By Andrew Eagle
September 19, 2014
IN recent raids involving nearly 900 police Australia's security agencies claim to have foiled a serious terrorism plot. But have they done enough since 2001 to address the causes of extremism rather than only the symptoms?
Yesterday's raids on homes of alleged Muslim extremists in Sydney and Brisbane were dramatic. According to media reports, police and intelligence officials foiled a plot to kidnap a random member of the Australian public, drape them in the Islamic State flag and behead them on YouTube. If true, it is indeed terrifying.
Such criminal intentions must be motivated primarily by the rise of the so-called Islamic State and the much-publicised beheadings of three westerners, among other, larger-scale atrocities against locals.
Arguably it was the ill-conceived 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that created the power void which allowed for the rise of the Islamic State, with disastrous global security consequences. Be that as it may, western governments have also needed to meet the security challenges of a post 9/11 world at home.
While scope to shape favourable security realities abroad can be limited, at home there are always choices. It is arguable that Australia's security agencies have not risen to the challenge.
It is worth considering such a plot's aims. The Middle East beheadings were justified by the executioner as being a warning to the west not to attack. Given such a strategy has no chance of deterrence it is clearly a smoke screen.
Rather, the goals may be threefold: to instil fear; to demonstrate “strength” as an enticement to those inclined to fight for the Islamic State; and to goad western nations into direct confrontation. Deepening religious divisions can polarise fringe elements into viewing the Islamic State as standing up to western anti-Muslim aggression.
The actions of Australian authorities in preventing any beheading are of course commendable. However, in respect of the foiled plot two of the three terrorist goals have been achieved. Fear has been generated. Strain has been added to cross-religious relations.
In the coming weeks it would not be surprising were Australia to experience more successful acts of violence – this time against Muslim Australians and those mistaken for Muslims, such as Lebanese Christians or Sikhs. Short of violence there will certainly be discrimination. Levels of fear and anger are high.
In the long term security for any multicultural society must involve building strong intercultural relations capable of withstanding the criminal plots of an extremist few. Only with strong relationships can Australia limit the duration and extent of the current security challenges – obvious since at least 2001.
In this aspect – addressing causes rather than symptoms and building a society more able to withstand terrorist action – Australia has largely failed.
Since 2001 intelligence agencies have grown at least three times larger in both personnel and budgets. At a cost of several billion dollars these agencies have foiled a handful of plots relying primarily on top-down law enforcement measures.
Intelligence agencies have constantly been requesting more powers, at least annually, and the current time is no exception. With such recent history in mind it is alarming that the Australian public are being told the security situation is worse than before.
What Australia's intelligence agencies have failed to do is effectively engage with Muslim communities and address Islamophobia.
Australian Muslims as agency employees, for example, could offer useful knowledge of the risks and better develop workable prevention and response initiatives.
It is unfortunate it was not until 2012, more than a decade after 9/11 that the largest intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) became serious about Muslim recruits. At the time ASIO head David Irvine's public appeal came as a surprise to Muslim communities, un-consulted before the announcement.
More worrying was that he chose to point out that terrorism kills both Muslims and non-Muslims. It is difficult not to take from his words the implication that while non-Muslims might wish to protect everybody Muslims may be more motivated to protect their own.
In any case, by 2012 cloak-and-dagger activity had already destroyed the potential for close cooperation in the short term. Though figures on religion are unavailable, at 2013 ASIO had 94.2% of employees from an English-speaking background. The national figure is 85%. It is suggestive of an intelligence sector that remains almost wholly non-Muslim and overwhelmingly white. There can be no surprise to an in-house culture gap.
Unfortunately the “us-and-them” approach has continued. In recent weeks the government embarked on consulting Muslim communities over the latest round of extra powers. Several Muslim community organisations boycotted meetings due to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's use of the divisive term “Team Australia” which implies intolerance for diversity, and because “consultation” meant the government arriving with fixed proposals to be digested.
Muslim organisations have labelled the new proposals draconian and said that although they want to consult, they would like to be listened to. The Australian intelligence community is yet to outgrow entrenched prejudices.
The tragedy is that until genuine agency reform occurs there can only be a continuation of the addiction to democracy damaging and hideously expensive stop-gap measures.
Andrew Eagle is English Instructor and Feature Writer, The Daily Star