New security rules for Australia as ‘terror war’s front line’
As Julia Gillard’s new book was reviving the Punch and Judy show that was her prime ministership, Mr Punch himself was off to the United Nations this week to revel in a special session of the Security Council about the Islamic State uprising, chaired by Barack Obama.
While many world leaders were also in New York to address the UN on various issues − about 120 at the climate change summit that Tony Abbott pointedly declined to attend − it’s hard not to see Abbott as milking every possible drop of political kudos from the terrorism threat.
Abbott’s government has been astonishingly eager to get into the military fight against the IS, though it’s “pre-positioned” forces in the Gulf have not immediately been called into action by the United States, which prefers to list participation by its Arab friends. The September 18 raids by more than 800 federal and state police on alleged IS sympathisers in Sydney and Brisbane also positioned Australia, surprisingly to most commentators, as “the first to find itself on the front lines of the newest terror war”, according to the US magazine Foreign Policy.
That said, it would have been inexcusable for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police not to act when they allegedly intercepted a call from a well-known Australian hothead in the Middle East with the IS, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, back to a 22-year-old friend in Sydney, Omarjan Azari, ordering him to abduct a non-Muslim Australian and videotape his or her execution. The randomness of the potential target would have made it very hard to wait and watch until the instruction gelled into an actual plan of attack. That anyone could carry out such an instruction is made a more real possibility by the killing last year of the British soldier Lee Rigby by two Muslim converts in London, the fatal shooting at a Brussels Jewish museum in May this year by a returned French follower of IS, and now Tuesday’s incident at a Melbourne police station in which an 18-year-old terrorism suspect was shot dead after stabbing two officers.
Still, the raids resulted in only two being charged – Azari, and another man for possessing weapons – while 13 others were arrested then released. Whether the charges can stick remains to be seen. The calculus of whether the high-profile swoop was productive in balance, after taking into account the blowing of surveillance operations and raised tensions in the Muslim communities, can be known only to ASIO and the AFP.
That Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis are the political directors can’t inspire much confidence, especially as Brandis is trying to push new powers for the security services through parliament. Thank heaven for the much-derided minorities in the senate, such as David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrat) and Bob Day (Family First), for galvanising Opposition Leader Bill Shorten away from the fearful “me too” security approach and getting more safeguards put into the legislation, including an explicit exclusion of all forms of torture from the legal indemnities conferred on security agents.
As it is, the raids have inflamed suspicions and resentments between Muslims and other Australians, with beards, headscarves and even just “Middle-Eastern appearance” being grounds for hard looks and worse.
What doesn’t come out is the co-operation being given by Muslim leaders and elders to ASIO and the police, which is extensive, according to Monash University expert on Islam and jihadist terrorism Greg Barton.
Barton and another jihadism analyst, Shiraz Maher of King’s College London, point out that IS recruitment is significantly different from the earlier wave of extremist proselytising in the West by al-Qaeda and linked groups. This tended to be centred on radical imams preaching at mosques, with some of the more fanatical followers travelling to places such as Pakistan and Yemen. A decade or more later, the IS is using social media to reach out to susceptible youth through personal contacts. The older generation is cut out. Parents don’t see what is going on, until the young man gets to the Turkish–Syrian border and is taken in by the IS. In some cases the next news is that the son or nephew has been killed in fighting or has blown himself up in a suicide attack. Maher, a British man of Pakistani descent who for several years was a member of the non-violent jihadist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, gives chilling accounts of the process in which initial idealism about helping the suffering in Syria is turned into a “dehumanised” addiction to violence.
The tide of battle in Iraq and Syria may have already turned, without the help of Abbott’s F/A-18 squadron. The beheadings of Western hostages signal that air strikes are worrying the IS leadership. Their forces have lost four out of the five major battles in Iraq. Gradually, the captured vehicles and heavy weapons will be taken out, and IS convoys of flag-waving fanatics will become more risky. It remains to be seen whether Turkey, now that its diplomatic hostages have been released, will turn off the lucrative export route for the IS from its captured oil wells, and prevent new recruits joining the IS. That will be a focus of Western diplomacy now. But suppressing the IS is only one part of the wider Sunni–Shiite conflict, which only Muslims can solve.
And even if the IS falls apart after consistent setbacks, its foreign members will be preyed on by the remnant al-Qaeda groups such as al-Nusra and Khorasan for blowback attacks in their home countries. So returnees will of course have to be watched. However, for distant countries such as Australia, counterterrorism has to be more than a conventional security-police approach, rather a proactive one to divert the idealism and restlessness of young Muslims into constructive engagement. The idea of the Australian National University counterterrorism specialist Clive Williams, to train them as medics for relief work in the Middle East, is not as fanciful as it might seem.
Meanwhile, Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop might be spared the pleasure of berating Russian President Vladimir Putin on their home turf, despite Bishop finding that other members of the Group of 20 nations were not in favour of barring him from their leaders’ meeting in Brisbane on November 15-16.
Putin might stay away. He is reported to have postponed a visit to Japan that probably would have happened on the same trip. He may content himself with the more friendly atmosphere of Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, where the Chinese hosts will no doubt keep Ukraine off the agenda.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "New rules for ‘terror war’s front line’". Subscribe here.