Vice Chief of the Defence Force – Inquiry Report on 29 August 2012 insider attack released - Press Conference
25 September 2013
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for coming. We had originally planned to have this conference tomorrow, however, given the interest shown in the media today, I felt it was important to bring it forward so you can ask your questions based on a full statement.
It was a sad day when I stood here just over a year ago to announce the deaths of Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic of 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment, Queensland Mounted Infantry, Sapper James Martin of 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment and Private Robert Poate of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.
These Australian soldiers were murdered in an insider attack on 29 August, while serving in Afghanistan as a part of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment Task Group.
While nothing will bring back these brave and dedicated soldiers, Defence has conducted a formal inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the attack to develop a clearer understanding of what happened and to assess whether any systemic issues need to be addressed to prevent a similar tragedy occurring.
This inquiry has now been finalised. As is often commented on, the families have the right to know all the circumstances around an attack such as this – and I agree.
The process leading to the Report’s release has been quite detailed and has included provision of a redacted report to the families in early May this year and a number of detailed meetings discussing the full report. The final response from the families supporting the public release was received in the second week of August; however, due to the pending first anniversary of the attack and subsequent events, the decision was made to delay public release of the report until this week.
As a part of the process, I have spoken with a number of the families of these men and we have discussed the Inquiry Officer’s findings and recommendations.
Additionally, at the request of the families, a copy of the report was provided to the Brisbane Coroner at the beginning of September.
A redacted version of this report will be available on the Defence website following this media conference.
As is normal in these circumstances, the report being released to the public today has been redacted to preserve operational security and intelligence material and to comply with privacy legislation. Nothing more.
We have disclosed as much information as possible within those constraints to provide you with an understanding of the circumstances surrounding this attack.
While redacted in part, you will see that much of the relevant information is still accessible in this report. In short, the report is highly critical in places and highlights a number of serious issues that require follow-on action.
This insider attack is a complex scenario, so I will start by explaining what happened.
On the 28th of August last year, a patrol from the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment Task Group arrived at Patrol Base Wahab, a small patrol base in the Baluchi area of Uruzgan, approximately 20km north of Tarin Kot.
The patrol was there to mentor the resident members of the Afghan National Army through partnered patrols and training.
In preparation for this mission, specific information concerning the Patrol Base Wahab tactical infrastructure and topography was limited, requiring the Patrol Commander to make decisions once they arrived, based on established tactics, techniques and procedures.
The intelligence assessment used to inform his decision indicated that the most likely and most dangerous threat to Australian personnel would be from improvised explosive devices and insurgents operating in the vicinity of the base.
There was a high degree of awareness by members of the patrol that there had been a recent increase in the number of insider attacks in Afghanistan; however, this threat was not specifically identified at Patrol Base Wahab.
On arrival at Wahab, the Australian commander met his resident Afghan National Army unit counterpart to discuss where the Australians would establish their position and to agree on the base’s security arrangements.
It would be usual for the two armies to have separate areas within the Patrol Base, however given the terrain and infrastructure, the Australian commander determined this was not possible.
As such, the patrol set up an Australian area with a makeshift administration area at the northern, elevated end of the base, clear of the majority of Afghan National Army facilities.
The Australian Commander determined that it was not sustainable for the patrol to occupy the three guard towers next to the Australian camp on a 24 hour basis.
Therefore, it was agreed that during the day, one of the three guard towers next to the Australian camp would be manned by members of the 3 RAR Task Group with the Afghan National Army guarding the two remaining towers. At night, the Afghan National Army would man all towers with a single Australian roving piquet or guardian angel to provide overwatch for the Australian area.
Most of the Afghan soldiers within the Patrol Base were unarmed as a result of implementation of previous lessons learnt from insider attacks. Afghan National Army personnel were only provided weapons for weapons training, guard duties or when they were preparing for missions.
The next day, the Australians conducted a partnered patrol with their Afghan National Army counterparts, returning to the base by mid afternoon.
Through this patrol and other interactions, the relationship being developed between our personnel and the Afghan unit was very positive.
As some of you may already know from previous briefings, successful mentoring requires a significant level of rapport. This is achieved through joint patrols as well as socialising and doing physical training together.
The patrol commander was particularly mindful of this in the first 24 hours following the Australians' arrival at Patrol Base Wahab.
This foundation was being developed between the two groups.
Given that our troops viewed that the most likely threat was from insurgents outside the base, a fact reinforced when they encountered an Improvised Explosive Device during the patrol that day, once safely back within the base, they were in a relaxed state.
That evening, a number of Australian soldiers were relaxing inside the administration area.
