On the eve of an APEC meeting, with impeccable timing, Australia’s lack of foreign policy independence was once again on display for our Asian neighbours: mimicry of US decisions, militarism abroad, securitised borders, containment of China, and fear of Islam. Indonesians and Malaysians recognise the pattern from long experience. Another terrorist event in Melbourne could not have been better timed to reinforce it.
The Australian pattern is repetitive and consistent. At regular war commemorations, our leaders go on about how brave we have been as a nation. The mantra compensates for the fact that fear of one enemy after another – Britain’s or America’s – has always sapped our courage. Dread of abandonment has eaten away at such independent impulses as we have. Successive governments have known this and exploited it. The aim of all politics, as HL Mencken said, is to ‘keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary’.
The pattern was familiar to John Howard when he advised Australians to be ‘alert but not alarmed’ about the threat of terrorism after 2001. Having risen to ‘probable’ it has never declined. Howard won the next election on it, and he and his successors introduced more restrictive ‘national security’ legislation than any other country. The ‘global war on terror’ has rewarded the military-security-industrial complex enormously, at the expense of public health, education, and social services in all the countries waging it. It has bogged Australia down in failed wars that breed more terrorists. Those who survive their attacks repeatedly say their motivation was vengeance for our assaults on their fellow Muslims. When former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty said this, he was forced by Howard to retract it.
Boat people, our governments warned, could include terrorists, which justified locking them away in offshore perpetuity. Returning foreign fighters could re-invade us, intelligence agencies predicted, which justified more surveillance. ‘Self-radicalised Muslim migrants’ appeared in full-page shooting gallery format in the Murdoch media, inviting hostility. The public responses were contradictory: some demanded deportation to keep them out and others wanted passport-deprivation to keep them here. Ritually after every terrorist event, the whole Muslim community is both blamed and excused for the sins of a few.
While debate rages over the latest event, what’s interesting is the suppression of relevant facts. In November 2017 reports emerged about an Australian of Somali background. Ali Khalif Shire Ali, the Australian-born son of Somalian refugees, whom ASIO questioned repeatedly for at least two years before he was arrested for allegedly trying to buy a weapon, collecting a terrorism manual, and planning an attack in Melbourne’s Federation Square on New Year’s Eve. Ali’s associates included the notorious Junaid Thorne and the son of Nacer Benbrika. Aged 20 when he was arrested, Ali told reporters an ASIO agent offered him $200 every time they met in exchange for information about the Muslim community, and particularly about people connected with Curtis Cheng’s shooting in Parramatta by Farhad Jabar. He knew the brother of an accessory to the crime, but claimed he told the authorities to ‘get lost.’ ASIO first paid attention to Ali when he spoke at a Muslim community event, ‘Innocent until proven Muslim,’ organised by Hizb ut-Tahrir in October 2015, a month after Cheng’s death. But Victoria Police had not put him into de-radicalisation, being more interested in a prosecution and conviction, Ali’s lawyer claimed, which they got (Chip Le Grand, Simone Fox Koob, Mark Schliebs, ‘Accused terrorist’s network of haters,’ Australian, 30 November 2017: 3, and 29 November 2017: 1, 6). He was jailed in 2017.
The 9 November event in Melbourne was Australia’s seventh or eighth fatal act (depending on your criteria) of terrorism. Ali’s older brother, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, set fire to his ute loaded with gas bottles and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, attacked men in Bourke Street with a knife, killing one and wounding two. Not trying to flee, he was tasered then shot by police, and later died in hospital. The 30 year-old had a record of minor drug, theft, and driving offences. From 2014 he had communicated online with Khaled Sharrouf, said he wanted to be an IS terrorist, and had his passport cancelled when he tried to leave for Syria in 2015. Inexplicably, he was no longer being monitored by ASIO. Even before IS claimed credit for it, his attack was acknowledged as terrorism (The Weekend Australian, 10-11 November 2018: 1, 6. Australian, 12 November 2018: 1, 2).
Most important was the fact that his brother is in jail. But the Australian’s stories about the relationship between Hassan and Ali suspiciously died. They were replaced as usual by speculation about Hassan being a ‘lone wolf’, excuses for how ASIO lost him, and a blame-game between leaders in government and the Muslim community about radicalisation. At such a time, you might think the Prime Minister could ask what ASIO was up to. Instead of re-asserting the Sharma proposal about Jerusalem, and getting the predictable response from his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts, he could have taken the opportunity to get some quiet advice about how they deal with their own Islamist problems. They might well have advised Australia to stop fighting Muslims in illegal wars.
Dr Alison Broinowski is writing a book on terrorism.
[At other times, threats were genuine. In 1933, Theodore Roosevelt assured Americans that all they had to fear was fear itself— ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance’. At the height of the Blitz, Britons were urged to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Their resistance was vital to head off the real existential threat from Nazi Germany.]