April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

by John Miller

News Weekly, April 14, 2007
Losing the war on the home front

War fatigue has set into the United States and, with the passing of the fourth anniversary of the strike against Saddam Hussein's regime, America has now been engaged in a war longer than its participation in World War II.

The war has been lost on the home front in every Western country. Sympathy for 9/11 dissipated rapidly after Operation "Iraqi Freedom" in 2003.

Opinion polls across the Western world have shown that Iraq has been a deeply unpopular cause - and one certainly not improved by the flag-draped coffins returning home.

In some respects, it is easy to blame the media for the unpleasantness of the Iraqi situation. However, the major problem is their extreme antipathy towards President Bush. Filmmakers such as Michael Moore appear to have a visceral hatred of the US head of state.

In some respects, the situation is analogous to Richard Nixon's presidency, whereby an unpopular president became the focus of a more generalised anti-Americanism.

Australia lucky … so far

Although he was writing in a different context many years ago, the late Donald Horne wrote of Australia being "the lucky country", and for the moment our luck appears to be holding.

To date, only two Australian citizens have been jailed under counter-terrorism legislation. There are further court proceedings underway in Sydney and Melbourne at present, which point to something more than a potential terrorist threat to the country. Although 88 Australians were killed in the Bali bombing of 2002, there has been no known terrorist attack on Australian soil.

That presents an enormous problem for government and the intelligence community. It appears not to matter that the national terrorist hotline has been inundated with over 200,000 calls since the distribution of the much-ridiculed fridge magnets.

A dangerous complacency about terrorism affects our national psyche, for which there is clear evidence readily available in the form of letters to the editor in major newspapers, backyard pundits on talk-back radio, online blogging and a plethora of "experts" who systematically downplay the need for security measures and question the nature of the threat.

Therefore, it is instructive to look at a number of examples to prove the point. For rather obvious reasons, cases before the courts will not be considered, notably those arrested in the wake of Operation Pendennis and "Jihad Jack" Thomas.

Instead, in this and subsequent columns, we will examine three aspects of problems facing the authorities: namely, the nature of the terrorist threat, public perceptions, academic wars, reaction to the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and, lastly, a symposium held under the auspices of The Australian newspaper over the weekend of March 10-11, 2007.

Assessing the terrorist threat

At times, writing about terrorism in this country can be a very frustrating occupation. Despite the Bali bombings and ongoing Australian court proceedings against terror suspects, there appears to be a high degree of apathy among the public at large, as well as disbelief in some circles and among many commentators who continually voice their suspicion that fear of terrorism is something deliberately manufactured by an unscrupulous federal government.

However, we would do well to heed what is known about the threat to Australia from terrorist groups. First, it is necessary to reiterate some general principles about terrorism:

1). The objective of terror is to terrorise;

2). Terrorists usually select symbolic targets with great care, with the intention of inflicting the maximum casualties; and

3). They do not care for their own lives.

We might add that experience has shown the emergence of a new paradigm in the personality of especially Islamic terrorists. (It is important to remember that not all Muslims are terrorists, or even supporters of terrorists, but cultural links certainly exist).

Process of radicalisation

They are more likely than not to be better educated, reasonably secure financially, but alienated from the host culture. Social scientists have noted that they become radicalised through the Islamic education structure, often travel abroad for training, and in most instances leave so-called "martyr" videos or journals explaining their motives to relatives before embarking on their suicide missions.

While they are not often notably religious before radicalisation, once the process has taken place, they conform to the Islamic dress code, habits and religious requirements.

In the United Kingdom, the 2005 suicide-bombers and "wannabes" recently arrested fit the generalised profile above.

As trials of the latter proceed, more should be discovered about the process of recruitment and radicalisation of young people who, to all intents and purposes, differ little from significant groups of the population.

British media reports speak of normal kids, who played cricket, were usually friendly and well liked. Obviously, understanding more of the psychological mechanism that turns them into killers is something to be mastered.

To diverge but briefly, it has been noted that in US and British jails, it is those who might be described as common criminals who have been recruited to the fundamentalist Islamic cause.

