Racism and media hysteria — 'Terror' laws won't make us safer

August 9, 2009

On August 4, theatrical pre-dawn raids in Melbourne by more than 400 Victorian, NSW and federal police and ASIO agents — including paramilitary units armed with sub-machineguns — launched Australia's latest terrorism scare.

"The threat of terrorism is alive and well and this requires continued vigilance", Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced later that day.

Five people have been charged since the raids under draconian "anti-terror" laws introduced by the former Howard government and still enforced under Labor.

A coordinated campaign by police, politicians and the media has claimed that the raids thwarted an imminent attack against the Holsworthy army base in western Sydney by terrorists linked with the al-Shabaab group in Somalia.

"One of the things we are concerned with is the sophisticated and calculated [attempt] to pollute public perception by deliberately leaking material through the media", lawyer Rob Stary, who is acting for one of the accused, told Green Left Weekly.

Despite the extensive secrecy provisions in the "anti-terror" laws, which reduce the standard of evidence needed to obtain convictions and can prevent defendants and their lawyers from knowing what they are accused of, the media presence when raids are carried out is routine.

Some of the mechanics of this co-operation were revealed after Victorian police commissioner Simon Overland accused the Australian of reporting on the raids three hours before they took place.

Denying this, Australian editor Paul Whittaker told media on August 6: "Under a deal struck with the lead agency in the investigation — the Australian Federal Police — The Australian agreed to sit on the story and not publish a single word about the imminent raids, despite knowing of them a week earlier, until the morning they were to be carried out."

Stary told GLW"All the newspapers have an arrangement with the Australian Federal Police." This was evident in the trial of 12 Muslim men arrested in Melbourne in 2005, seven of whom were convicted in September 2008. Stary was also involved in the defence in that case.

Dramatically staged arrests were carried out in the presence of the media, which uncritically repeated allegations of a plot to bomb the AFL grand final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

These allegations continue to be repeated. In an August 5 rant that used the latest arrests as a pretext to attack immigration, multiculturalism and opposition to imperialist wars, Melbourne Herald Sun right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt said: "Only six months ago Algerian-born preacher Abdul Nacer Benbrika was jailed in Melbourne, along with six followers, for planning terrorist attacks on Australians at the football."

However, Stary explained, the allegation "referring to an alleged attack on the MCG was dismissed [by the trial judge] … When the Senate was recalled in 2005, changes to the legislation meant that there was no need for charges to refer to specific acts." The seven were convicted under these general provisions, "not for planning specific terrorist acts".

At an August 4 press conference in Melbourne, Australian Federal Police acting chief commissioner Tony Negus said: "Police will allege that the men were planning to carry out a suicide terrorist attack on a defence establishment within Australia involving an armed assault with automatic weapons.

"The men's intention was to actually go into the army barracks and to kill as many soldiers as they could before themselves, they were killed. Potentially this would have been, if it had been able to be carried out, the most serious terrorist attack on Australian soil."

NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione told the media that the timing of the raids was determined by the attack on Holsworthy being "imminent". However, on August 5, the head of NSW Police's Counter Terrorism Unit, Peter Dein, told ABC radio that "there was no evidence … at this stage that they had access to automatic weapons but it will be alleged they were planning to get access somehow".

According to the August 6 Sydney Morning Herald, to obtain five automatic rifles would cost more than $100,000 and require contacts in the organised criminal underworld "but law enforcement sources said the men had no established links to organised crime and no external funding".

Negus has also alleged that the five (who are all Australian citizens, three from Somali backgrounds, and two Lebanese) had links to the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab.

However, al-Shabaab is not a global terrorist network. It emerged in the late 1990s out of the anarchy and multi-sided armed conflict that has beset Somalia since its last central government collapsed in 1991.

Initially a youth militia that took on armed gangs engaged in highway robbery and kidnapping, in 2006 it allied with the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who brought Somalia closer to the rule of law than at any other time in the past two decades.