Some were playing cards or a board game, and others were on their camp beds. Many were not wearing body armour and were dressed in gym gear, including the roving piquet who was wearing his body armour over his gym gear. All the Australians had access to their weapons.
Around 9.45pm local time, an Afghan National Army soldier, now known to be Sergeant Hekmatullah, approached the administration area. Without warning he fired two bursts of about 10-15 rounds of automatic small arms fire from close range into the administration area.
Two Australian soldiers immediately responded with return fire.
In the darkness and confusion, members of the 3 RAR Task Group were unsure where the initial shots had come from, but within minutes they took control of the guard towers and disarmed the Afghan National Army soldiers.
Sergeant Hekmatullah immediately fled the Patrol Base.
When it was clear there was no further gun fire, the Australian platoon’s medic quickly found Private Poate and Sapper Martin showed no vital signs of life.
Lance Corporal Milosevic initially displayed some vital signs but sadly, he rapidly deteriorated until he no longer displayed any signs of life.
The platoon medic and other qualified first aiders continued cardiac pulmonary resuscitation on the three Australians until the casualty evacuation helicopters arrived 25 minutes later.
The casualties arrived at the medical facility at Tarin Kot, 39 minutes after the attack.
Tragically, Sapper Martin and Private Poate were declared dead on arrival. Although Lance Corporal Milosevic displayed no signs of life, he was immediately taken into surgery where attempts were made to treat his injuries. Unfortunately these attempts were unsuccessful and he was also declared dead.
Two Australian soldiers were also wounded in this incident – one with a non-life threatening gunshot wound, and the other received a minor fragment wound.
As you would expect, the situation at Patrol Base Wahab was very tense immediately following the shooting. To their credit, the Australian personnel at the base responded in a calm and measured way, and back up force protection and supplemental security were dispatched from Tarin Kot to the Patrol Base.
At this point, I would like to commend the way the combat first aiders reacted under extreme circumstances.
In a chaotic situation, with several very seriously wounded mates needing treatment simultaneously, they remained composed and deliberate, and provided the best medical support they could to their fellow wounded soldiers.
The Inquiry Officer made 22 findings, of which around half related to force protection.
The Inquiry Officer found the decisions and actions in establishing and maintaining the force protection arrangements were at the minimum level of authorised force protection to provide security for soldiers. However, they did not adequately address the specific situation at Patrol Base Wahab and potentially placed personnel at significant risk to the threat of fire and other environmental hazards, enemy action or insider attack.
This included not setting up a secure area for Australians where they were separated from Afghan National Army soldiers; and not restricting Afghan National Army soldiers’ access to the Australian area.
The Inquiry Officer stated that the patrol had a sufficient number of people to provide security for the Australians, however there was a shortfall in decisions made on the ground about how they were allocated.
The Inquiry Officer found having a single roving piquet was not adequate in the circumstances on 29 August 2012.
The Inquiry Officer also found the decision to adopt a relaxed level of security meant the Australians were not in a sufficient state of readiness and was not in accordance with Standing Orders.
The Inquiry Officer identified a shortfall in the decision making and actions that permitted soldiers to wear gym gear underneath their body armour. This limited their ability to react and was not in line with usual existing standard operating procedures or orders.
Two Australian soldiers have since been disciplined over the piquet's inappropriate dress.
Although shortfalls in force protection were identified, the Inquiry Officer was not able to prove or disprove whether these arrangements directly or indirectly gave Hekmatullah the opportunity to attack the Australian soldiers.
It must be noted that no level of force protection can comprehensively guard against a person who is intending to commit a crime such as murder. Insider attacks remain a complex and evolving threat.
The Inquiry Officer also found the self discipline and application of the rules of engagement immediately following the attack to be commendable.
In terms of our intelligence prior to this attack, the Inquiry Officer found there was no intelligence available to Australia or the Coalition to suggest there was a specific insider threat at Patrol Base Wahab, nor any information to prompt concern regarding Hekmatullah.
In fact, his existence was unremarkable from a personnel or intelligence perspective.
You may be aware of reporting that the Afghan National Army knew of Hekmatullah’s family connections with the Taliban prior to the attack and did not act on this information.
The inquiry found some evidence to substantiate this claim; however the Inquiry Officer concluded that Hekmatullah’s actions were independent of any prior Taliban arrangements or involvement. This is supported by the fact the Taliban has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
However, the Inquiry Officer did find evidence that he sought Taliban support to escape the area after the shooting.
The Inquiry Officer was unable to conclusively explain why Hekmatullah murdered three of our soldiers.
Some further information did come to our attention after the report was complete.
