World

IS social media skills overstated; Malaysia wants Villawood murderer By Hamish McDonald.

PM’s missteps on Muslim co-operation

Kamarul Hisham Kamaruddin (above), the defence lawyer for Villawood detainee Sirul Azhar Umar, after the Malaysian Federal Court restored Sirul’s death sentence for murder.
Credit: Manan Vatsyayana / AFP

Can Tony Abbott open his mouth on any subject without making a bad situation worse? His national security statement on Monday can only have heightened the sense among Muslims that nothing they do can ever be good enough for politicians intent on milking terrorism for every bit of political kudos they can get.

There was that almost sneering line: “I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.” Actually, the recognised leaders of the Islamic communities in Australia invariably do. The recently retired chief of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, David Irvine, paid tribute to the invaluable help ASIO had been getting from Islamic leaders and individuals in bringing potentially violent radicals to attention.

The joint federal–New South Wales study that Abbott commissioned into possible intelligence failings on the Martin Place hostage-taker, Man Haron Monis, didn’t look at the handling of the siege itself. But if it did, the refusal by the NSW police of mediation offers from the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, and other Islamic leaders would be embarrassing for Abbott’s narrative. Let’s hope the NSW coroner explores this.

Then Abbott cited as authorities in the Muslim world these two figures: Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister who has just jailed his moderate Islamist opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a fabricated sodomy charge and is facing questions about possible involvement in a sordid corruption-murder case; and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army dictator who swept aside Egypt’s troubled new democracy and has been sentencing Islamic Brotherhood oppositionists to death by the hundreds. Abbott praises el-Sisi’s call for a “religious revolution” to sweep away centuries of false thinking.

Then there are the two measures beloved of our conservatives: stopping dole payments and removing citizenship from the unpatriotic. Abbott noted that 55 Australians fighting with the Islamic State as of last September had been on welfare. “We have legislated to cancel the welfare payments of individuals assessed to be a threat to security,” he said. A brilliant move to counter alienation.

And there will be legislation to allow the government to revoke or suspend Australian citizenship for dual nationals, and deny the right of return to Australians involved in terrorism abroad. Existing powers to declare invalid the citizenship of those who take up arms against Australia might also be invoked. Andrew Nikolic, the former Defence Department media chief elected as a Coalition MP in 2013 and now promoted to government whip by Abbott, is jumping up and down about it.

Be very afraid about this one, especially when we send our forces into undeclared wars. Let’s remember the case of Wilfred Burchett, the communist-leaning Australian journalist denied a replacement passport by the Coalition for 15 years, who had to assert his rights by flying in from Noumea on a private charter to attend his brother’s funeral.

IS social media skills overstated

The acceptance as proven fact that Islamic State social media propaganda is turning troubled young people from Muslim immigrant families in the low-income, high-unemployment suburbs of Western cities is meanwhile coming under question by various scholars, as The Atlantic reports.

Max Abrahms, terrorism analyst and assistant political science professor at Northeastern University in the United States, told the journal that the number of IS recruits influenced by Facebook and Twitter postings might be lower than believed. He points out that other groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria have rapidly expanded in the absence of social media. “Battlefield success is a better predictor” of group size than is social media activity, Abrahms said. So if, as seems to be the case, IS is being beaten back in several places, recruitment could suffer even though its social media activity remains constant.

However, the biggest wave of foreign recruits joined IS in 2013, ahead of the sudden capture of Mosul in Iraq that raised its international profile. Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, told The Atlantic that social media helped “the scale and speed of the mobilisation”, but “this does not mean that social media in and of itself drives recruitment”.

Poorly policed borders and ease of travel to Syria were factors. “The bottom line is that record numbers of foreign fighters are going to Syria because they can,” Hegghammer said. Tighter travel controls and battlefield reverses might now stem the flow.

And as the Rand Corporation’s Brian Jenkins noted in a 2011 study of America’s “homegrown” radicals, reaching potential recruits online “does not mean radicalising, and radicalising does not mean recruitment to violent jihad”. While the internet could “serve as a source of inspiration ... it may also become a substitute for action, allowing would-be terrorists to engage in vicarious terrorism while avoiding the risks of real action”.

Malaysia wants Villawood murderer 

As for Abbott’s buddy Najib Razak, the World column went to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney’s western suburbs this week to visit one of the Malaysian PM’s sticky problems that has landed in Australia’s lap.

This is personified by Sirul Azhar Umar, one of the two Malaysian special forces policemen convicted of the 2006 murder of a Mongolian model, Altantuya Shaariibuu, and sentenced to death. Sirul came to Australia some months ago when his sentence was quashed, only to have it reinstated by a higher court. The Malaysians have requested extradition so he can be hanged. Canberra cannot comply, so he now sits in limbo in Villawood.

The case is causing a frenzy in Malaysia, as Sirul told the media portal Malaysiakini on February 11 that the murder − which involved abducting the weeping 28-year-old expectant mother into a jungle, shooting her dead, and blowing up her body with military explosives − was on the orders of his superiors, who also offered cash payments. “I was under orders. The important people with motive are still free,” he said.

 Now, in the visiting room inside Villawood’s Blaxland high-security wing, Sirul is apologetic that he has been advised to go no further with public statements. “I have to respect the host who is keeping me safe,” he said, referring to the Australian government. His mobile phone rings while we talk: it is a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur.

Sirul says he hopes to stay in Australia. But how can a man fleeing punishment for a horrible murder be given asylum? If Malaysia’s king were to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment, will Abbott send him back? Will there be secret promises of speedy remissions in jail time? Meanwhile, will Sirul be safe from attempts to silence him while he is inside Villawood, where security is more about keeping inmates from escaping?

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2015 as "Abbott’s missteps on Muslim co-operation". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.