Yesterday’s massive anti-terror raids were, apart from the success of possibly disrupting an alleged murder plot, quite a media event. New South Wales police handed out footage of the pre-dawn raids and were accompanied by some media outlets tipped off about them (and who gleefully boasted of their access afterward). Terrified neighbours revealed their relief/shock/dismay to journalists. A sword was unearthed. The raids yielded a suspect, charged with plotting a terrorist act, said to involve a “terrorist cell” beheading a randomly selected member of the public, a “demonstration killing” demanded in a phone call by an Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL) figure this very week. As if on cue, angry Lakemba residents protested the raids. “It’s all about fear,” said one comment piece on the plot, a perhaps surprising observation in relation to something called “terrorism”.

Examined a little more closely, the details became more problematic. Despite talk of a “cell”, a total of two people were charged, including one for firearms offences, which for such a vast operation seems disproportionately small — surely more charges will be laid? The Queensland raids led to further charges against two men already in custody, not new arrests. The “beheading” turned out to be assumed by the media, rather than asserted by the police. Some outlets didn’t even bother using “alleged” in relation to the charges. Cory Bernardi spoilt things by linking the raids to his frankly depraved obsession with how Muslim women dress (although, not to be outdone, Jacqui “voice of the people” Lambie backed him). The wall-to-wall media coverage was in peculiar contrast to a possible plot by a white man to engage in a far bigger terror attack a month ago. And murdering a single individual or perhaps a small number of people was a far cry from the “existential threat” that Attorney-General George Brandis warned of earlier this week.

It hasn’t been revealed what prompted Tuesday’s call between Mohammad Baryalei and the alleged plotter Omarjan Azari, in which police claim murder was discussed. Possibly it was in direct reaction to the government’s commitment of forces to attack IS. Possibly it was, as the politicians claim, merely because IS is filled with loathing for everything in the West, and would have occurred regardless of what the government had done in relation to Iraq.

Whatever the timing and specific causation, there’s still a bizarre reticence on the part of politicians to own the consequences of their actions — both the Howard government and the Blair government reacted angrily to officials asserting there was a connection between the increased danger to their own citizens and their decision to join the 2003 Iraq War. The Abbott government, too, is resisting the demonstrated fact that attacking Islamic countries makes us less safe from terrorism by Islamic extremists. A more honest and transparent approach would be to treat the electorate as vaguely mature and admit that engaging in these wars does indeed place us all at greater risk, but that they can deal with it through domestic anti-terrorism measures.

For some reason, such honesty doesn’t appeal to politicians.

“If there’s a point other than simply perpetuating the War on Terror being pursued here, it’s unclear what it is.”

Instead, what we’re getting from politicians is a relentless circular logic. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison — playing the role of security tough guy that neither Attorney-General George Brandis nor the Defence Minister, the unfortunate David Johnston, can manage — seamlessly linked the anti-terror raids and our renewed involvement in Iraq as dealing with threat “at home” and “abroad”. The increased terror threat thus becomes a justification for our return to Iraq, even though that increased terror threat is a result of the government’s return to Iraq.

Meantime, the United States airstrikes against Islamic State are making it stronger — at least, according to the FBI, whose director James Comey gave evidence to Congress yesterday that “ISIL’s widespread use of social media and growing online support intensified following the commencement of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq”. This is exactly the reason why it has tried so hard to goad the West into attacking it. Indeed, there is widespread scepticism about the chances of IS being destroyed by airstrikes and client forces alone — one congressman claims the CIA believes the strategy is “doomed to failure“, a view that probably doesn’t require massive analytical skills to arrive at. According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Iraqi Army will need to be “partially rebuilt” with US training and equipment, and then only half of it will be in any shape to successfully battle IS.

That is, the Americans occupied Iraq for eleven years, put in their own mini-dictator in Nouri al-Maliki, spent hundreds of billions equipping and training the Iraqi army, and none of that stopped IS from running rampant, so one more air campaign and some more guns and training for the locals isn’t going to cut it. Who’d have thought it.

The discussion thus naturally turns to what ground forces will be needed to fulfil the objective of “destroying” IS, despite the resistance to “boots on the ground” (apart from hundreds of special forces troops and military advisers, who don’t count). President Barack Obama shut down his Joint Chiefs of Staff this week after the chairman Martin Dempsey said he had already urged the president to introduce ground forces and would keep doing so. Helpfully, Julie Bishop overnight declared she wanted nearby Arab countries to contribute ground forces. “The Arab nations have sophisticated weaponry, they have defence forces and they are more at risk given the proximity of ISIL than Australia,” she opined.

Given the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are flat out shutting down funding for IS, ground forces might be a bit of stretch, though Saudi Arabia’s ground forces are of course battle-hardened against Bahrain democracy protesters.

The result is a weird policy space in which we’re pretending that the strategy embarked upon by the US and Australia and, so far, no one else, isn’t “doomed to failure” as intelligence agencies say it is, while we’re publicly canvassing options for what to do when it fails. And now we’re experiencing the consequences of intervening in Iraq again: a greater terrorist threat on our own streets. If there’s a point other than simply perpetuating the War on Terror being pursued here, it’s unclear what it is.

But either way, yesterday’s raids should be good news for the government, which has struggled to reap any sort of electoral windfall from its concentration on national security in recent weeks. It will surely now receive a terror-inspired poll boost in the wake of the raids. If that doesn’t help, nothing will.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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