The pragmatic UIC was, at this time, a restraining influence on the fundamentalist tendencies of al-Shabaab.

The December 2006 US-instigated Ethiopian invasion of Somalia shattered the UIC-led peace process, cost 10,000 lives and led to al-Shabaab radicalising. Ethiopian forces withdrew in January after reaching an agreement with Sheikh Ahmed, who the West now recognises as heading Somalia's government.

In reality, Somalia has no central government, with al-Shabaab controlling much of the south and some of the capital Mogadishu, rival warlords and clan-based militias (some of whom are now allied with Sheikh Ahmed) remaining active and the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland remaining de facto independent states.

Al-Shabaab's aspirations are to rid Somalia of foreign (particularly Ethiopian) influence, reunite the country and impose its puritanical and misogynistic interpretation of Sharia law. It does not have aspirations beyond Somalia and the idea that it is planning terrorist attacks in Australia is fanciful.

Significantly, ABC radio reported on August 7 that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Nairobi to meet with Sheikh Ahmed, cited the August 4 arrests in Melbourne as evidence that al-Shabaab was a global threat, justifying Western interference in Somalia.

ABC radio also reported that an al-Shabaab spokesperson in Somalia denied any connection with the men arrested or with anything happening in Australia.

No evidence has been provided to back up assertions by police and the media that some Somali-Australians have returned to Somalia and fought in al-Shabaab, but even if this were the case it is unclear whether it would be illegal.

Al-Shabaab is not listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia and accusations that it is engaged in a struggle to overthrow the sovereign Somali state ignore the fact that there is no Somali state.

However, Radio Australia reported on August 8 that federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland has foreshadowed tougher "anti-terror" laws to make it easier for the government to ban groups.

Stary pointed out the inconsistencies in the way Australia deals with its nationals who get involved in conflicts overseas. "Why aren't Australian nationals who were involved in the [2006] Israeli incursion into Lebanon charged with terrorist offences for their use of military force against the sovereign government of Lebanon?", he asked.

Under Israel's racist citizenship laws, Australian Jews with no previous connection to Israel can become citizens and do military service. The Australian government has never questioned this.

Stary condemned the "selective application" of Australia's "anti-terror" laws as "farcical. It depends on foreign policy priorities".

He pointed out that Eelam Tamils have been arrested under the laws for supporting their homeland's right to self-determination, but Tibetans have not.

He added that support given in the past by Australians for national liberation movements in Ireland and East Timor would be "absolutely not possible under [the anti-terror] laws".

He also said Scandinavian countries with fewew laws criminalising support for struggles overseas were able to play a positive role in peace processes, citing Norway's attempts to negotiate peace in Sri Lanka.

Australia's domestic "anti-terror" laws reflected a foreign policy that emphasised military responses.

Stary suggested that the timing of the arrests was part of a "deliberate strategy" related to foreign policy. "The government wants to commit further troops to Afghanistan," he said. The public is opposed. The example of home grown terrorists is used to frighten people into supporting war. I'm confident that an announcement of further troops will follow."

He said that they were also motivated by "self-justification by national security agencies that are underemployed and over-resourced. They'll always be looking for an issue … of course our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will increase risk of terrorism."

The August 5 Daily Telegraph said when one of the accused, Wissam Mahmoud Fattal, appeared in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court he commented that while he was being accused of being a terrorist, despite not having killed, or planned to kill, anyone, Australian troops were killing innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Addressing a foreign affairs forum for high school students in Melbourne on August 7, Labor MP Kelvin Thomson used the arrests to make racist comments against the Somali community and called for cuts to immigration.

He also cited the refusal, on religious grounds, of Fattal and co-accused Nayef El Sayed to stand in court as evidence that some Muslim migrants do "not respect Australia's laws or legal system".

Thomson was demoted from the Labor front bench in 2007 after it was revealed he had given a character reference to notorious gangster and drug lord Tony Mokbel.

Meanwhile, Somali community leaders in Melbourne reported an increase in racism against Somalis since the raids, the August 6 Australian said.

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