The latest headache for NSW prison authorities is how to safely house the five terrorists convicted this month of plotting bomb attacks in Sydney. With sentences ranging up to 28 years, the challenge will be how to prevent these unrepentant Islamist extremists from radicalising other inmates in Goulburn’s supermax high security prison. This week the Premier, Kristina Keneally, told Parliament the men are still a danger, as presumably were their four co-accused who were sentenced earlier. She has reportedly ordered a “deradicalisation program”, although clearly the only surefire way is to keep them in isolation.
This reminder of the reality of home-grown terrorism came as the Prime Minister released the government’s counter-terrorism white paper this week. As the Herald’s Jonathan Pearlman reported, Rudd insisted on highlighting the threat from jihadist and home-grown terrorists in defiance of advice from departmental officials, who had deemed it inflammatory. The timing of the release of the white paper was questionable – in the middle of the insulation furore – but it is still a credit to Rudd that he did not follow advice to sugarcoat the truth about terrorist threats.
Among other things, the white paper states the scale of the threat of home-grown terrorism depends on “the size and make-up of local Muslim populations, including their ethnic and/or migrant origins, their geographical distribution and the success or otherwise of their integration into their host society”.
This is something that is rarely discussed. Debate over the make-up of immigration programs has been largely shut down and marginalised as a redneck racist pastime. But we have vivid evidence of the consequences of poorly managed immigration in the disproportionate number of problems that have emerged from some Lebanese families who arrived in 1977 and integrated poorly into south-west Sydney.
The prime minister of the time, Malcolm Fraser, has been out and about lately, accusing the modern Liberal Party of extreme conservative tendencies, while promoting his new book. But he has never adequately explained why he ignored warnings from his immigration department that relaxing normal eligibility standards to accept thousands of Lebanese Muslims escaping the civil war was problematic.
As cabinet documents from 1976 revealed, he was warned that too many of the new arrivals were unskilled, illiterate and “of questionable character”, and there was a danger “the conflicts, tensions and divisions within Lebanon will be transferred to Australia”. The consequences of poor integration today include social unrest, which culminated in the Cronulla riots and their violent aftermath.
And some of our worst home-grown terrorists have come from that community. They include M, the 44-year-old ringleader of the five men convicted of preparing a terrorist act this month, who cannot be named for legal reasons. He came to south-west Sydney with his family from Lebanon in 1977, along with 11 siblings.
NSW Supreme Court Justice Anthony Whealy said in sentencing M this month: “There is no present indication that [he] will ever renounce the extremist views. [He] has all the hallmarks of an offender whose motivation is not that of financial or other material gain but … from an extremist religious conviction.”
Also born in Lebanon was his co-conspirator, Mr K, 36, who migrated to Sydney in 1977 when he was three. Justice Whealy said K had “absolute contempt for the Australian government and its laws [and an] extremist conviction that sharia law should rule, even in this country.” Also convicted was his brother, L, 32, born here and likely to represent a danger to the community “even upon his release many years hence”.
The court heard the five men had bought laboratory equipment and chemicals that could be used to make bombs: vast quantities of battery acid, acetone, hydrogen peroxide,methylated spirits and sulphuric acid. They shopped at Bunnings for PVC pipe and silver tape.
Whealy said they had on a USB stick “step-by-step” instructions for manufacturing explosives; electronic copies of The Sniper Handbook; and DVDs “glorifying the 9/11 hijackers”. There were videos showing the execution of hostages or prisoners by the mujahideen which were “particularly brutal, distressing and graphic”.
Justice Whealy also refers to an instructional video found in all but one of the offender’s houses. On it, “a masked mujahideen speaks in English with a very obvious Australian accent and says: ‘You kill us, so you will be killed. You bomb us, so you will be bombed’. This is an overly simplistic but reasonably accurate summation of the mindset of each of the offenders in this trial.”
It’s hard to believe in hindsight, now the evidence has been laid out and the men found guilty, but in 2005, when counter-terrorism laws were being amended and the men arrested, there was strident criticism of police and the government. Instead we should have been thanking police and security agencies for protecting us from attack.
But as the white paper says, past successes “should not give us any false confidence that all plots here can be discovered and disrupted”. “Australia is a terrorist target,” it says. “Public statements by prominent terrorist leaders and other extremist propagandists have singled out Australia for criticism and encouraged attacks against us both before and after September 11, 2001. “There are Australians who are committed to supporting or engaging in violent jihad in Australia and elsewhere. Most of these were born in Australia or have lived here since childhood.”
The paper says one of our strengths is our “inclusive multicultural society” and we must all work together to “reject ideologies that promote violence” and work at “reducing disadvantage, addressing real or perceived grievances and encouraging full participation in Australia’s social and economic life”.
Home-grown terrorism is as much a threat to the vast majority of law-abiding Australian Muslims as anyone else. So efforts to suppress the facts are counterproductive and ultimately lead to distrust and disharmony.