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Australian officials were breathing a sigh of relief when ‘Cablegate’ disclosed little that might cast them in a poor light before their American puppeteers. (If, indeed, there was any light to begin with.) When it took place last year, there were the usual observations – Australia was, in fact, small and not quite as relevant as it might have thought, and with that were a sprinkling of views about political figures that would barely raise an eyebrow at a dinner party.
Now, WikiLeaks has disgorged another round of cables – coming to almost 134 thousand leaked cables. The recent releases show that Washington has its eye on its satellite’s security environment. Of particular interest is a cable from the US embassy in Canberra, noting that US intelligence organizations and the State Department have fingered 23 ‘terror’ suspects who are residing in Australia. Six of them are women, including four Australians, a Briton and a Filipina. ‘Recent threat information suggests [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP] is looking to identify a female for a future attack.’ Australia’s domestic intelligence outfit – ASIO – must have been thrilled in finding potential terrorists in their midst. Any intelligence organization which has its budget multiplied five-fold (this since September 11, 2001), needs to justify its existence and net a suitable quarry.
On glancing at the names of the favoured 23, we find that several are familiar. A favourite target of ASIO has been Rabiah Hutchinson, who has been titled the ‘matriarch’ of radical Islam in Australia. (That any form of radicalism could spring up in arid, revolutionary-barren Australia is impressive in itself.) Another is Shyloh Giddens, who was arrested in Yemen by secret police on suspicion of contacting associates of AQAP. Her ‘extremist interpretation of Islam and her activities in Yemen’ resulted in the cancellation of her passport (Sydney Morning Herald, Aug 31).
Allegations are being made that many on the list have been in contact with AQAP’s radical figure Anwar al Awlaqi. He, it seems, is the lynchpin in the speculation. Sheikh Abdel Zoud of Sydney’s Belmore Mosque found himself, much to his surprise, on the list. ‘I have no connection with this man.’ Nor had he ever been to Yemen. Then again, ASIO operatives might believe in the miracle of bi-location.
An entire security apparatus that monitors, bans and restricts individuals without charge has emerged post 9/11. Travel bans are placed on individuals without explanation. Suspicion is the only sufficient standard that matters. While the recipe is not as severe as that of Bagram airbase, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, where inmates were tortured and detained without charge, the spirit of keeping individuals on the ‘Visas Viper’ program is similar. It has been recommended by the US embassy in Canberra that eleven on the disclosed list of suspects be banned from flying in the US, and the other 12 placed on a ‘selectee’ watch list. Evidently, intelligence organizations seem to think that suspicion is tantamount to conviction.
Stephen Hopper, a lawyer who represents two of the women, calls it ‘a storm in a tea cup’, mere ‘poppycock’. ‘Everyone can get out from under the bed, there is no threat from these people.’ That he is trying to clear their names is futile at this point, given the simulated muteness on both sides of the Pacific. It is encouraging that, for all of this, Abdel Zoud is an idealist, one might even say romantic and well versed on the rule of law. ‘People are innocent until you prove it.’
Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com