The Islamist Threat to Australian Security

In a seventy-seven-page judgment on February 15, New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Anthony Whealy sentenced five men to maximum prison terms of between seventeen and twenty-eight years for conspiring to prepare for a terrorist attack (Regina v Elomar & Ors). Justice Whealy opined that those convicted showed no remorse, would wear their prison terms as “a badge of honour” and there was no indication the leader would ever renounce his extremist views. These convictions were imposed even though there was no evidence that specific targets had been identified, no actual acts of terrorism had been committed and no weapons could be found. The prosecution claimed that the terror cell had a weapons stock equivalent to that used in November 2008 by the Mumbai terrorists when they killed 173 and wounded over 300. The police, however, have been unable to find the weapons obtained by the Australian terror cell.

It is encouraging that heavy sentencing such as this has occurred based only on evidence of conspiring but it also confirms the highly dangerous threat to Australia’s domestic security. This threat was heightened by the response from the Muslim community. The sister of one of those convicted featured briefly on ABC television as she protested outside the court; the president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, Keysar Trad, claimed to detest terrorism but argued the five had been victimised; and the well-known imam and critic of Australian mores, Sheikh Hilali, hosted a large meeting at the nation’s largest mosque in Lakemba where ten imams and twenty community leaders issued a statement describing the sentencing as a “travesty of justice” while a group of young men outside the mosque shouted that ASIO are “dogs”.

As far as I am aware there has been no substantive comment on the convictions by any Australian political leader. My perspective is that, despite terrorist convictions now amounting to twenty-five, the thwarting of numerous terrorist attacks and the active pursuit of Islamist objectives by a significant section of the Muslim community, the response by political, religious and business leaders has fallen well short of what is needed—indeed in some respects it hardly exists. This is particularly true of the apparent inability of our leaders to proclaim the virtues of Western culture and the problems with Muslim culture.

However, eight days after Justice Whealy’s decision, the Prime Minister did issue a counter-terrorism white paper, albeit fourteen months after it was first promised and, as it happened, on the same day I made a presentation to a Probus group on Islam in Australia (the remainder of this article is based on my presentation). That white paper, the timing of which was widely seen as a diversion from political problems then being experienced by the government, is a major disappointment. It does acknowledge that there is a serious terrorist threat, outlines various protective measures being taken, and also identifies the main threat as coming from “extremists who follow a distorted and militant interpretation of Islam”. But it refers only very briefly (in one paragraph) to why the Muslim religion has an inherently dangerous influence on its adherents and gives no consideration to what response might be made at the cultural level.

In preparing the white paper, the Rudd government is reported to have sought advice from Professor Abdullah Saeed, who occupies at Melbourne University the Sultan of Oman Endowed Chair in Arab and Islamic Studies. By contrast, no such advice was sought from Dr Mark Durie, who has written widely on the reasons why we should be seriously concerned about the objectives of Islam and who has argued that Professor Saeed downplays major differences between Islamic and Christian cultures and also falsely claims that Islamist terrorism has no foothold among Australian Muslims.

As with the Bible, there are differences in the interpretation of the Koran, and about the extent to which sharia law should apply, with a good deal depending on the imams’ interpretations. However, a significant proportion of Muslims accept Islam as an ideology that should be established, if necessary by violence, in other countries under sharia law applying to a wide range of social behaviour, extinguishing all other religions and subordinating the role of women. For believers, religious beliefs come first and the laws of the state come second and are over-ruled when there is a conflict (by contrast, Jewish law accepts the authority of the state).

Because the threat from Islamist extremism is worldwide, and Australia is involved in military and intelligence activity overseas in combating that threat, it is important that major Western societies defend and retain their Judeo-Christian culture and democratic systems of government. It is by no means clear that this is assured, and a continued deterioration overseas of overt support for our culture would have adverse effects for Australia.

While there are considerable differences about specific strategies, Western countries need to sustain attempts to counter mainly (but not only) by military force potential Islamist-driven threats from the Middle East and North Africa in particular. Some argue that such action serves only to provide further support for the extremist Islamic view that the West is out to destroy or take over Muslim countries. But if the force threatened, advocated and adopted by extremists is to be overcome, part of the answer has to be counter-force.

