Australia, the earth’s largest island continent, has had those customary fears associated with the nation still believing in notions of virgo intacta. Immigrations regulations are strict; intruders by leaky boats and unreliable rafts are treated with suspicion. Terrorist attacks are few and far between in a country that urbanized so rapidly it stifled the urge to revolt. Apart from the Hilton bombings in 1978, Australia has proven fairly immune from the phenomenon of political terrorism.
In the previous years, that sense of security has been disturbed. A plot to blow up spectators at sporting events in Australia was foiled and seven men imprisoned after final hearings were held last year. The case was, however, marred by inconsistencies and a questionable performance by the prosecution. The desperation at getting a conviction was palpable.
A few weeks ago, Australians were treated to boasts of Terror Foiled. It was claimed that suicide bombers associated with the Somali group Al-Shabaab had not succeeded in consummating their plans to storm the Holsworthy Army Barracks, a base in Sydney’s southwest, with the intent of killing numerous soldiers with assault weapons. With a certain condescending note, Time wrote about how, on August 4, Australians ‘quickly began to learn the pronunciation of the Somali terrorist group’s name.’ Four hundred police in a joint federal and state operation had moved across Melbourne, raiding nineteen properties. Four men were arrested that day, followed by another four the next. The men are of Lebanese and Somali background.
An unhealthy, psychic state has been unearthed in these revelations: a desire, almost a wish, that Australian sites would prove worthy as genuine terrorist targets. There is a hierarchy in the west on the worthy and unworthy in the terrorist game. A condition of terror envy has taken root. ‘There is,’ a grave Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd argued, ‘an enduring threat of terrorism at home here in Australia as well as overseas.’ For the ill-directed and confused figures beavering away at Canberra’s Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Australia remained, to quote one of its supposed experts Carl Ungerer, ‘a gold medal target for Al Qaeda’ begging the question as to when it attained that prestigious award.
In short, the terror ‘threat’ is everywhere, the unseen creature that strikes the unsuspecting. While it would demand a minimal economy of effort to strike at Holsworthy base, exaggeration is very much the norm in the lingua franca of anti-terrorism. A Somali-based terrorist organization intent on imposing Shari’a rule in Somalia proper does not look like a particularly strong, yet alone credible enemy for a country on the other side of the earth. Throw in an Al Qaeda link though, and you seem to rise in the ladder of terror envy.
Even Somali voices have weighed into the debate. A Somali leader, the Islamic scholar Dr. Herse Hilole, claims he made murmurings about the likelihood of an attack a few years ago. ‘My suspicion was that young Somali Muslims could be or may be used in the future to carry [out] some terrorist activities in Australia’ (ABC News, Aug 4). The Eritrean chairman of the Melbourne-based African Think Tank, Berhan Ahmed, has been toying with the idea Australia’s failed assimilation program would pose threats to its local security. 16,000 Somalis have found refuge in Australia, fleeing the ravages of civil war. But teething problems with integration remain. Housing complexes and tenements have become breeding grounds for disaffection. Un-employment is chronic. The options are stark: the embrace of charismatic religious figures or ruinous drugs.
We are left with the recurring hypothetical event, an occurrence unrealised, all the more potent for that fact. In the ‘age of terror’, the hypothetical terrorist event has become the premier showcase, the determining issue on policy. ‘Potentially this would have been, if it had been able to be carried out, the most serious terrorist attack on Australian soil,’ claims Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Tony Negus. An entire anti-terror system is based on invoking terror, measured by ‘states’ of emergency, alarm and concern. An entire apparatus in coping with terrorists employs methods of fear and surveillancewhile offering the disclaimer: we are doing it to protect you while watching you.
Links and evidence remain sketchy in these revelations. What was in the news as carnival fanfare has now died down, leaving the shadowy business to interrogators and trial lawyers. In a society that is currently functioning on the idea of a permanent war in times of permanent peace, we are left less clear than ever what role the Somali organization truly has in Australia. It is not a situation the authorities are necessarily keen to dispel. Public confusion, not to mention ignorance, persists in remaining the handiest of state assets.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org