On 24 April this year, a video was posted on the unofficial Taliban website “Voice of Jihad”, which was also disseminated to You Tube. This video includes an interview with Hekmatullah where he says he did not inform anyone, including his relatives about his plan to attack foreigners when he was joining the Army. He also talks about his motivation being idealistically based and indicates it was not at the direction of the Taliban.
Although this is from an unofficial source, I raise this for completeness in disclosing what information we know about Hekmatullah.
But the fact is we may never really know what motivated him.
To summarise the Inquiry Officer's key findings:
Although the platoon had sufficient resources to provide the minimum level of force protection to meet ISAF and 3 RAR Task Group requirements, the decisions made at Patrol Base Wahab were not appropriate given the local circumstances at that time.
It is not possible to make a link between our force protection arrangements and the reason for the insider attack.
There were no weaknesses or deficiencies in our intelligence preparation and no information available to Australian or Coalition forces to suggest Hekmatullah was a threat to the Australians.
We don’t know why Hekmatullah murdered three Australians.
The Inquiry Officer made six recommendations. Defence has agreed to all.
Four recommendations relate to possible administrative action against three ADF members. The Chief of the Defence Force has referred these recommendations to the Chief of Army for his consideration. Under the restrictions of the Privacy Act 1988, it is not appropriate to provide details of any administrative action taken or contemplated against ADF personnel, and therefore I will not be able to comment on this aspect.
A fifth recommendation concerning our incident response capability has been implemented.
The final recommendation was that a Commission of Inquiry is not warranted.
Since the attack, the Afghan National Army has continued to improve its recruit screening process and the Afghan National Security Force has introduced re-vetting procedures for Afghan National Army soldiers returning from leave and instituted an anonymous reporting system.
The Afghan Ministry of Interior, along with coalition partners, continues the work to identify possible insurgent sympathisers and subversive elements within the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
To conclude – this was a highly complex situation. Our intelligence and resourcing were appropriate; however there were shortfalls in the force protection measures and in the decisions made on the ground. There was no information available to us to suggest Hekmatullah was of concern and we don’t know what motivated him to murder Lance Corporal Milosevic, Sapper Martin and Private Poate, but bringing Hekmatullah to justice in Afghanistan remains a key focus for us.
Let me assure you we will not let this go. We will continue to work with our International Security Assistance Force and Afghan partners to do this.
I would like to emphasise that we will not waver in our commitment to bring him to justice.
Again, I offer my thoughts and sympathy to the families, friends and colleagues of Lance Corporal Milosevic, Sapper Martin, and Private Poate.
Although this report does not change the fact that families still grieve the loss of a son, a brother, a husband or a father, it has served its purpose in finding out the facts of the incident.
In my experience, operational deaths are the most difficult part of what we do in the ADF. I can assure you that these deaths will not change our resolve or commitment to this important mission in Afghanistan.
I will now take your questions.
QUESTION: In terms of intelligence, wasn't there NATO intelligence about Hekmatullah and his risk profile, including his family's links to the Taliban, and why was that not passed on to Australian forces?
MARK BINSKIN: The answer is no, there was not NATO knowledge of Hekmatullah and his Talib links. It was alleged - and this was uncovered in the investigation - it was alleged that he had mentioned to one of the very junior members in the tolay that his father was Talib and he came from an area that was under Taliban influence.
QUESTION: Why was the fact he left the base to make a mobile phone call before the murders? It's not in the report.
MARK BINSKIN: There's no knowledge on why he left. He was a - as I understand there was a number of people that had walked out of the base to make mobile calls during the afternoon.
QUESTION: You say you can't explain to us what the administrative action might be. Now this must have been incredibly hard on everybody involved in this incident but can you give us some sort of idea of what administrative action actually covers. Is it serious? Could it end someone's career?
MARK BINSKIN: I can't speculate on what it might mean because I can't be seen to interfere with the process. So I won't speculate. But administrative action in this case, the CDF has passed to the Chief of Army to conduct that administrative action, and I checked with the Chief of Army today, that has been initiated. Now, potential outcomes, that would be speculative and I need to leave that until he's completed his process.
QUESTION: Are the three personnel still serving overseas, or are they back in Australia?
MARK BINSKIN: They have come back to Australia after this operation but they're deployed around the place, whether that be in Australia or in other exercises or other areas.
QUESTION: Why was the platoon sent into harms way with only one private from intelligence?
MARK BINSKIN: I don't know what you're talking about with that. The platoon was on a planned patrol. It was planned to go into the base. They had an idea of the infrastructure that was there when they went in, and the commander on the ground at the time made the assessment of how they would set up their camp. But they had the full intelligence backing of the task group before they went in.