Most recently the response has extended in the Middle East to what has been described as a “third front” in Yemen following the near-success of a Nigerian trained there by an al Qaeda group to blow up a plane bound for the USA. Following subsequent discussions in London between NATO countries, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “increasingly, we are having to face—whether it’s the UK, the US or Yemen—threats coming from beyond our borders that cannot be pinned on any place”. The attempt to blow up the plane also led to a major change in the publicly stated position of President Obama who, when he did eventually react, made a Bush-like statement that “we are at war with al Qaeda”. An increased recognition of the risks was also reflected on February 4 in a report in the Age that the US Director of Intelligence indicated publicly that he is “highly certain” that al Qaeda or one of its associates will attempt a large-scale attack on American soil within the next six months.

An interesting development after the imprisonment of the Nigerian was the arrest by Malaysian authorities on January 28 of ten terrorism suspects reportedly linked to him and also to an international terrorist group that included persons from Yemen, Syria, Nigeria and Jordan. This arrest was reported to be under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial.

Major developments occurred last year within Western countries too. According to a report by Sally Neighbour in the Australian of December 26, the USA “had the busiest year since 2001 with the number of arrests” and a comment by the New York police intelligence division that “the home-grown phenomenon is substantially greater than we have seen in the past”. That comment is consistent with a suggestion by one analyst that the al Qaeda strategy is now to focus on using single local converts rather than groups. The shoot-up last year by a Muslim soldier at a US military base is consistent with that perspective, as is the arrest on February 24 of an Afghan who worked as an airport shuttle driver and admitted his terrorist objective was to blow up the New York subway system. It is sometimes said that the USA has less of an Islamic extremist problem because its Muslim population is better integrated and does not have the problems with Pakistani extremists that the UK has. However, Dr Durie’s view is that, as in the UK, there are regions in the USA where Muslims are congregating, and problems obviously exist in the acceptance of Muslims in the US military, police and even security.

Also of concern is the appointment by President Obama on January 13 of Rashad Hussain as Special Envoy to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Hussain is described as a Hafiz, that is, someone who has memorised the whole text of the Koran in Arabic. Hussain contributed to the drafting of President Obama’s very worrying address to the Muslim world in June 2009 in Cairo entitled “A New Beginning”. Somalian-born ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali commented that in that speech Obama “denounced Islamic extremism but without once associating Islam with extremism”. Her book Infidel vividly and courageously (particularly for a woman) illustrates the problem facing the USA (and hence the Western world) and her article on the Cairo speech summed up the basic problem by pointing out, “It is not America that is at war with Islam. It is Islam that is at war with America.” Yet Obama said, “America and Islam are not exclusive—they do not need to be in competition” and “America is not and never will be at war with Islam”. There are other concerns about Obama’s attitude towards Islam, including his policy on Guantanamo Bay prisoners. It is worth noting that it was about mid-2009 that Obama’s polling moved sharply downwards.

His appointment of a special envoy to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has been welcomed by some as an attempt to establish a partnership with the Muslim world that might help change its views. But the OIC, the official spokesman of the Muslim world, opposes the recognition by the United Nations of a range of human rights and seeks to promulgate sharia as superior to any other declaration of rights as well as issuing fatwas requiring the application of sharia law. Hussain is on record as arguing that the USA should recognise “the benefit of strengthening the authoritative voices of mainstream Islam”. One can only respond that it is one thing to be establishing closer contact with “mainstream” Islamic representatives and quite another to imply that they have views and objectives that are acceptable, let alone need strengthening.

