So far, Australia has been lucky in detecting and preventing terrorist acts, writes John Miller. However, 2007 is an election year, and what better time for Australia’s enemies to make a point?
|Basil Fawlty (John Cleese)|
“entertains” some German guests.
Most News Weekly readers would doubtless remember the BBC comedy series Fawlty Towers, and in particular the notorious episode in which a concussed hotel proprietor Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) finds that he has a lot of German guests and constantly reminds his staff: “Whatever you do, don’t mention the war!”
What with goose-stepping, Adolf Hitler impersonations and all manner of verbal faux pas, Basil promptly forgets his own advice and ends up insulting his guests.
In my past few articles, I have tried to provide some insight into another war that nobody wants to mention – but one in which Australia is nonetheless enmeshed – namely, the War on Terror. I have sought to make a number of key points:
• Australia is involved in the struggle against Islamic terrorism by virtue of being a liberal, Western, globalising democracy – a system that is antithetical to fundamentalist Islam.
• Al Qaeda declared war on the US and the West in 1986, but it was its second attack on New York’s World Trade Center, namely 9/11, that brought the problem of Islamic terrorism into focus.
• Since that horrific and graphic day in September 2001, Al Qaeda – or other terrorist organisations with which it has operational links – has carried out further “successful” bombing attacks against civilian populations in many Western countries and, somewhat surprisingly, in India. Moreover, US authorities have uncovered a considerable number of other planned terrorist attacks.
• Australia has been threatened by both Al Qaeda, and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the latter being responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005. This threat has been spelled out by both organisations and constantly reiterated by Australian intelligence authorities. There is no reason to believe that Australia is any less of a terrorist target than the US and the UK.
In addition, while we have been spared horrific bomb attacks, such as those in London, Madrid and Mumbai, the Bali bombing was widely considered to be the first direct attack against Australian interests.
Some indirect validation has been given to this point of view by Abu Bakar Bashir, the so-called spiritual head of JI. To date, we have been spared an attack on Australian soil but it appears that we have been fortunate in light of the following cases:
• On 19 June 2006, Faheem Khalid Lodhi became the first person to be found guilty of planning a terrorist attack on Australian soil. He was subsequently sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. Willie Brigitte, a French citizen believed to be connected with Al Qaeda, was sentenced to nine years’ jail in France in March this year, but part of the evidence suggests that he was engaged in planning terrorist operations in this country, including an attack on the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney. The French court heard that he was affiliated with the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), known to have links with Al Qaeda.
• A successful prosecution case against “Jihad Jack” Thomas on terrorist grounds in 2002 resulted in a jail sentence of five years, the main claim being that he was a “sleeper agent”. That sentence was subsequently quashed in August 2006, but a control order was placed on him. In December 2006, it was announced that there would be a re-trial, with evidence largely based on a somewhat imprudent interview he granted to ABC television’s Four Corners program.
• In November 2004, Jack Roche, a convert to Islam, changed his plea to guilty on charges of planning to bomb the Israeli embassy in Canberra. In April 2005, he was sentenced to nine years in jail. This case is complicated by the fact that Roche unsuccessfully attempted to contact ASIO. The Prime Minister Mr Howard later conceded that security authorities had made a “very serious mistake” in ignoring Roche. Roche was apparently trained by Al Qaeda and had contact with the notorious JI terrorist Riduan Isamuddin, more popularly known as Hambali, who was arrested in 2004.
• In November 2005, the Australian security authorities rounded up a number of suspects in Melbourne and Sydney, under the codename Operation Pendennis. These suspects are presently before the court.
• In a case apparently connected with Operation Pendennis, a Sydney resident, Taha Abdul Rahman, was arrested on the charge of possessing stolen weapons, namely rocket launchers. The Australian Federal Police Force has not publicly linked Abdul Rahman to a planned attack on Lucas Heights, but he is believed to be associated with a group planning such an attack.
In themselves, these cases support the contention made by the security and police authorities that there have been attempts to establish in this country terrorist cells and sleeper agents, ready to be activated at a given time. As a former intelligence officer, I would take such contentions as a “given”, and certainly not subject to serious challenge.
The major problem for our authorities appears to be that Australians are, by turn, complacent, ignorant or intellectually impervious to the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
We do not need members of the US Senate to tell us what we already know, namely that the war in Iraq was (a) a dangerous mistake, (b) not linked to weapons of mass destruction and (c) ill-conceived, without an exit strategy. While a strong case can be made for carrying the war against Al Qaeda to Afghanistan, no such case existed in Iraq until the US-led invasion.
Quite predictably, it has been claimed that the Iraqi conflict has led to more radicalism in the Islamic world and no shortage of recruits for terrorist acts, including suicide-bombings.
In reality, the war in Iraq has been lost. Given the horrendous civilian casualties caused by well-armed groups engaged in inter-communal sectarian violence, and the death of over 3,000 US troops plus a small but significant number of allied soldiers, it remains to be seen how the situation can be stabilised and foreign forces extricated without involving Syria, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries implacably opposed to America.
Australia has been lucky that we have had only one non-combat casualty in Iraq, a number of injuries among our troops deployed in Afghanistan, and one unfortunate suicide related to the latter campaign.
Australia has been a willing ally of the US in the Middle East and Afghanistan since the first Gulf War and, while our forces have been in harm’s way, we have so far been spared body-bags being returned home. For all of the foregoing, the complacency or lethargy in the population at large concerning terrorism is a disturbing trend.
Clearly, the government has signally failed to ensure the population is aware of this state of war. The credo of being “alert but not alarmed” appears to have been transmogrified into “laid back and out to lunch”. Whether we like it or not, we are at war, and no one should forget that fact.
It has been most instructive to look at the cases of the convicted terrorists mentioned above and their supporters.
The great strengths of Western democracy are grounded in freedom of speech and expression, embodying regular elections and rule by the majority, i.e., government of, for and by the people. It embraces principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community. An impartial judiciary and separation of powers are largely taken for granted, especially by those of us who have known no differently.
Opposition to Australia’s Iraq commitment generally emanates from the left of Australian politics, and in some respects is part of the “hate Howard, hate Bush” mentality, which has increased ever since President George W. Bush’s 2002 declaration of the war on terror and the ensuing military action. However, dissent is not the province of the left alone, and covers the whole political spectrum. Until the government changes or is convinced otherwise, our troops will continue to be deployed overseas.
However, what do we make of those people who apparently hate the Australian and American government policies to such an extent that they actively support the forces ranged against them? This, I suggest, is where dissent crosses the line to become treason, and it appears that Australian law is ill-equipped, or poorly-worded, to meet this current challenge. There is no excuse for not amending the Crimes Act accordingly.
I would not like to see legitimate dissent muzzled, but if we have learned anything from the Vietnam War (and sometimes I think that is a moot point), it is surely this: our armed forces should be fully supported because they have been deployed by a legally-elected government.
They should not have to suffer the opprobrium accorded to the returnees from Vietnam. Dissent has its place, but it must be legal and directed at the political parties who govern by our leave.
Most disturbing, however, is the failure of the Australian Government to ram home the message that Australia is under grave threat from forces that are hostile to our way of life. That message needs to be reinforced with a thorough overhaul of our legal system so that our government can deport terror suspects and their sympathisers to destinations where they might feel more at home.
So far, we have been lucky, extremely lucky, in terms of detecting and preventing terrorist acts. However, 2007 is an election year, and what better time for Australia’s enemies to make a point?
– John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.