COVER STORY: Terrorism comes to Sydney
by John Miller
News Weekly, August 22, 2009
On August 4 this year, probably the most dramatic of Australian counter-terrorist operations took place in the Melbourne suburbs and in the western Victorian country town of Colac. It was a multi-force operation, involving the Australian Federal Police, the Victorian Police and ASIO.
It made the late editions of morning papers and, of course, television news. The precise number of people wanted in connection with this action, code-named Operation Neath, is still not clear; but at present about five people have been charged under counter-terrorist laws. Enquiries, as the police say, are continuing.
There are many twists and turns in the saga of Operation Neath. It appears that The Australian had been sitting on the story for some months, reportedly since January. There is still speculation about whether the newspaper, by rushing into print before all the planned raids were carried out, might have spooked the suspects and perhaps enabled some of them to escape the net.
Australia has had its fair share of suspected terrorist operations and emergencies since 9/11 and the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombing. Certain cases have become causes célèbres within the legal fraternity, probably none more so than the abandoned case of Dr Haneef Mohammed. Other cases, in no particular order, were those of David Hicks, Willy Brigitte, Izhar ul-Haque, the Abdul Nacer ben-Brika group trial and subsequent appeal, and an ongoing case in Sydney courts, about which there is little publicity.
Operation Neath stands out for a number of reasons including, primarily, the fact that it started with a tip-off, which is most fortunate if unexpected these days. Secondly, the case was kept quietly under wraps until the authorities were ready to move. The veil of secrecy apparently held, and this is a great advance in intelligence. This is all the more to be applauded because lives are at stake.
As someone who has suffered opprobrium from politicians including a couple of prime ministers, it warmed my heart to observe the very impressive performance of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his media conference and the gravitas of his words, congratulating the agencies concerned.
From what can be ascertained from available sources, this operation went almost according to textbook (except for the war of words between the Australian Federal Police and The Australian newspaper). No-one was injured and apparently all known suspects are believed to have been rounded up - although, as I noted above, enquiries are ongoing.
"Unique" is an overused word in Australia, but this case had several pointers which will no doubt prompt a certain amount of rethinking in government circles. With any luck, it might convince some of the usual left-wing and anti-American commentators, who are all too keen to blame the authorities for fundamentalist Islamic terror operations, that there is a serious problem in this country.
I am in full agreement with Dr Mervyn Bendle, a senior lecturer at Queensland's James Cook University, who has spelt out in considerable detail how the global jihad movement has recently shifted the emphasis of its strategy from waging a "defensive jihad" against Western troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, to an "offensive jihad" targeting "the US, Britain and other liberal democracies, including Australia" ("Luck may not avert jihadi terror", The Australian, August 5, 2009).
There has never been any doubt in my mind that Australia is as much an important target for fundamentalist Islamic terrorists as are the US, the UK and Western Europe. People tend to forget that the ever-smiling Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual head of the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, has on two occasions publicly declared war on Australia in the presence of journalists. Yet he remains free to walk the streets to proselytise and attract militants.
From all accounts, the planned terrorist attack on Australian soil, brought to light by Operation Neath, was a plot hatched in Melbourne among Australian citizens of Somali and Lebanese background, some of whom had received military training in Somalia.
Within the last six months, a similar phenomenon was observed in America. On June 1 this year, a US-born citizen Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad was arrested and charged with shooting two US soldiers at a military base in Little Rock, Arkansas (see report in News Weekly, July 11, 2009).
US authorities were very quick to depict the suspected terrorist as home-grown. However, just as that person was only domiciled in America, the same could be said for the group recruited for what appeared to be an attack on the Holsworthy army base in south-west Sydney, among other targets. The composition of the group was interesting, because, unlike professionals involved in previous terrorist plots overseas, this was very much a proletarian and foreign group, made up of labourers and taxi-drivers.
Furthermore, the organisational links with al-Shabaab in Somalia are of considerable interest to our allies, not only because of the precedent in the US but because lawlessness is endemic in Somalia and the group in question is an affiliate of al-Qaeda and has spearheaded attacks against the Somali government.
In some respects, when we read of the possible elimination of Noorodin Top, the alleged mastermind of the recent Jakarta hotel bombing, and that of a Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, by an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, the Predator drone (although forensic examination is yet to confirm the latter), there is some room for optimism in the fight against jihadist terror. However, as I have consistently maintained, eliminating the leadership disperses a terrorist organisation, making if more difficult to identify, monitor and counter.
I will leave it to certain specialists to discuss the finer details of the thwarted terror strike against Australia. However, I will observe that the principal advantage of running a dispersed low-level terrorist organisation is the facilitation of recruitment from among those who feel disenfranchised, alienated or have other problems with Western society.
On August 3, 2009, ABC television's Four Corners re-ran Dan Reed's documentary "Terror in Mumbai", about the Mumbai massacre of November/December 2008, a program first broadcast on the UK's Channel 4 on June 30.
The documentary was noteworthy for graphic film footage not previously shown on TV. It was bloody and gory, and much was obviously filmed from mobile phone cameras.
As both Dr Bendle and The Australian reporter Cameron Stewart have warned, Australia can expect more of the same - that is, savage, violent jihadist attacks, which have much in common with the Mumbai massacre and the attack on the Pakistani Police Academy in Lahore earlier this year.
It is simple enough to plan and execute. A group of well-armed people with basic military training gain entry to target facilities and kill as many people as they can before being killed themselves and, unlike in Mumbai, leaving no one alive to reveal operational details.
The major lesson for Australia is that we need to take a serious look at multiculturalism and migration. No one can say that all Muslims are terrorists; but in all Muslim communities there are purveyors of hatred of the West and Jews. Some masquerade as spiritual leaders; others as teachers and mentors.
One could not help but feel sorry for a distressed elderly leader of the Australian Somali community in Melbourne who, when interviewed on television after the August 4 counter-terrorist raids, said that Australia had given his people refuge and that the terrorist plot was no way to repay that generosity. He looked genuinely grief-stricken that young people in his community could have been seduced by jihadists.
In the wake of the Vietnam War, I read Peter Van Greenaway's 1974 novel, Take the War to Washington. It concerned a fictional group of malcontents who felt that America deserved to experience war in its heartland.
Here in Australia, Operation Neath has shown that some terrorists are prepared to take the war to one of our major cities. No-one should underestimate the importance of the target selected. Holsworthy Army base is home to soldiers who serve in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and yet is only guarded by civilians.
I am in good company in calling for our armed forces to defend their own premises and, in so doing, their own troops.
John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.