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Australia’s terror paranoia is unfounded

By Christopher Michaelsen - posted Monday, 12 September 2005


Sensationalist media coverage of the London bombings and complementary political rhetoric in Canberra are perhaps to blame for the wave of terror paranoia currently sweeping the nation. According to the latest AC Nielsen poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 70 per cent of Australians appear to believe that terrorists will strike here within the next two years.

Albeit understandable, these fears are largely unfounded. It is beyond question that an attack cannot be ruled out completely. But the likelihood of a large-scale incident occurring on Australian soil is still rather low.

First, Australia represents a poor strategic choice for both al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). It is unlikely that an attack in Australia is high up on either group’s political agenda. Besides, Australia lacks significant symbolic targets on the ground.

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Symbolism and ideology, however, play a crucial role in a terrorist group’s target selection. Ideology supplies terrorists with an initial motive for action and provides a prism through which they view events and the actions of other people. It also allows them to justify their violence by displacing the responsibility onto either their victims or other actors, whom in ideological terms they hold responsible for the state of affairs which the terrorists claim led them to adopt violence.

The 9-11 attacks, the Bali bombings, and the Madrid atrocities are all cases in point. The World Trade Center represented America’s overwhelming economic power; the Pentagon continues to symbolise American military domination. Similarly, symbolism played an important role in the Bali bombings. The night-clubs in Bali, a Hindu-dominated part of Indonesia, are regarded by Islamic radicals as places of immoral behaviour for Western tourists. What is more, Balinese tourism is seen as major source of revenue for the “corrupt” government in Jakarta.

While the Madrid commuter trains did not represent any specific symbol themselves, Spain as a country did. It was in Spain that the greatest contest between Christianity and Islam was fought. This historical context of the clash of religions was expressly referred to in a note received by the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. Claiming responsibility for the Madrid bombings, the Brigade of Abu Hafs al-Masri stated explicitly that the attacks were “part of settling old accounts with Spain”. Australia, however, does not have a comparable historical past, nor does it possess any World Trade Center or Pentagon-like symbols.

Second, Australia does not have porous borders. This is a fundamental difference to Europe, for instance, where tens of thousands of people, cars and trucks pass borders unchecked each day. Human trafficking and the illicit transfer of arms and explosives from both Northern Africa and Eastern Europe are major security concerns for key continental countries like Germany, France and Spain. Because of its geographical isolation, however, Australia does not have any similar problems. Besides, there are no indications that terror suspects were among those who have tried to enter Australia illegally by air or sea.

Finally, and partly as a direct consequence of its effective border control, Australia does not have a “terrorist human infrastructure”. There is little evidence of a significant radical Islamic faction within Australia’s relatively small Muslim community. And this is what constitutes a major difference to the United Kingdom.

The integration of Muslims in Australia is perhaps better than in any other Western country. It is therefore not surprising that available information indicates that (foreign) Islamic extremists have failed to establish a local network capable of staging terrorist attacks here.

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In late November 2003, for example, the American CIA, acting as interrogator for the Australian Federal Police and ASIO, intensively questioned top terrorist suspect Hambali about JI’s intentions in Australia. Hambali is considered to be the Asian point man for al-Qaida and the operations chief of JI. His responses to more than 200 questions concerning Australia reaffirmed a belief by both security agencies that the JI cell covering Australia, known as Mantiqi (District) 4, was the least developed and operationally capable of JI’s four regions.

Last year, a report by the International Crisis Group, an international think tank led by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, reached a similar conclusion. The ICG analysts found that “Australia continued to be seen as a fund-raising area”, but that Mantiqi 4 did “never really (constitute) a going concern”.

Evidence to suggest that Australia lacks a “terrorist human infrastructure” is also available from the trial of British born Muslim-convert Jack Roche. Roche was convicted of terrorism-related charges in June 2004 and sentenced to nine years in a Perth prison. Asked about possible recruitment efforts, he stated that he had “put out some feelers” but that the whole operation turned out to be “a very difficult task” because “nobody in Australia was interested at all”.

So there is no reason to panic. When analysing the terrorism threat to Australia, one must clearly differentiate between Australian interests overseas and Australia’s homeland. While attacks on Western targets in Indonesia and other countries in the region are likely to happen in the foreseeable future, chances of a devastating attack on Australian soil remain fairly low.

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About the Author

Christopher Michaelsen is a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Law, UNSW.

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