuclear waste being blown up, to a small asteroid splashing into the Pacific and creating a massive tidal wave.
‘‘While the story is to be fictional, it needs to be grounded in a plausible, coherent and detailed security situation,’’ the competition guidelines say.
‘‘Rather than just describing an avalanche of frightening events, writers are encouraged to focus on the consequences and challenges posed by their scenarios, and tease out what the official and public responses would be.’’
In the United States after the 9/11 attacks, authorities turned to Hollywood screen writers to find out what they were missing in their dreams.
Centre director Athol Yates said the competition aimed to generate more focus on national security rather than counter terrorism.
‘‘The security environment is much broader than that and they’re the things we need to be thinking about, not the current problem, because everybody fights the last war and plans for it but the next one, you can be guaranteed, will be something nobody else predicted,’’ he said.
‘‘This sort of thing allows people to allow their imaginations to run wild.
‘‘What we’re more interested in is not so much the threat but the consequences because that is the highly unpredictable bit.’’
He is not worried that the stories submitted in the competition will lead to copy cat attacks.
‘‘After 2001 there were many calls for the removal from street directories of water treatment plants and power transmission lines because it was seen as giving information to terrorists,’’ he said.
‘‘It was a massive over reaction because, let’s be honest about it – people like Faheem Khalid Lodhi [Australia’s first convicted terrorist] don’t need these sorts of stories, they’ve got enough fantasies of their own.’’
Clive Williams, visiting professor at the ANU’s Australian Centre for Military and Security Law, endorses the competition.
‘‘I think it is good because within government, you do tend to become a bit fixed in your thinking, and to encourage people to think outside the box is a good idea,’’ he said.
Patrick Emerton, senior lecturer in law at Monash University, said using imagination to tease out possible scenarios was a good idea.
‘‘But I’m a bit worried about projection and reinforcing stereotypes rather than actually looking closely and seeing what’s really happening in the community,’’ he said.
Dr Emerton said the community need not be concerned the competition was going to throw up a ‘‘blueprint for masterminds’’.
‘‘That seems a bit fanciful because there’s already so many Tom Clancy novels and everything else out there,’’ he said.
‘‘There’s a lot of ideas out there already and a lot of real plots that have worked and haven’t worked.’’
He is not worried about computer searches undertaken by writers being tracked by ASIO.
‘‘I think the probability would be low but it’s not completely fanciful,’’ he said.
Australia’s national security planning relies heavily on the use of scenarios.
Defence has a highly classified collection of scenarios called the Australian Capability Context Scenarios which reflect possible circumstances under which the Australian Defence Forces might be employed.