The SACPAV Police Tactical Group’s Skills Enhancement Training Manual 1998 defines ‘terrorism’ in the following way:
‘Terrorism comprises acts or threats of violence of National concern, calculated to evoke extreme fear for the purpose of achieving a political objective in Australia or in a foreign country.’ The manual defines ‘a terrorist’ as: ‘a person who actively supports or uses terror to achieve political objectives.’
On 21 September 1998, terrorism came to the city of Tweed Heads, on the far North Coast of New South Wales.
At approximately 7.55 a.m. local police officers were called to the South Tweed Heads office of the federal Minister for Community Services, Larry Anthony, in response to a report that a man had chained himself to the front door. The man-in-question’s name was Brian Simpson and he had informed the police that he wanted to meet Larry Anthony within forty-eight-hours or he would blow himself up. Simpson indicated that he had a bomb strapped to his body and also stated that he was protesting over the Federal Government’s policy on uranium mining at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory.
As a result, the Tweed Heads SPSU team was activated and, after initially assessing the situation, the senior field supervisor, Chris Kennedy, requested our assistance. Within twenty-minutes I had a team geared up and heading for Tweed Heads, flat strap on a blue light run.
Of the four personnel I had selected, one operator was a qualified bomb technician who normally worked crime scene unit duties at Lismore. I’d recently brought him to our unit after learning of his valuable skills during a casual conversation. As it turned out, he’d been sitting around at Lismore for years, a wasted resource.
Realising his potential I phoned Audsley and requested permission to bring him on-line with the SPSU. Predictably, Audsley’s reply was as sharp as a bowling ball: ‘Bill, personally I don’t think we should be going anywhere near bombs.’ I then explained to the superintendent that tactical teams were sometimes required to raid booby-trapped drug plantations and to respond to siege and hostage situations where criminals had wired up improvised explosive devices (IEDs). After taking this revelation on board, the penny dropped and Audsley gave my proposal the nod.
One hour after leaving Lismore, we pulled into the command post, which was located on the Pacific Highway at South Tweed Heads, and I relieved Chris Kennedy as the tactical commander of the operation. Both SPSU teams were well acquainted with each other as we had trained together on a monthly basis over the past few years. The basics were pretty much already in place. The perimeters were set, the traffic had been diverted, people in the surrounding areas had been evacuated, and face-to-face negotiations with Simpson were under way. In addition the police rescue, state emergency services, ambulance and fire brigade services were in attendance.
With the basics in place I set up a holding area in a nearby clothes shop and got my team to gear up. While this was happening, I grabbed a set of binoculars and took my bomb technician out on his first-ever sneak-and-peek mission. I was hoping that he would be able to shed some light on the bomb and its capabilities, but in the end he was unable to do either. In tactical operations the golden rule is that you always prepare for the worst case scenario, so that’s exactly what we did.
A large crowd of onlookers had gathered around the perimeters, so for the time being, I deployed my three remaining operators to bolster the inner-perimeter teams. Then in accordance with operating procedures, I phoned the duty supervisor at the Tactical Operations Unit office in Sydney and asked for the unit’s ETA (estimated time of arrival) on-site. It came as no surprise when the supervisor informed me that he didn’t have one and that they’d been directed to monitor the situation from Sydney for the time being.
This growing trend of monitoring situations from Sydney had developed over the past few years. Instead of getting the operators straight on charter planes and flying to the jobs asap, the teams were waiting at the airport for hours, in the hope that the SPSU teams would resolve the jobs for them and save the cost of the charter flights.
Meanwhile, back at Larry Anthony’s office we had a terrorist incident unfolding by any interpretation of the definition, and the only counter-terrorist police tactical team in New South Wales authorized to resolve it was sitting in Sydney monitoring it. Fortunately I was counter-terrorist trained myself.
Negotiations with Simpson continued for the next four hours, during which he repeatedly stated his intention to blow himself up if his demands weren’t met. The Tweed Heads superintendent Neville Tarleton, was in attendance and with the Tactical Operations Unit nowhere in sight, he asked me if it was feasible for the SPSU to resolve the situation. After doing another ‘recce’ and carefully thinking things through, I reached the conclusion that there was a chance that we could resolve the situation by assault, but it was a long shot.
The plan was for the negotiators to coax Simpson into removing the device from his body and then placing it down on the ground nearby. The placement of the device was restricted by the three-metre length of chain connecting Simpson to the office door. Once it was on the ground the negotiators would then have to coax Simpson into sitting down on the ground. Once Simpson was seated, the negotiator would give me a field signal and I would initiate the assault.