In the UK, given the London bombings and the many aggressive public statements by imams, the problems with Islamist extremists have been more overt than in the USA, and well illustrate how serious the situation can become once the proportion of Muslims reaches even only 4 or 5 per cent. There now exists a de facto application of sharia law in some parts of the UK and an imam recently expressed his “right” to conduct a street protest against British troops returning from Afghanistan (in Australia a forty-five-year-old Iranian-born immigrant was charged last year as a result of sending hate mail to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan). In 2009 there were also considerable arrests and the Minister for Counter-Terrorism (who would have thought ten years ago there would ever be such a minister?) stated that there are now an estimated 2000 suspected potential terrorists in the UK. The government also published a second paper on counter-terrorism (Contest Two) that adopted what appears to be some toughening in policy in that it included in the counter-terrorism strategy an emphasis on prevention. This is designed to stop the spread of Islamist ideology not by outlawing it but through education, counter-propaganda and disrupting the funding of Islamic extremist organisations.

Before considering the Australian position on Islamist terrorism, I should draw attention to public remarks a year or so ago by Newt Gingrich, who is a former Speaker of the US House of Representatives and a possible Republican candidate in the next presidential election. As the USA is the country most closely involved in combating Islamic terrorism such views provide a perspective on what attitude a US leader adopts in considering that threat and how it might be compared with our own domestic leaders. The following are extracts from Gingrich’s remarks made on CNN in response to a questioner who asked Gingrich “what we can really expect in the next few years in the war on terror and what we would really have to do to win it eventually”. Gingrich responded as follows:

I am really deeply worried. We have two grandchildren … and I believe they are in greater danger of dying from enemy activities than we were in the Cold War. There are thousands of people across this planet who get up every morning actively seeking to destroy the United States. They are spreading their poison by sermons, by the internet, by a variety of recruiting devices.

Tony Blair said it very well: the people who did the London subway bombings spoke English, were British citizens, lived in British housing and had jobs. And had decided, because of their relationships, that they were engaged in a war against the very country which had given them prosperity and freedom and safety.

When you see the Taliban kidnap twenty-two Christian South Korean missionaries who are there to help the people of Afghanistan, and nobody gets up and says: this is despicable. Where in the Muslim world has there been any battle cry saying: they should be released? Where has anybody gotten up to condemn?

You see a twelve-year-old boy in Pakistan saw off a man’s head on a video tape. Where is the condemnation when you know that the schools recruit suicide bombers, when you know that the Iranian government ran a cartoon last year … aimed at recruiting ten-year-olds to be suicide bombers, on public television? At what point do you have to say “enough”? When you’re lectured by the Saudis about being respectful when they do not allow any Jew or any Christian to practise their religion in Saudi Arabia, and we tolerate it. When do you draw a line?

Nobody in this society has yet given a speech to outline the scale of this problem in terms of senior leadership, and yet it’s obvious. We haven’t won in Afghanistan and we are not currently winning. If you’re not winning a guerrilla war you’re gradually losing it. We have not won in Iraq. The Israelis, despite thirty years of work, have not won in either Gaza or the West Bank. And we’re sleepwalking and we’ve now focused on Baghdad as though somehow we can retreat from history and find an elegant way to get out of this and it won’t have terrifying consequences. I believe we are on the edge of a precipice.

The Iranians are desperately trying to build nuclear weapons, and they will use them … read what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says. He writes poems about the joy of being a martyr nation. He gets to wipe out Tel Aviv, maybe the Israelis use nuclear weapons and wipe out Tehran. He would accept that in a minute because he believes everybody in Tehran goes to heaven and everybody in Tel Aviv doesn’t.

It’s very hard for secular elitists to understand this. Religiously driven people do things that don’t calculate in nice academic faculty surroundings and they don’t calculate at the State Department and … in most of our bureaucracies. We are in trouble. And somebody had better start talking about it in a blunt way.

… We are simply not prepared today to be a serious country … I wrote about terrorism and nuclear weapons in a book called Window of Opportunity in 1984, I gave speeches in the nineties on this … We warned in March of 2001 about terrorist attacks in American cities.

I’ve been at this a long time. I am genuinely afraid that this political system will not react until we lose a city, and nobody in this country has thought about the threat to our civil liberties the morning after we decide it’s that dangerous and how rapidly we will impose ruthlessness on ourselves in that kind of a world.

I think those of you who care about civil liberties had better be thinking through how we win this war before the casualties get so great that the American people voluntarily give up a lot of those liberties.

