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Is the terrorism threat overblown?

By Katherine Wilson - posted Tuesday, 3 October 2006

I write this as a layperson, not a terror expert. But I may as well stake that claim. The growth industry of terror analysts certainly has its share of Cold Warriors and Walter Mitty types.

There was Inside Al-Qaeda author Rohan Gunaratne, once regarded the world’s leading authority on terrorism. He was exposed by the Sunday Age (and others) as having dubious claims and credentials. There were those who held the Basque separatist group ETA responsible for the Madrid bombings. And those who, with no foresight of 9/11, made connections with unconnected groups. 

There were those who believed Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead by London police, was involved in the London bombings; that this year’s shooting of Abdul Kahar, also by London police, was justified; and that Rigoberto Alpizar, fatally shot by US federal air marshalls in similar circumstances, was also. There were those who believed Tim Anderson, wrongly jailed for nine years over the 1978 Hilton bombings, was guilty, along with Mamdouh Habib, released from Guantanamo Bay.


There are still those who believe Jack Thomas intends to terrorise Australia, because of his foolhardy training experience in Afghanistan. During Thomas’s trial, federal police agent Rinzi Jabbour told the court there was “no direct evidence” that Thomas was planning an attack, but that he “believed” Thomas “intended” to become a terror “resource”.

Of course, there were many who, despite mounting contrary evidence, proclaimed the existence of WMDs in Iraq. These commentators still dominate an echo-chamber of war on terror advocates in our daily newspapers. “It’s not commonly stated in political and media discourse,” Monash University’s Luke Howie says, “that there have been no significant acts of terrorism in Australia, there is no indication that there ever will be, and there are no specific threats.” Such a bold statement comes with a tricky caveat: our war on terror rhetoric, he says, also “makes terrorism [here] more likely.”

Even in the US, where security agencies report an increased terror threat to nations that participated in the Iraq War, the likelihood of being struck by a terrorist is staggeringly low. Taking 9/11 into account, statistics published in Wired show US citizens are more likely to die from police shootings, several times more likely to die of the flu, thirteen times as likely to die strolling down the street, and 81 times more likely to die by driving off the road: all unlikely incidents in themselves. Among Australians, the threat is “miniscule” says investment analyst Chris Leithner, who publishes with the Centre for Independent Studies. He pegs the risk at six in ten million.

But ASIO’s budget has almost quadrupled in five years. The Office of National Assessment’s has increased threefold. ASIS, Foreign Affairs, the Federal Police, the Department of Immigration, AUSAID and Defence have all ballooned with massive budget injections.

As Canberra prepares to spend billions on national security, business is gearing up for the war on terror’s lucrative promise. But have politics and profit eclipsed public safety? Companies like Appen, for example, have developed software that translates Middle Eastern dialects. Yet there are “absolutely zero examples of Islamic terrorism in Australia, and there’s no reason to suppose there will be,” says Luke Howie. “London, Madrid, New York: Australia’s hardly in that corridor. We think we’re important, but we hardly register.”

What about Bali? “Indonesia is one of the most violent nations, it should hardly be a surprise there. But the idea that, under our immigration laws, a terrorist group could slip through, foster support, have a motivation and ability to carry out an attack — it’s possible, but remote. The point is, most terrorism isn’t religious. The recruitment can be religious, but the grievance, the root cause, is nationalist.”


His views are contentious, but gaining momentum. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, who recently toured Australia, collected data from every suicide terrorist campaign between 1980 and 2003, and found 95 per cent aimed to expel foreign military forces, with little direct causal connection to Islamic fundamentalism. Historically in Australia, acts that could be classed as ‘terrorist’ have come largely from far-right, Croatian emigré and neo-Nazi groups.

Since  9/11, terrorism academia has burgeoned, not always to plan. Flinders University Professor Riaz Hassan recently embarked on a study which sought to understand the causes of terrorism by interviewing alleged terrorist leaders. He abandoned this when Attorney-General Philip Ruddock intervened, telling The Australian, “We are funding research and we want that research to be able to better inform us.” Labor foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd agreed. “The studies should look at the basis for terrorism, and taxpayer dollars need to be used wisely.”

Still, “the tide is turning in public discourse,” says Howie. Robert Pape’s book, Dying to Win, “is selling well in Australia” says Scribe publisher John Hunter. Ohio State University Professor John Meuller’s book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them will be released in November. Peter Manning’s recently-released Us and Them explores the demonising of Muslims in the war on terror. Howie hopes to release his own book next year. And Police Commissioner Mick Keelty recently told The Australian that the term, ‘war on terror’ was not applicable here.

Are politicians listening? 

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About the Author

Kath Wilson is a journalist who is a former co-editor of Overland.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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