I knew that if Simpson took off the device and was sitting down, the assault team could cover the relatively short distance from the final assault point quickly enough to nail him before he had time to activate the device. The bomb tech would also tag along on the end of the assault team, dressed in his bomb suit, and look after the device.
The final assault point I’d chosen was ideal because it was only twenty metres away from Simpson and provided excellent concealment as well as pretty good cover, which was critical for the plan to succeed. The plan also included an unmarked vehicle to be positioned at the final assault point, and on the green light the driver would head around the corner and pull up in front of Simpson. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, it would help to momentarily distract Simpson and also restrict the media’s view of the assault. Secondly, the large bolt cutters that were needed to cut Simpson free of the chain would be located on the back seat. Thirdly, once the assault team had bagged and tagged Simpson, the vehicle would extract him from the scene and convey him back to Tweed Heads Police Station.
The success of the deliberate-action assault plan depended on two things: the ability of the negotiators to get Simpson to remove the device and sit down; and the assault team’s ability to cover the twenty metres of ground between the final assault point and the offender, and then nail him like a freight train before he had a chance to activate the device.
Meanwhile back in Sydney the Tactical Operations Unit was still monitoring the situation. So too was most of Australia. The media were broadcasting the situation across the nation and eventually the office of the Australian prime minister, John Howard, rang the Tactical Operations Unit office and inquired why the state’s counterterrorist team was not in attendance. The hierarchy had been caught red-faced and with the Prime Minister’s Office on its case, they decided that the budget was no longer a consideration. The priority now was to attend, albeit five hours after the operation had commenced. They could have flown to Perth in that time.
It was a case of too little, too late and in the interim, Superintendent Tarleton at Tweed Heads had authorised the SPSU to execute the deliberate-action assault in the absence of the Tactical Operations Unit. Normally, Tarleton’s support of the SPSU was minimal, but like most bosses, when the shit hit the fan, he then expected the SPSU to move mountains for him.
Once the assault plan had been approved, I briefed the SPSU contingent and placed Chris Kennedy in charge of the three-man assault team. That was all we needed to do the job. There’s nothing worse than watching six operators monster one offender — it’s untidy and it’s unprofessional. The selections for the remaining two positions in the assault team were difficult because I had a number of operators to choose from, and I knew from personal experience that every one of them was champing at the bit to get a start on a job of this level.
As the assault-team leader, Chris Kennedy picked himself. He was by far the most qualified and experienced operator I had at my disposal. To a man, the rest of the operators were basically on a par, so I decided the only fair way to do it was to draw the names from a hat. Each operator wrote his name on a piece of paper and then screwed it up and placed it inside the hat. After a quick shake I drew out the two lucky names. With the selections finalised I then went through a number of rehearsals with the assault team, bomb technician and the vehicle extraction team, step by step.
There was no doubt the plan was risky, and that if the assault-team operators didn’t nail Simpson quickly enough they could be blown to kingdom come, along with the negotiators, but that’s the nature of tactical operations. There are always life-threatening risks involved and there’s no 100 per cent guarantee the plan is going to work. The trick is to try to minimise your risk factors, but in situations like this it comes down to a balls-and-all assault option, and someone’s got to do it. Over the past few years the team had worked very hard against the odds and earned the right to perform on a job of this level, and having trained them I knew they could pull it off. During that time my methods had been criticised by some as being too tough, but they were precisely geared towards moments like these.
Once the rehearsals were done, Tarleton gave us the green light to initiate the assault. With this I left the command post and moved forward to the final assault point, linking up with the assault team, the bomb technician and the vehicle extraction team. It was now a waiting game and I kept a keen eye on the negotiator, looking for the field signal to say that Simpson had taken the device off and was sitting down on the ground. Ten minutes elapsed before the signal came.
Immediately I relayed the signal to the assault team and initiated the assault. Simultaneously the assault team and the bomb technician sprinted towards Simpson and the device, while the vehicle extraction team headed for their designated vehicle stop point. Although Simpson did manage to get to his feet, the assault team nailed him before he got anywhere near the device. Within seconds the chain had been cut away and Simpson had been handcuffed and searched. He was then bundled into the back of the extraction vehicle and whisked away to Tweed Heads Police Station for interview. The mission had been accomplished inside thirty seconds.
In the wash-up, although the device wasn’t capable of being detonated, it did contain some explosive elements. The debrief was a predictably happy one and everybody was over the moon with the end result, especially Larry Anthony and his wife Jenny, who were both in attendance. The operation also received favourable media coverage throughout Australia and the SPSU operators involved were awarded a Commissioner’s Unit Citation for resolving the situation.
The incident created history as the first terrorist incident in New South Wales to be resolved by a police tactical team by way of assault, albeit by a part-time team.