These were not the remarks of someone who might be characterised as lacking in knowledge, or an advocate of extreme policies. In early January, following the administration’s mishandling of the Nigerian episode, Gingrich wrote to Republican Party supporters arguing that “in the Obama administration the rights of terrorists have been more important than protecting the lives of Americans. That must now change decisively.” Under the current President that does not seem likely.

Before moving on to Australia I should say that it is necessary to proceed with a degree of caution. Australia is supposed to have freedom of speech but an article in the Australian by Janet Albrechtsen on February 10 indicated that our freedom is more constrained than many might think. The article started by referring to the legal action currently being taken in Holland against Dutch politician Geert Wilders for alleged incitement and discrimination against Muslims. This action has been taken despite Wilders’s political party winning the second-highest number of votes in the last Dutch election but doubtless partly reflecting the fact that, in the four largest cities in Holland, “Mohammed” or a version of it has become the most popular name for baby boys. Little wonder, perhaps, that the Dutch are pulling out of Afghanistan.

As noted by Albrechtsen, laws in Western countries often provide protection against the expression of views that are perceived as anti-Islamic. These laws have been used, for example, in Canada by anti-discrimination tribunals against two commentators there who expressed critical opinions about Muslims.

Closer to home, Albrechtsen referred to a complaint lodged in Australia by an Omar Hassan with the Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Commission, and accepted by it, against Radio 4BC commentator Michael Smith, for making public statements that allegedly vilified, incited hatred and discriminated against Muslims. Hassan wrote a fifteen-page letter to 4BC that described Australia as a racist country and criticised various forms of behaviour, particularly by Australian women. Smith could be required by the Commission to attend a three-hour mediation session with Hassan.

This is not the first of such anti-discrimination measures taken in Australia. Under laws passed by the Victorian Labor government two Christian pastors were punished for warning their flock about the Koran’s praise of jihad; and 2GB commentator Alan Jones was ordered last year by the New South Wales Administrative Tribunal to pay $10,000 in damages and deliver an on-air apology to Muslim leader Keysar Trad for vilifying Muslim youth.

I mention these difficulties facing public critics of Islam in Australia not because I intend to avoid criticism of extremist Islamic views and actions but because they constitute a problem that needs to be addressed. Under the new counter-terrorism policy in Britain the so-called Prevent strategy envisages a verbal confrontation with activists and community or religious leaders who advocate cultural separatism and intolerance. I am not aware of the extent this strategy has actually been applied but I strongly disagree with the view expressed by Greg Sheridan that it should not be adopted here because it “empowers extremists” and “demoralises moderates”. On the contrary our political (and other) leaders should confront the activists and such counter-activism should be exempt from the application of any anti-discrimination legislation.

At first glance the fact that public critics of Islam face constraints in Australia might be thought strange, given that the Muslim proportion of our population is small. The religious affiliations recorded in the 2006 census have about 2 per cent of the population, or less than 400,000, as Muslim and over 60 per cent as Christian, with about 30 per cent having no religion or not stated. However, most overseas polling shows that a substantial proportion of Muslims approve of violent action in support of Islam, including the 9/11 episode in the USA, the London train bombings and fighting against military forces of the USA and the West generally in the Middle East. If only 10 per cent of Australian Muslims come in that grouping, it would mean 40,000 activists of one kind or another.

Of course, it is very difficult to assess the possible extent of how many would be prepared to commit terrorist acts. ASIO’s annual report for 2009 provides a perspective on the potential extent of the problem, although it needs to be borne in mind that it is a report by officials who of necessity have to take some account of government sensitivities. ASIO indicated that 2009 had involved it in the most intense activity since 2005, with the identification of a new terrorist cell and the numbers convicted of terrorist offences rising to twenty-one (which will now be twenty-six) since 2006. It stated its first priority as being to prevent a terrorist attack on Australia and warned that “terrorism continues to be a persistent threat to Australia and Australian interests … the possibility of an attack in Australia remains” and is “expected to be a destabilising force for the foreseeable future”. ASIO described the defeat of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan as vital, noted that overseas terrorist groups had threatened attacks on Australia, and pointed out that the Let group (which was responsible for the Mumbai deaths) included an Australian citizen (Lodhi) and a Frenchman (Brigitte) who had been sent to Australia to assist him, with both now convicted. It also noted that terrorism could involve chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The extent of the problem faced by ASIO is indicated by the increase in its staffing of 13 per cent to 1700 in 2009 and the rise in spending of 19 per cent to $362 million. ASIO issued 2738 reports or assessments for government (including 1092 threat assessments) and undertook about 60,000 visa security and 65,000 counter-terrorism checks.

