On October 12, police cars descended at high speed on a laneway in the western Sydney suburb of Bankstown to arrest to two 16-year-olds. For the next few days the media uncritically reported police claims that they had foiled an imminent terrorist attack.
The trigger for the arrests was that the youths had just purchased M9 hunting knives at a local gun shop. This type of knife is not illegal in NSW.
What has transpired since is typical of the operation of Australia's “anti-terror laws” that have been passed in successive tranches since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US.
On the one hand, the excessive secrecy provisions of the laws mean police and security agencies need not produce evidence. Trials can be held in secret and the courts are obliged to accept an allegation as truth if ASIO declares it to be true but claims that revealing the evidence would compromise national security.
On the other hand, there are no limits on the authorities releasing allegations and whatever details they choose to the media. The laws do not demand that the media reports police and ASIO allegations uncritically, although it does.
The result is that unsubstantiated allegations become fact.
At an October 13 press conference, NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn described the arrests as “the eleventh imminent attack … we have prevented in this country”.
She said the teenagers were charged with “acts in preparation to commit a terrorist act” and “having membership with a terrorist organisation”.
“Those charges are extremely serious charges with the acts in preparation to commit a terrorist act with a maximum of life imprisonment,” she said.
As well as being based largely on secret evidence, several of the other “foiled terrorist attacks” seem far-fetched, to say the least. These include the 2009 arrest and conviction of five Melbourne men for planning to attack Holsworthy army barracks in Sydney with assault rifles, despite police admitting that they neither possessed assault rifles nor knew where to procure them.
Last year, there was the “Anzac Day terror plot”, allegedly a plan to massacre police at the Anzac Day march. Since the only weapons the police found when they violently arrested five teenagers were two knives, the foiled plot apparently involved carrying out this massacre with knives.
As with the current arrests, those arrested were supposed to be part of an international conspiracy involving ISIS. However, the international dimension to the conspiracy was demonstrated in court with evidence that the accused had phone contact not with a jihadi commander in Syria but with a 14-year-old boy in Blackburn, England.
Three of those charged with this plot have since been released; one, 18-year-old Harun Causevic, after spending 120 days in maximum security solitary confinement.
This was followed by the “Mothers Day terror plot”, in which a 17-year-old was arrested in Melbourne by heavily armed paramilitary police for possessing butane canisters that can legally be bought in hardware shops.
In May this year there was the strange case of the “tinnie terrorists” — five men who were arrested this year for towing a small recreational boat from Melbourne to Cape York. While they claimed it was for a fishing trip, police allege that they were about to set sail for Syria.
As in most prosecutions under Australian anti-terror laws, the most credible allegations involve adherence to jihadi ideology. Harassment by police using anti-terror laws has played a role in young defendants becoming attracted to this outlook.
The October 13 Sydney Morning Herald reported that one of the two youths seized in Bankstown was “burning” with resentment after his family home was raided by paramilitary anti-terrorist police in September 2014.
The same year he was interrogated by state and federal police for refusing to stand at school when the national anthem was played. A non-Muslim student would have been unlikely to face more than a letter home to their parents for the same offence.
The ABC said he justified this by saying that Australian troops were committing war crimes in Afghanistan. This is hardly a controversial statement. Indeed, on October 13, special forces Sergeant Kevin Frost told the ABC that he had helped cover up a war crime in Afghanistan.
The violently religiously intolerant, misogynist and homophobic jihadi ideology can justifiably be labelled extremist. However, it is both anti-democratic and counter-productive to criminalise ideas, even unpleasant ones.
One problem with anti-terror laws is that they are unnecessary. Killing or wounding people, blowing things up or plotting to do so were illegal before any anti-terror laws were introduced. Increasing sentences or reducing standards of evidence because of the ideology of perpetrators of crimes is discriminatory. Making the ideology itself a crime is even more so.
Criminalising ideas is inherently subjective and political. There is a big contrast between the treatment of those with jihadi ideology and those with other violently intolerant, misogynist and homophobic ideologies.
