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Australia

Aug 19, 2014

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.

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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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