Despite this increase in terrorist activity, the Labor government seems to have done little at the political level to address the domestic threat from Islamic terrorism. In his National Security Statement of December 2008 Prime Minister Rudd did say that Australia has been “explicitly and publicly mentioned as an ‘enemy’ by Islamist extremists” and that “terrorism is likely to endure as a serious ongoing threat”. But that was the only reference to Islamism in a fourteen-page address to Parliament and his undertaking then to release a counter-terrorism White Paper “next year” has only now just been met. Even then the limiting in that paper of the “tougher” (biometric) visa checks to only ten countries suggests a less than prepared counter-terrorism policy.

Also relevant is that the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, released in August a Discussion Paper on National Security Legislation for public consultation and comment by September 2009. It appears from the department’s website that this paper remains open for comment. I have not examined the paper but it is of concern that the Attorney-General stated that he seeks amendments to existing legislation “to achieve an appropriate balance” between protecting security and ensuring that the legislation “will be exercised in a just and accountable way”. Such an amendment would likely increase the difficulty, already considerable, of securing convictions from the many judges who are reluctant or feel unable to make decisions that impinge on what they regard as human rights. Paul Sheehan’s book Girls Like You provides a vivid and disturbing illustration of judicial recalcitrance.

In his statement McClelland made no reference to Islamic terrorism but he proposed one amendment that would create an offence of “inciting violence against an individual on the basis of race, religion, nationality, national origin or political opinion”. This is a two-edged sword. It could allow action to be taken against radical Muslims, but my concern is that it would increase the difficulty of making critical comments about the Muslim religion or even, possibly, about Islamic extremists. The Howard government implemented many counter-terrorism measures, including the passage of twenty-five pieces of legislation dealing with terrorist acts, principally designed to create offences and procedures before a terrorist act is committed.

It is pertinent here to refer to the Rudd government’s immigration policy, which John Stone has rightly described in Quadrant as having now “developed into a major political crisis” after deteriorating under the previous government. The essence is that there has been a liberalisation in the various categories of entry that has made it much easier for foreigners to become permanent Australians, a prize that many seek. The official net migration figures tell some of the story. In 2008–09 net overseas migration amounted to 285,300 persons (which contributed over 60 per cent to the total increase in population of just over 2 per cent) and was one-third higher than the 214,000 in 2007–08 and approaching triple the 100,000 net migration in 2003–04. The ABS estimates of population growth for various countries, including the most populous, show Australia as having the second-fastest rate of growth in 2009 (after Singapore) and almost double the world average.

However, these migration figures are based only on those who stay in Australia for twelve months or more (or, in the case of emigrants, who stay out for that period). In 2008–09 there were 4,338,427 visas issued, of which only the 510,600 recorded by the ABS as arrivals would be permanents. ASIO’s visa security assessments numbered only about 60,000, which suggests that considerable potential exists for terrorists to avoid detection.

More generally, while it is appropriate to have net migration, there is no economic or general policy need to have such a large annual intake. For present purposes, however, the concern is less about the total than the possible adverse composition and security implications and how they might be changed.

First, although there is no data on the religion of immigrants—the only guide to that is the dominant religion of the country from which the immigrant comes—when I researched this in 2007, it showed that about 30 per cent of net arrivals came from countries where the main religion is Islam, up from 18 per cent in 1995–96. It could reduce the risk of terrorist migrants to require that would-be migrants from those and other countries sign a formal statement of acceptance of the separation of church and state, the equality of treatment of men and women and the rejection of certain cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation. (For more detailed suggestions, see John Stone’s article in Quadrant, September 2006.) Such a statement could include specific acceptance of deportation in the event the undertakings were not fulfilled.

