On the morning of September 12th 2001 a colleague of mine was confronted by his sleepy-eyed young son. The boy had overheard conversations and television snippets in the dead of night and wanted to know whether something terrible had happened or whether he had just had a "bad dream." Now, two and a half years on, the numbness and incredulity of that September are gone. Over following months we witnessed the gruelling task of the World Trade Centre rubble and its human contents being collected and taken away like so much of our comfort and security.
We in Australia have since endured the shock, brutality and grief of Bali. We have seen the carnage in Istanbul, in Riyadh and in Madrid. We have seen military action in Afghanistan. We have seen the liberation of Iraq and continue to see terrorist attacks against international forces determined to bring stability. I think as a people we have realised that this is no "bad dream." We know that this is not a string of unrelated, tragic events.
But I think many Australians are still uncertain and worried about these events. This is not surprising - the campaign waged by the terrorists is unlike any we have had to face before. And it is designed to foster fear, division and self-doubt.
The terrorism challenge we face does have the dimensions of a war. Its prosecution requires clear-sighted political commitment, national vigilance and preparedness, an informed and resilient public and a commitment of energy and resources that must be sustained over many years.
At the outset, we should be clear that this is a war that we did not choose. The terrorists have declared war on us because of who we are and what we value. Our only choice is whether or not we defend ourselves. The Government has made its decision: we will defend Australians, our nation and our interests.
The Fundamentalist Islamic Extremist Terrorists cannot achieve their aims through persuasion - only through fear and chaos. Their precise goals and ideologies are so extreme that it is difficult for us to understand them. However in order to succeed we must attempt to know our enemy.
What distinguishes al Qaeda - and its kind - is a deliberate and militant misreading of the Koran in pursuit of extremist ends. With it goes the perception of a world conspiracy of Zionists and Christians...a mindset that thinks of the present in terms of the Crusades. Al Qaeda embraces modern weapons technology but its aims are fundamentalist. Its sense of geo-political reality is delusional. These people want to overthrow moderate Muslim governments and replace them with Taliban-style, “Islamo-fascist” regimes.
The distinguished writer Andrew Sullivan summed up the situation. Al Qaeda, he says is “quite candid in its goals: expulsion of all infidels from Islamic lands, the subjugation of political pluralism to fascistic theocracy, the elimination of all Jews anywhere, the enslavement of women, the murder of homosexuals and the expansion of a new Islamic realm up to and beyond the medieval boundaries of Islam's golden past”. The demands of the Islamo-fascists are absolute. There is no point in seeking to reduce the threat from these terrorists by offering concessions. This is as true for countries like Australia as it is for the mainstream Muslim communities.
When it comes to confronting terrorists and their safe havens - we have to tackle them where we can. We cannot afford to sit back and wait for another 9/11 or Bali bombing before we respond. That is why the international community, led by the United States, overthrew al Qaeda's puppet Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11.
Now the terrorists have made Iraq the frontline in their unholy war. They know what is at stake in Iraq. For them, the establishment of a free and democratic Iraq would represent a severe defeat. An Arab liberal democracy would be a burst of sunlight ruining their dark vision. So their plan for Iraq is one of chaos and civil war. We know this from captured documents purported to be written by the al-Qaeda-associated terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi made it clear he was aiming to foment civil war along Iraq's main religious divides. But he is being frustrated in his purpose by Iraqis who overwhelmingly oppose his actions and intent.
Now is the worst possible time to cut and run from Iraq. The Australian Government will keep troops there until their tasks are complete. The vast majority of Coalition countries have restated their commitment. And the United Nations plans to move back into Iraq. Those who advocate a cut and run policy clearly have not stopped to listen to the people who count most in this - the Iraqis themselves. A recent survey conducted for the BBC by Oxford Research International found that only 15% of Iraqis want coalition forces to leave immediately.
Nor have the cut-and-run advocates thought through the consequences of their proposed actions. Such a policy would have a severe and very real consequence for the security of Australia. For Iraq would in effect become what Afghanistan once was: a failed state and a haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists. It would be a source of instability in a region of strategic and economic importance to Australia.
This is an edited version of Alexander Downer's speech to the National Press Club, Canberra, 13 April 2004. The full text is here.
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