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How 9/11 attacks changed Australia's consular service

Published 06 Nov 2021
Mina Mikhaeil

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 overwhelmed Australian consular staff and forced reforms which means they are now better prepared to deal with overseas emergencies, a recent AIIA Queensland event in Brisbane was told.
This was the key message delivered by Ian Kemish, pictured above, who headed the Australian Consular Service from 2000 to 2004. His account of this turbulent era, which included 9/11 and the October 12, 2002 attacks in Bali, will be featured in his upcoming book The Consul. During a 25-year career with the Australian Government, Mr Kemish also served as Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, and as High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea.
He told AIIA Queensland it was no surprise that consular staff were overwhelmed by the response to 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, they had opened a phone number for those concerned about their loved ones in New York City. The service logged 15,000 calls and 8000 personnel registrations within three days of the attacks, almost all involving families and friends worried about the welfare of the individuals they could not reach. The Consular Service, Mr Kemish said, had to utilise a large number of volunteers from Australian offices in Washington DC to help log these calls. If there was a reason for concern about someone’s immediate wellbeing, local authorities were informed.

“Looking back, 9/11 was a pivotal moment for the service,” Mr Kemish said. “It would then be used as the basis on which we built our processes.’’ Reforms included the introduction of a 24-hour emergency centre and global case management software to aid with future emergencies. “These are things that are taken for granted today,’’ Mr Kemish added.
The overhaul was important because Al-Qaida was posing a greater threat to Australians. No longer was there a possibility that Australians “might be caught up in this’’. They were becoming directly targeted by Islamist extremists. This culminated in the October 12, 2002, bombings in Bali which killed 202 people including 88 Australians.
“By this point, we had come a long way since our response to 9/11,’’ said Mr Kemish. The Consular Service responded to the attack by Jemaah Islamiyah extremists by undertaking a massive airlift operation in which many people of different nationalities were provided with medical care.
From there, the service would go on to become what it is today, with initiatives such as Smart Traveller launched and many more resources provided. Better equipment and training has been provided to staff to ensure they are as ready as possible for any upcoming threat, as well as undertaking their usual consular roles.
Demand for services has increased with more and more Australians travelling every year. In 2019, there was an average of five Australian overseas deaths per 24 hours, triple the figure from 20 years ago. There are increased demands in other areas, from helping people who have lost paperwork to undertaking rescue missions with the aid of local authorities in overseas countries.
Mr Kemish concluded by saying that despite the unique challenges of today, his successors have done a “very good job’’ in providing the utmost care with composure when faced with issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and, lately, the evacuation of Kabul after it fell to the Taliban.

The Consul will be published by UQP in May 2022.