QUESTION: The involvement of the civilian coroner now, is that unusual and is that likely to become a practice? Or what's likely to come from that, an inquest?
MARK BINSKIN: No, we often support coronial inquiries, and in this case, if the coroner chooses that they want to do an inquest, then we'll provide the full support as we normally do.
QUESTION: Are there any updates on the hunt for Hekmatullah?
MARK BINSKIN: I prefer to stay out of the operational space, but as I've promised, as I said one year ago, we will not let this rest. We will hunt him down and we will bring him to justice.
QUESTION: Why was there no biometric information on him?
MARK BINSKIN: As a part of the vetting process there was data collected on him, but they hadn't collected the biometric data. And as you might find from the person passing you the questions on your iPhone, biometric data doesn't necessarily - wouldn't identify whether he had actually had any past or any intent to do anything. All it is a collection of the data. Had there been an event previously and that data had flagged him, then action would have been taken. But it's more for after the fact or to help track.
QUESTION: The picture you're painting here, I mean a whole mission in Afghanistan was to… the main part of our mission in Afghanistan was to train the Afghan troops so that we could leave.
MARK BINSKIN: Yes.
QUESTION: The picture you're painting here is not one of trust between the Australian soldiers and the Afghans, that there should have been two pickets on duty, that the Australians should have been wearing body armour at all times. How do you think this - we should look at this mission now when we can see how these two groups were interacting, that there was never really a - there was always this issue of distrust between them.
MARK BINSKIN: Actually there wasn't an issue of distrust; that was a part of it. This particular tolay has been training with Australia troops in Sorkh Bed in the work-up for this deployment, and they'd only been there a couple of weeks, so they did know the Australians well, not individual relationships, but they knew Australians as a force. And in this particular case it is a balance of building trust between the forces and that rapport to get the best out of the partner patrols.
You'll see when you read the report there's actually a fair bit here. It's not redacted, so you'll be able to see the considerations that were taken into account. So when I talk about the force protection, it was at the minimum authorised level, but not adequate in this situation. In this situation refers to the fact that there wasn't segregation and, therefore, there should have been other areas of force protection that were taken into account.
QUESTION: When we talk about having two Australians on guard duty at all times to protect the Australians just in case somebody should do something, it doesn't paint a great picture of what the ANA is and…
MARK BINSKIN: Well, you have to remember that the ANA are just as frustrated at this and it hurts their morale as much as it hurts anyone else's morale because they want to be seen to be a professional force that is trusted. So this hit them just as hard as it - in a reputational sense as it hit us with the murder of three soldiers. Their leadership takes this very seriously. As you're growing a force of 350,000, it's difficult to keep control of each individual in that force, but they do increase their vetting, they do increase their - the procedures that they have on induction for their forces.
QUESTION: Has there been any change to protocols in terms of force protection since this incident?
MARK BINSKIN: No, in this - I mean, they have - we always review force protection. We had put a number of procedures, processes and that in place from the previous year. We did know that there was a ramp up of insider attacks in this period coming towards the end of Ramadan. So that was high on everyone's mind, but in this particular case, the more likely threat that they had in their minds was that they were going to run into was the insurgent outside the base, and, in fact, that was proven that's what happened in the patrol that afternoon. But we do continue to review the force protection.
QUESTION: What do you make of some of the reporting on this report that it was somehow selective or hidden some facts.
MARK BINSKIN: Yeah. I think when you find the report, you will find that the redaction is really down to what I said. It's security, it's intelligence information, and it's privacy, nothing more. There are also a couple of areas where this report accessed an ISAF report and an ANA report. We don't have clearance to release those, so there's a couple of references there that are redacted, but you'll - the comment about highly redacted, I think when you look at the report, you'll see that we - the report is serious, it is critical of a number of actions. That's not redacted. You'll see that and you'll be able to follow through the inquiry officer's logic when he - in what he thought.
QUESTION: Were there significant changes made immediately after this episode?
MARK BINSKIN: There were lessons that were taken out of this and looked on how they might operate, but I don't believe there were specific lessons of - that led to improvements. There were natural improvements that were occurring anyway. I think the lessons for the commanders on the ground is - was to provide the best level of force protection that you could for your forces, don't take anything for granted.
QUESTION: Why was the upgraded ISAF security info about inside attacks not passed on to the platoon?