Australia's vulnerability

The 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings are generally considered to be part of a terrorist offensive against this country. The credulous continually ask why Australia is considered to be a target for terrorism.

Without casting aspersions on what might be called the doubting classes and their intelligence, there is certainly strong evidence that most do not believe Australia is a terrorist target; but if it is, then it is supposedly because of our association with the United States.

This is an extremely naïve and narrow view. Australia is a terrorist target because it is a Western globalising liberal democracy, whose values, beliefs and mores (however vaguely expressed) are the very antithesis of fundamentalist Islamic belief.

In slightly broader terms, the official government statement on the terrorist threat to Australia also cuts to the heart of the matter. It says:

"These terrorists feel threatened by us, and by our example as a conspicuously successful modern society. We are in their way. Trans-national extremist-Muslim terrorists imagine us as part of a Zionist-Christian conspiracy aimed at bringing impiety, injustice, repression and humiliation to the Muslim world …

"We are standing in the way of a goal to transform the Muslim world into a Taliban-style society. According to their simplistic worldview, we are part of the Christian West which, to them, is un-Islamic and therefore illegitimate." (See the Australian Government publication, Transnational Terrorism: the Threat to Australia, launched by the Foreign Minister on July 15, 2004 (www.dfat.gov.au/publications/terrorism, especially page 66).

There are many declarations of terrorist intent towards Australia. One was most cogently set out in The Australian (March 19, 2004): "Al Qaeda targets us for attacks." The warning followed the Madrid train-bombings and were couched in terms of Australia being a "lackey of the US" and that we would be hit with similar terrorist attacks.

There have also been warnings that other terrorist organisations have us in their sights, notably Jemaah Islamiya (JI), whose ostensibly benign spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir revealed his true colours following the Bali bombings of 2002.

According to the Melbourne Age, the "gently spoken cleric" felt no guilt about those who were killed, advising their families to convert to Islam to avoid a similar fate. He added a specific message: "The second message is for Australia because you suffered the most: please advise your government not to follow the US policy because it will bring tragedy for your country." (The Age, October 18, 2002).

Some unwelcome truths

Like many other Middle Eastern and South East Asian terrorist groups, JI is believed to have close links with Al Qaeda. Why is the message not getting through?

The reasons appear to be multifaceted and not easy to explain. Certainly, there is little doubt the conflation of the Iraq campaign with the war against terror has complicated issues. Our country being a democracy, many Australians are opposed to the war and our participation in it, both logistically and symbolically.

In many respects, Iraq has revived and refreshed the latent anti-Americanism that was most amply demonstrated during the days of the Vietnam War, but has existed at least since the end of World War II.

Our TV screens show protests led by the usual suspects including the Trotskyite International Socialists, the Green Left, the Greens and unreconstructed members of the left-wing of the Labor Party and the union movement. They consider the war, being outside the UN mandate, to be illegal.

Another complicating factor is the relative unpopularity of Prime Minister John Howard and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock. The Prime Minister is usually depicted as uncritically pro-American and solidly behind the war effort.

The opposition Labor Party, while an active supporter of the ANZUS treaty, would obviously prefer to withdraw troops from Iraq and deploy more to Afghanistan. The war against terror there, led as it is by NATO and waged against the repressive Taliban, has a more compelling logic.

The Howard Government and security authorities have spelt out the dangers of terrorism in many forms, the most informative being the Australian Government publication mentioned above, Transnational Terrorism: the Threat to Australia.

Unpopularity of the Government and its ministers is one thing, but we should also beware of how the freedoms we cherish can be turned and used against us in a highly directed and subversive campaign, the unspoken objective being to convince the majority that, if we leave Iraq and detach ourselves from the US alliance, somehow all will be well.

This is extremely simplistic because it will in no way reduce the likelihood of Australia being a terrorist target.

Our next column in this series will consider the role of the press, the electronic media, especially the Internet and the causes célèbre of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and David Hicks.

- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.

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