Second, the greatly increased staffing of overseas posts with locals has opened the way for discrimination in Middle East and Central Asian countries in particular based on religion and there is evidence that an anti-Christian attitude exists (see John Stone’s article in the December 2009 issue). There is an obvious alternative policy here and the provision of additional overseas ASIO staffing could help too.

Third, the main responsibility for selecting the refugee component has been almost entirely delegated to the UNHCR, from whose camps of millions the individuals are selected. This has almost certainly resulted in a reduction in the quality of these immigrants, particularly regarding English-speaking capacities. Again, there is an obvious alternative policy.

Fourth, a reduction in the annual immigration program to, say, 0.5 per cent of the existing population (about 105,000) would make that program more manageable from a security perspective without significantly reducing its acceptability internationally.

Fifth, it could be made harder to become an Australian citizen, which presently requires the ability to do no more than answer 75 per cent of twenty questions drawn at random out of a pool of questions listed on the Immigration Department’s website.

I believe the foregoing justifies the view that extremist Islamism, or what John Howard described at a recent function as “Islamic fascism”, is our greatest threat. We are living on a precipice and could quickly slide over the edge. That can be highlighted by referring to comments made at a defence conference held by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2007. Those comments were by a US expert on nuclear proliferation, Robert L. Gallucci, who pointed out that there is an increasing risk of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon without being detected, not necessarily one with the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb but one sufficient to kill 250,000 people. It is worth quoting a relevant extract:

We have no defence against a nuclear weapon delivered by a terrorist group, because we could be sure that it will be delivered in an unconventional way. After we get finished worrying about all the containers, we can then start worrying about all the trucks, and then we can worry about the marinas and then we will rapidly conclude that we really cannot defend, as a strategist would say, by denial, or by preventing a nuclear weapon from being introduced into the United States, which leaves us only with deterrence. Deterrence, of course, creates the problem of knowing exactly who your attacker is, having an attacker who had some level of unacceptable damage, and anybody who presents to you the proposition that they value your death more than their life is not a really good candidate for deterrence.

It is becoming less and less likely that actions of this type can be prevented. Probably the best we can do is to reduce the risk to Australia by making ourselves a tougher target for extremists, by doing our best to convince potential terrorists who are already here that they will be caught and will face tough penalties, and by tightening our immigration policy. There is a need for governments, both federal and state, to effect a major upgrade in the priority given to counter-terrorist policy, and to make this a bi-partisan effort.

Apart from changing immigration policy in the ways I have suggested, measures might include the creation of a position of Minister for Counter-Terrorism, whose tasks would include promoting the virtues of our culture and (constructively) criticising Islamic culture and the publicising of polling of attitudes adopted by Muslims, exempting criticisms of religious texts from anti-discrimination legislation, and generally making it easier for police and intelligence services to track, detain and prosecute possible terrorists. Human rights are important but we face a situation in which a group of people vows publicly to destroy the right to live of fellow citizens, including fellow citizens of the same faith. That demands a change in legal and judicial thinking. If, for example, Malaysia has provision for indefinite detention without trial for terrorists, Australia should surely be able to apply it in certain circumstances.

Some will argue that we should also do more to persuade Muslims who are here to integrate and to make them feel part of the community. But my perception is that this is unlikely to produce any significant results. When in 2007 he was spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria, Waleed Aly indicated that Muslims should not be pressured to assimilate: “life will make you integrate”, he claimed. A reading of Justice Whealy’s judgment can only confirm that there is a worrying number of extremist Islamists who are never going to integrate. A similar outcome is likely for moves to persuade Muslim leaders to speak openly against Islamists within their communities.

We Australians who are first and foremost Australians must do things for ourselves. For we have good reasons not to be able to expect sufficient of the Muslims who are here not only to integrate but also to persuade their religious compatriots to accept that they too should become true Australians rather than striving to force Australians to become like them.

Des Moore is a life member of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Director of the Institute for Private Enterprise. He attended the Royal College of Defence Studies, London, in 1973.

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