MARK BINSKIN: You'd be referring to the tactical infrastructure, a review that was - report that was put forward on 22 August and what it did was it was to provide advice, increased advice, on infrastructure on bases, and what you might put in place. In this case, its significance was that it was more applicable to the permanent bases that we had, rather than the patrol bases. Some of it, though, did talk about layout and vulnerability and a few other things. It was completed on 28 August for this particular patrol base after they had deployed. An inquiry officer found that there was no cause or link between that and what occurred, and again, that's not redacted. You'll be able to read through the logic there.
The issue was did the company commander back at Tarin Kot take this into account enough and he’s, as detailed in the report, he’s looked at that and made some assumptions that the patrol commander has taken into account the normal force protection measures. That is segregation, there's appropriate dress standards, there's guardian angels and all that in place. But again, the report has all that detail there for you to read.
QUESTION: How difficult is this for the commander who was involved on the ground, who made the decision?
MARK BINSKIN: Any commander that has deaths, whether it's in combat or in training or on exercise, it hits you hard. You just take it personally and I'm sure he has taken it quite personally as well.
QUESTION: If he hadn’t taken the situation on the ground for granted, if it hadn't been taken for granted, this probably wouldn't have happened?
MARK BINSKIN: What do you mean taken for granted?
QUESTION: You said before his actions on the ground taking the situation for granted, having the lowest level of force protection as opposed to…
MARK BINSKIN: I wouldn't say it's taken for granted. I think in this assessment in building the rapport, we're talking about the patrol commander, in building that rapport and, again, in the report you'll see his thoughts after the fact here without me quoting him. Taking all the factors into account, he was trying to build the rapport, but, as said, he had the minimum level of force protection in place but it wasn't the appropriate level of force protection in this particular situation.
QUESTION: Would the appropriate level have avoided this?
MARK BINSKIN: No. Not necessarily. And, as we saw at Sorkh Bed the previous year, where there were a couple of hundred people on a parade ground, no matter how much you put in place, you can never 100 per cent stop someone trying to commit a crime like this. You can mitigate the risk as best you can, but I don't believe you could ever stop someone who's intent on doing this.
QUESTION: Why were the two commanders promoted late last year, a few months before the report was written?
MARK BINSKIN: There's two aspects to that. The report identifies a - at the time, some potentially affected persons. There were three people there, and there's three people that now have a case to answer based on the outcomes of the report - a potential case to answer.
One of those members was the patrol commander, who was promoted on a timed promotion. Now, if you look at the timing of all that, that timing was happening before the disciplinary action that was taken in theatre - was happening about the time that that timed promotion was being considered back here. And there was a disconnect in the operational sense, back to the domestic sense, back in personnel. I've asked Army this morning to review that and make sure we don't have that again. So there was that, and there was one of the other promotions of a person that wasn't identified in the report.
QUESTION: How does an investigator exempt…
MARK BINSKIN: Sorry, not identified as any action to answer for in the report.
QUESTION: Sorry, how does an investigator examining a triple murder not even attend, sort of, the crime scene?
MARK BINSKIN: So in this case we weren't in the base when the inquiry team went into theatre. They accessed the ADFIS report, who had been at the base, they accessed the JCAT report, which was the ISAF Joint Casualty Assessment Team report. So they had access to some very detailed reports there and also obviously all the witnesses as well.
QUESTION: Does Defence support a coronial inquest?
MARK BINSKIN: As I answered before in an answer for Ian back there, we would support - if there's a coronial inquest that the Queensland Coroner wants to do, we'll support with the information. We've already provided a copy of the report for him or her to review, and then we'd support if that was their decision.
COMPERE: We’ve got time for one more.
MARK BINSKIN: Okay, thanks.
QUESTION: Why was no commission of inquiry recommended, given the seriousness of the whole incident?
MARK BINSKIN: Okay, so the inquiry officer's report is there to establish all the facts. The reason there was no recommendation for a COI is all the facts that could be drawn have been drawn. So there was no benefit in going to a COI. That was the recommendation, CDF accepted that.
Any more questions? One more…
QUESTION: You mentioned that any shortcomings from the patrol commander didn't necessarily lead to this happening…
MARK BINSKIN: Sorry I missed the question?
QUESTION: … couldn't necessarily stop this from happening, any of the shortcomings from the patrol commander. But would you agree that it would have, maybe - if he had done his job properly, there would have been more protections on the - you know, have had proper protection on the body, and less people dying in that attack?
MARK BINSKIN: I think this is where I was specific in the report findings. So, the report findings were, while there was minimal level of force protection - minimal level authorised, it wasn't adequate for the situation, and I think that's where the recommendations that are now being considered through the administrative action from Chief of Army.
I'm sorry, I'll have to leave it there.
COMPERE: Thank you everyone for coming this afternoon, appreciate it.