SYDNEY — In dawn raids across Australia, gun-toting security police bashed down doors, questioned Indonesian residents, then carted off private papers to check for suspected terrorist activities. Surely this is Hollywood? No, it’s “she’ll be right, mate” Australia.
Forget that smug self-image of laid-back, sun-worshipping Australians. Goodbye to the “come and go as you please” lifestyle. Get ready to be checked before entering crowded places, to be wary where you walk. Alas, the days of innocence at home have gone.
The recent terrorist bombing of a Bali, Indonesia, nightclub did it. The recent sudden death of nearly 100 young Australians — the charred body parts are still being sifted for the final count — ended our delusion that our rights to freedom at home somehow protected us abroad. Suddenly we are watching our back. Now we are searching for terrorists in our midst.
The search started with armed Australian Security Intelligence Organization operatives bashing into the homes of Indonesians living in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to collect evidence of suspected terrorist cells funded by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda international network. Evidence so far reveals we have every right to start facing reality by joining other democracies in active countermeasures.
Yet so foreign to the Australian psyche is the CIA-style of antiterrorism that the first reaction to the dawn raids was — at least, after shocked disbelief — that foreign-born nationals and visitors ought not be treated to armed theatrics. Enter the lawyers. Suddenly lawsuits are being slammed on tables, claiming property damage and psychological harm to our “guests.”
As the horror stories told by young holidaymakers limping home from Bali recede from media reports, the new headlines tell of Canberra reassuring Jakarta that we’re simply being sensible with terrorism suspects. Bizarre as it seems, we seem about to apologize for jumping on known followers in Australia of Indonesia’s most militant Islamic group.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is now soothing Jakarta sensibilities. His Indonesian counterpart understands, he tells everyone, why Canberra is investigating people who may have links with the Java-based Jemaah Islamiyah, newly placed on the United Nations list of terrorist organizations. “After all, these people could be more of a threat to Indonesia,” he soothed.
Downer blamed near-hysterical Indonesian media reports of the Australian raids for stirring Jakarta officialdom. “You’d think these people had been beaten and denied civil liberties,” he said of the JI suspects. “None of that is true.”
Prime Minister John Howard got close to the public mood when he warned that Australia could be a target of weapons of mass destruction. “If terrorists got their hands on these weapons, they would have no scruples about using them,” he said. “This country is at risk. It could happen here.”
Meanwhile, the first of extraordinary precautions are being slipped into place. Even rubbish bins have been removed from Sydney’s subway stations. New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, ordering an upgrade of antiterrorism safeguards, issued a grim warning that Australia must prepare against terrorist attacks and implement precautions that could cause long lines and higher prices at public events.
“We must realize a terrorist hit could come our way,” said Carr. “It’s not a matter of if but when.”
Security consultant Myles Newlove put it stronger. The carefree days are over, he warned: “Tickets to football matches and rock concerts will rise because service providers can’t absorb the cost of extra security.”
Punish football and rock concerts and you’re asking for trouble in this neck of the woods. Local Muslims, sensing the newly soured mood, are preparing to calm tempers. The burning of a mosque in Brisbane, as happened after the 9/11 outrages in U.S., may be slight compared with what could happen if local crazies are further provoked.
Until now silent, leaders of the country’s 300,000-strong Muslim community are preparing to publicly condemn terrorist attacks by religious extremists. This first united appeal will warn extremists they are wrong to think they are acting in the name of the broader Muslim community.
“Whatever they do, it is not in our name,” claimed Yasser Soliman, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria. “We can never condone it.” Security police visited at least five of Victoria’s 90,000 Muslims. Unlike in other states, they did not use submachineguns or sledge hammers but merely knocked on front doors.
But the Federation of Islamic Councils is annoyed and warns the raids were an invasion of privacy. “It is counterproductive,” a council spokesman said. “You are putting a lot of people offside with these gung-ho tactics.”
The you-and-us dichotomy worries many Australians. The Muslim community is a mystery to most Australians. They were content to leave it that way until Muslim extremist attacks in South East Asia started getting too close to home. Fresh evidence shows Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Bashir and his associate Abdullah Sungkar crept into Australia several times in the 1990s. They used false passports, probably issued by Malaysia, where they were then living.
Canberra is working closely with Washington antiterrorism planners to trace the money trail between al-Qaeda and cells believed to be seeking to set up a supranational Islamic state in Southeast Asia that would encompass Papua New Guinea and northern Australia.
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