The Government’s counter-terrorism approach must be tactically hard but strategically soft, writes Dr Sharif Shuja.
On November 8, 2005, police and security agents undertook raids in Sydney and Melbourne, and arrested 17 people on terrorism charges. All the men arrested were Australian citizens or residents, most in their twenties. One of them allegedly shot at police in a bid to escape arrest.
The threat is home-grown. At a preliminary court hearing in Melbourne, the prosecutor alleged that they were committed to waging a “violent jihad” in Australia. The Sydney group, he also said, had made plans for an attack, and had collected bomb-making chemicals.
It is chilling to learn that, as in Europe and Asia, extremist Islamic communities and their anti-Western prejudices are spawning violent terrorist cells here too. Whatever the outcome of the specific allegations against these arrested men, there is evidence that there have long been people in our midst who have no love for the country they were born in, or for reasons of their own, have adopted.
Some are ideologues, like Abdul Nacer Benbrika, also known as Abu Bakr, an Algerian cleric arrested on the same day. Bakr calls Osama bin Laden a great man; he advocates violent jihad overseas, and has called on Australian Muslims to follow Islamic laws.
At any rate, this was Australia’s biggest ever counter-terrorism operation.
A News Weekly editorial (November 19, 2005) shortly afterwards noted:
“While there are inevitable concerns at the expansion of police powers to handle the problem of terrorism, recent events show that the Prime Minister, John Howard, acted prudently in legislating to give police wider powers to detain suspects, and otherwise deal with the threat of Islamic terrorism.”
In recent years, extremists have attempted to establish a terrorist cell in Australia. Some people have been convicted of terrorism-related offences.
Prominent among them were: Frenchman Willy Brigitte, Jack Roche, Jack Thomas, Faheem Lodhi, Izhar ul-Haque, Saleh Jamal, Bilal Khazal and Zekky Mallah.
Nevertheless, former senior ASIO officer, Neil Fergus, presents a picture of an Islamic community in Australia that is overwhelmingly peaceful.
He says that of the 300,000 Muslims in Australia, “298,000 would be repulsed by al-Qaeda and its terrorism like any other Australian. Another 1,900 would have some sympathy for the political views of Osama bin Laden because of issues like Israel’s actions in Palestine.”
“Only about 100 could be classified as travellers who identify closely with bin Laden’s aims, and perhaps 30 of them are a clear risk and capable of getting involved in terrorism.”
“Those 30 would have some training or access or connection to people who have training in explosives and handling arms.” (The Bulletin, August 16, 2005).
Senior law-enforcement officials claim that the surveillance operation has played a big part in preventing a terrorist attack on Australian soil.
John Howard declared that his Government would ban a radical Islamic group called Hizbut Tahrir (HT), if ASIO found it was a threat to Australia’s security or encouraged terrorist behaviour.
The group describes suicide-bombers as martyrs, denounces Western values, calls for unity among Islamic nations, and demands the restoration of the caliphate. It has also said that Muslims have a duty to resist the occupation of Iraq.
Hizbut Tahrir, known also as the Party of Islamic Liberation, was founded in the Middle East in the early 1950s and quickly became an international movement dedicated to restoring the caliphate. It saw itself as the transnational system of governance and spiritual leadership for Muslims.
In many parts of the Muslim world it is known for extremism and has been outlawed in several Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries.
In the wake of the July bombings in the London Underground, HT branches across the globe, including the western Sydney office, have come under suspicion.
The group’s Australian spokesman, Wasim Doureihi, in an interview with Mark Colvin on ABC Radio National’s PM program (July 25, 2005), outlined the group’s aim, saying:
“Hizbut Tahrir is an affiliated political party with a stated aim of resuming Islamic way of life by [inaudible] Islamic state, and this political work is conducted within the Muslim world and we achieve that through intellectual and political work and it’s essentially through dialogue, discussion and building public opinion for Islam.”
In other words, Hizbut Tahrir identifies itself as a political party that has Islam as its driving ideology.
Doureihi continued: “Our methods of change is (sic.) through intellectual and political work. We disallow violence as a means to establish our objectives; we engage through discussion, dialogue, discourse as a means to move the hearts and minds of the Muslims in order for them to resume the Islamic way of life and to call, ever so loudly, for the resumption of Islam.”
Although Doureihi apparently calls for the complete rejection of violence, in terms of methodology, HT, or its members, were identified as active in a series of attempted coups in Jordan and southern Iraq throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. HT and other opposition groups were subjected to systematic government repression in this period.
Doureihi added: “Our work is about establishing Islamic governance in the Muslim world; our aim is bringing about responsible, accountable governance rather than that adopted by tyrants. The West has nothing to fear from the two systems working side by side.”
Most of what he says is of an ideological nature.
Operating in secrecy, the party does not publicly identify its leaders. The seemingly global influence of Hizbut Tahrir and its emergence in areas of increasing geostrategic importance, such as Central and Southeast Asia, present a novel challenge to our conceptualisation of Islamic activism.
The party is adept at utilising modern technology to propagate its views and provide guidance to its members globally.
It maintains websites in a range of languages, with a sophisticated array of links to affiliated sites. This medium for transmission of the party doctrine appears to be quite effective, as it allows simultaneously for tight control over information and wide access to its members.
The dispersed nature of the party’s structure, however, makes it difficult to identify the actual number of members or the leadership hierarchy.
There appear to be some obvious parallels between the political worldview of HT and that of al-Qaeda. The restoration of a caliphate, for example, is one of the stated aims of bin Laden.
This has led some observers to paint them with the same broad brush. The Heritage Foundation, for example, identifies the organisation as an Islamist group with an “outlook and goals that are shared with al-Qaeda and other organisations of the global Jihadi movement”.
However, Doureihi insists: “Hizbut Tahrir differs from al-Qaeda in terms of methodology.”
The Australian Government decided recently that it could not ban the party under existing legislature. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said:
“The words in the criminal code that are used in relation to proscription are that an organisation must be planning, preparing or fostering a terrorist act.
“And the word fostering is the one that everybody focuses on, but it’s governed by the two previous words – planning or preparing – and the advice that we had in relation to the information that is known to us was that that organisation could not be proscribed in the law, under the law, as presently framed.”
The Howard Government has decided to engage with moderate Muslims, which is the right strategy.
The Government’s counter-terrorism approach must be tactically hard but strategically soft, i.e., it must crack down on terrorists when we find them, but avoid alienating Muslims because of the bad behaviour of a tiny number.
The history of terrorism and the recent rioting in France show that people who feel cornered and without access to other options can resort to violence.
Terrorism has to be tackled at its psychological source. Ethnic communities and the vast majority of law-abiding Muslims must not be demonised because of the hateful actions of a tiny minority.
Peter Jennings, program director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, was quoted in the Australian Financial Review (November 9, 2005) as saying: “The only long-term solution to home-grown terrorism is to undercut the potential for violence by bringing alienated people into society, rather than simply protecting ourselves from them.”
Alongside these strategies, we should devote more effort to finding lasting solutions to political problems.
- Dr Sharif Shuja is research associate at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Unit.