We shouldn’t trash our own values to support harsh anti-terrorism policies that don’t guarantee more security. There is a wealth of evidence about what does and what does not help to protect us from terrorism, and we’re doing too much of what doesn’t work.
The police, intelligence services, courts and governments are all under intense pressure to keep large numbers of people under constant surveillance and never release some others from gaol even after have served their sentence. Public anxiety about terrorism is understandable, particularly after recent atrocities in Britain, Iran and Melbourne, let alone the much larger numbers killed in other countries. But there should be a frank acknowledgement that many proposals for a much tougher response would make a nonsense of claims that we “will never let the terrorists change our way of life or our values”.
There is no foolproof way of determining whether someone is likely to commit a terrorist act, unless they publicly announce their intentions. Nor is there a precise formula for deciding how long to keep intruding on individual freedom. Nor can people kept be kept in preventative detention forever without breaching the core Magna Carta principal that they should promptly charged and put on trial.
Some tougher responses seem reasonable, such as tightening the presumption against bail for people with a history of violence, regardless of whether they are terrorist suspects. Stricter monitoring conditions could apply to parole and to the release of convicted terrorists who’ve served their sentence. But our values based on the great traditions of English law can’t be reconciled with calls to never release someone who hasn’t committed murder.
Fortunately, there are some things intelligence agencies could stop doing and help reduce terrorism. British media outlets recently reported that the MI5 intelligence agency had allowed Manchester Islamists, including some on terrorist watch lists, to travel to Libya to help overthrow President Gaddafi or similar purposes. Salman Abedi became radicalised in Libya before returning to Manchester. On May 22, he killed 23 people, including children and injured another 119 in a suicide bombing.
MI5’s support for deposing Gadhafi was part of the same discredited policy that overthrew a secular dictator in Iraq who never allowed terrorists to exist there. They do now, with devastating results. Likewise, rival terrorist groups now thrive in Libya.
Although less reprehensible, Western intelligence services have also refrained from disrupting online recruitment sites for the ISIS terrorist group, preferring to see who looks at the content. The emphasis should switch to taking down these sites almost as soon as they pop up – a task to which the Australian Signals Directorate could contribute.
Another important contribution would be to convince other countries to join us in actively opposing President Trump’s perverse support for Saudia Arabia. The hereditary Saudi dictatorship has a history of funding terrorism and financing schools around the globe that spread the extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic that fosters terrorism. Some observers see Trump’s support for Saudia Arabia as encouraging the subsequent attack on the Iranian parliament and a major shrine thatkilled at least 12 people and injured 39 — ISIS claimed responsibility.
Although Trump has ordered his generals to prepare a plan to eradicate terrorism, there is no military solution to small group attacks. Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq – in violation of a rules-based international order – only boosted terrorist recruitment. After ISIS took military action to control of large parts of Iraq, it was hard to avoid the use of air power to roll back its gains in cities like Mosul. The downside is the inevitable civilian casualties that can motivate more people elsewhere to become terrorist. According to official figures supplied by the US and other participants, but not Australia, it seems that coalition airstrikes had unintentionally killed at least 484 civilians in Mosul since the start of the bombing campaign until the end of April.
Although it would be a belated admission, John Howard, as the prime minister who decided to join the illegal invasion there, should acknowledge it was a a disastrous mistake that should never be repeated if we want to tackle terrorism. While it’s too late to reverse that decision, it is important for leaders to condemn past mistakes, or they will keep repeating them as happened with the US, UK and French support for the overthrow of Gaddafi.
The bigger lesson is don’t trash your own values to support harsh antiterrorism policies that don’t guarantee more security. Iran has far more draconian anti-terrorism measures than Australia, that could not stop it being attacked. The same applies to the 10 countries that suffered the most deaths from terrorist attacks in 2016.
Brian Toohey is a columnist with the Australian Financial Review.
This article was first published in the Financial Review on 14 June 2017.