White supremacists are valorised in the right-wing media. The more “liberal” media, while seeming to condemn the racism, misogyny and homophobia of the extreme right, berates those who oppose it for not listening to the concerns of those who espouse it.
While adherence to jihadi ideology leads to harsher punishment for crimes, adherence to white supremacist ideology can have the opposite effect, if the murder of 14-year-old Elijah Doughty in Kalgoorlie on August 29 is anything to go by. Doughty's killer was charged with manslaughter, not murder, on the grounds of lack of intent, despite the fact that he chased Doughty in a vehicle, ran him over, then got out of his vehicle to stab him to death.
Doughty was Aboriginal. His killer wrongly accused him of stealing a motorbike. Before and after his death, local social media pages were full of pages calling for the killing of Aboriginal “thieves”.
The politics of anti-terrorist laws are the politics of collusion between media, police, security agencies and politicians in creating a disproportionate sense of threat to divert attention from unpopular government policies and justify increased state power and wars overseas.
Introducing a tranch of anti-terror laws in September 2014, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: “Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. After all, the most basic freedom of all is the freedom to walk the streets unharmed and to sleep safe in our beds at night.”
However, the number of Australians killed by terrorism is negligible compared with the 59 women killed by domestic violence and 132 workers killed in industrial accidents so far this year. The media, police and courts trivialise domestic or gender-related violence, while the government cuts funding to the already inadequate services to help women escape it. The government response to workplace deaths, applauded by the media, is to criminalise trade unions for trying to enforce industrial health and safety.
Clearly the reason for taking away our freedoms is not to protect our safety.
While jihadi terrorism serves as a bogeyman for the political establishment in Australia and other Western countries, the West's relationship with jihadi terrorism is more ambiguous. The phenomenon of international jihadi terrorism originated with Western-created gangs fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The West has given material and political support to several of the jihadi groups currently wreaking havoc in Syria. This does not include ISIS. However, ISIS is backed by, and owes its strength to, material and logistical support from Turkey, which is officially an ally in the “war on terror”.
A clear demonstration that anti-terror laws are not about fighting ISIS was provided by the July 21 arrest of Kurdish-Australian journalist Renas Lelikan, who was finally released on bail with strict conditions, including a surety of $1.5 million, on October 14.
Lelikan is accused of belonging to the left-wing Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Leaving aside the dearth of supporting evidence for the charges, the PKK is not a terrorist group but a legitimate liberation movement that, together with its ideological allies, has provided the strongest political and military opposition to ISIS and other jihadi terrorist outfits in Iraq and Syria.
The irony is that while anti-terror laws are part of a political project to convince Australians that our country is under threat from terrorists from the Middle East, in reality it is the other way around. The most serious terrorist crimes by Australian jihadis have been committed in Syria and Iraq against the people of those countries.
A notorious example is Khaled Sharrouf, who in August 2014 tweeted an image of his infant son cradling the severed head of a Syrian regime soldier with the caption “that’s my boy”.
Sharrouf, who has since been killed in action, was jailed under anti-terror laws in 2007. His crime was stealing six clocks and 140 batteries. Prison often has the opposite effect to rehabilitation and Sharrouf became involved with organised crime after his release.
Significantly his violent criminal activity in Australia was not in any way connected to religion and politics. He fled with his family to Syria and joined ISIS after being threatened by rival Sydney gangsters.
In its third day of hysteria-inducing propaganda following the Bankstown arrests, the front page of the October 16 Daily Telegraph reported that the government would be using anti-terror laws that allow the government to remove citizenship from dual nationals to prevent Australian jihadis from returning from the Middle East.
The Telegraph screamed that the jihadis were “too evil for Australia”. The reality, however, is that terrorists are not born, they are made, and these terrorists were made in, and by, Australia. Ironically, anti-terror laws, and the Islamophobia they help promote, played a central role in turning these people into terrorists.