tip off

Remember WMD? Just labelling something ‘terrorism’ isn’t enough

Not all terrorist groups want the same thing, and you can’t spy on millions of Australians with the blanket rationale of the War on Terror, writes international relations professor Dr Scott Burchill.

In Overblown, distinguished American political scientist John Mueller exposed how politicians and the terrorism industry grossly exaggerated the threat of terrorism after 9/11.

Using detailed historical comparisons going back to World War II, Mueller explained how Western governments have consistently exploited and exacerbated public fears in order to boost military spending and grant themselves draconian surveillance powers.

Mueller’s conclusions were devastating. The responses of the West to 9/11 and subsequent attacks were “wasteful”, “counterproductive” and a “wild, absurd overreaction”.

Canberra’s response to revelations that Australian citizens have gone to fight for the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq follows the same pattern of state fear-mongering.

Firstly, there is threat inflation based on a small number of religious fanatics who want to fight for a caliphate incorporating northeastern Syria and Sunni tribal lands in Iraq. Why these people would wish to return home and fight for an entirely different, unidentified cause, is not explained.

Cheerleaders for greater state surveillance ignore the religious and political motivations of these zealots, preferring to portray them as freelancers who, because of their training, indoctrination and militancy, will ineluctably, if inexplicably, pursue jihad upon returning to Australia. Here is think-tanker Anthony Bergin in The Age:

Our security agencies have made a clear case to government that we face a serious threat to national security when radicalised Australians return from training and fighting in Syria and Iraq. Some could act on their jihadi beliefs and commit a mass attack on Australian soil.”

What “clear case”? At this point it is nothing more than an unsubstantiated assertion. No evidence for this claim has been produced by ASIO or its uncritical stenographers in the media — who have already forgotten similar assurances about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction from the very same agencies.

We must require our government and its security agencies to clearly explain how our security is directly threatened by these 150 Australians and why we must relinquish our civil liberties to defeat them.”

They seem uninterested in the nature of this particular Sunni uprising and why Iraq has become a magnet for foreigners wishing to fight Shiites, Kurds and Christians there. Attorney-General George Brandis talks about jihadists from earlier, unrelated conflicts such as Afghanistan, who returned home to plan or carry out violence.

However, the dynamics of the rise of IS in Iraq today, and their appeal to foreigners, are very different from the Western world’s war against the Taliban, which began in 2001.

According to terrorism academic Greg Barton, this “is about as big a threat as we’ve ever faced,” and because terrorists like to use social media, the metadata of all Australian citizens needs to be monitored and retained without warrant to confront this new and immanent danger. To suggest this is an overreaction does not adequately capture the hysteria behind the decision.

Secondly, the deliberate conflation of disparate conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Gaza into a monolithic anti-Western terrorist threat leads to some dangerous, if risible, defences of state surveillance. This is also a replay of 2001, when China’s attacks on the Uyghurs, Russia’s war against Chechnya, and Israel’s conflict with Hamas was opportunistically prosecuted under the War on Terror banner.

To those who wish to keep fighting a war with militant Islam for 100 years, all jihadists are much the same. There are no significant differences between Hamas, Hezbollah, IS, Ahrar al-Sham, Jemaah Islamiyah or al-Qaeda. They are all irredeemably evil and irrationally anti-Western, whether they are fighting colonialism in Palestine, moral pollution in Bali or for a caliphate in the Levant. Their variegated motivations are ignored so a “one size fits all” policy response can be adopted to protect us from them.

The intellectual dishonesty and laziness of this attitude suggests we have learnt very little over the last decade. Instead of heeding the warnings of John Mueller or understanding our own role in the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of IS from Patrick Cockburn and William Dalrymple, Canberra seems determined to repeat mistakes of the recent past.

We cannot expect more than contrived moral panics from tabloid hacks and surveillance apologists in the Murdoch empire and terrorism industry. But we must require our government and its security agencies to clearly explain how our security is directly threatened by these 150 Australians and why we must relinquish our civil liberties to defeat them. The WMD intelligence debacle of 2003, which led directly to our destruction of Iraqi society with appalling consequences that we are still dealing with today, demands nothing less.

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  • 1
    Chris Key
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I seem to recall the saying: Never let a crisis go to waste.

    Who then has benefited from the massive expenditures on anti-terroism?

    Who has benefited from the massive erosion of civil liberties?

    Better not to ask.

  • 2
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    CHRIS KEY: Bingo!

  • 3
    sparky
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Thought bubble: Do you think that people who go fight in these foreign ‘whatevers’ see it as a “what happens on the Gold Coast stays on the Gold Coast”/ end of team tour thing? I know there be a proportion of batsh*t crazies but surely there’d be other sorts.

  • 4
    paddy
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Excellent work there Dr B.
    So refreshing to read a bit of sanity for a change.

  • 5
    old greybeard
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I reckon if you go to fight for another country, then stay there. I also think we should remember that we were supporting the aims of the anti-Assad jihadis. We have lain down with the dogs..in our way we have helped build ISIS. I also think that the fighting overseas should apply to those going to Israel. The IDF certainly acts like a terrorist group at times and has certainly committed war crimes on occasion. No doubt we will retain our dishonest Israel can do no wrong approach. I am not saying Hammas is good, just that Israel is often bad.
    just t

  • 6
    CML
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Right on, old greybeard!
    Funny how no one wants to talk about the slaughter in Gaza. It’s all about ISIS and Iraq. Oh! I forgot - they are MOSLEM terrorists!!

  • 7
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    What we learn from history is that we never learn from history was true in 1914, 1939, in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and today. I am certain it will be the case in the future.
    The problem is that the “enemy” has learned the lessons of history, hence IS use of social media.

  • 8
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps young men would be less inclined to go and fight for IS if they knew the law applied also to young Jews who go to fight in Israel?

  • 9
    AR
    Posted Friday, 22 August 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    There are fewer than 30,000 jihadis ‘controlling’ an area of northern Syria/Iraq about the size of the UK.
    Obama has just been on the meeja reading the Langley script about how they are a threat to Western civilisation and will take ..insert random number… years to defeat.
    Who knew that the entire edifice of our world was so brittle?
    They orda do summat ‘bout it.

  • 10
    The Pedanticist
    Posted Tuesday, 16 September 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Also funny how noone wants to talk about West Papua - a humanitarian AND human rights crisis much closer to home than what is happening on the other side of the world…

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