SYDNEY — The prodigal son has returned from exile in Cuba. After five years of bitter controversy, David Hicks, Australia’s gift to world terrorism, is back in hometown Adelaide, South Australia, safely locked away but still dividing a nation’s conscience.

By next New Year’s Day he will be released from prison, free to tell the world how he became a trusted Islamic jihad fighter in Afghanistan, working with al-Qaida terrorists when the World Trade Center disaster on Sept. 11, 2001, convulsed and awoke Western democracies.

Prime Minister John Howard has assured a skeptical electorate that Hicks will not be allowed to profit from publishing his sordid story. But his father, Terry Hicks, who has morphed into a skilled media manipulator, is under no such legal constraints. And a sensation-catering media just cannot wait to pay millions for first broadcast rights.

The Hicks saga has done much to antagonize a minority of Australians against the United States and its justice system. His long incarceration without trial at the American maximum security prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at times strained otherwise strong diplomatic ties between Canberra and Washington. To many bewildered Australians, whipped up by homegrown bleeding hearts, it was almost as if U.S. President George W. Bush was evil personified.

Long delayed justice — before a U.S. military court accepted Hicks’ guilty plea — made the Howard government a whipping boy for every local malcontent with an ax to grind. They are still using the Hicks affair to suggest how hardhearted Canberra has become under a decade of conservative rule. Even the jail switch, following five years of diplomatic appeals from Canberra to Washington, is rebounding against Howard in this election year. And the latest poor ratings shown in public opinion polls are the last thing Howard needs if he is to continue his decade-long reign.

New, pushy Labor Leader Kevin Rudd is looking so strong in the polls it will take a minor miracle for the old Canberra regime to continue past November.

The latest twist in this sorry tale is not so much why we have got back our prodigal; it’s how. Because Washington would not allow a convicted terrorist to fly over its territory, Canberra had to hire a plane to fly Hicks home via Tahiti. The taxpayers’ bill for the chartered Gulfstream V jet, plus two prison officers, two federal policemen and a doctor: $500,000.

For a breathless media pack waiting at Adelaide airport, the arrival was an anticlimax. The nondescript little guy in orange prison garb was whisked off to his new cell. He apparently enjoyed the trip, though: Aboard the jet he watched a mobster flick, “The Departed,” and ate nonprison food. After six years of rough-house fare in Cuba, that trip must have felt close to freedom.

Although life in South Australia’s high-security Yatala prison, to serve out the final term of the U.S.-imposed sentence, will not exactly be heaven, the new routine may be regarded as a big step up from life among his former Muslim buddies in Guantanamo. Few details are known, but it is clear that his fellow Muslim prisoners made his life a misery.

Whether this convert remains a Muslim, let alone a repentant one, has yet to be revealed. No doubt father Terry will give his version to a panting media after his first visit. What Australia is much more interested in is whether David is ready to be a good citizen.

Past history suggests little likelihood. Born in 1975, David grew up in a dysfunctional family, led an aimless life, formed a doomed liaison, then ran off to seek armed adventure in the Middle East among Taliban fighters.

Leigh Sales, a tireless Hicks watcher and Washington correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, describes him as a confused, rejected, insecure, poorly educated and socially disruptive young man who, after his parents’ divorce and the failure of his own relationship, sought life beyond his then job as a chicken boner.

Glorying in life as a Taliban trainee, Hicks wrote home about “the Western-Jewish domination of the world,” celebrated Islamist beheadings, and declared he enjoyed shooting at people from the Pakistani side of the Kashmir line of control.

His career is not unlike that of the American traitor, John Walker Lindh, now in a Colorado jail. Convicted on terrorism charges, Lindh, born in 1981, did not hit if off with the Australian when they met years ago in al-Qaida training camps. The upper middle-class Yank found the scruffy marksman from Adelaide “really boring.” Lindh probably hates Hicks more now that he knows the boring Aussie will soon be free while he will be behind bars for another 15 years.

The plea bargaining that got Hicks off lightly worries Australians almost as much as the knowledge that one of their own could be converted to Islamic terrorism. Letters to newspapers agonize over the current state of society.

Of course father Terry and the likes of Civil Liberties Australia president Kristine Klugman will try to ensure that we all blame ourselves for the likes of Hicks. And that is not what the Howard government wants us to focus our minds on right now.

Already Defense Minister Brendan Nelson is setting the electoral pace. Global terrorism shaped by Islamic extremism, he warns, has emerged as the 21st century’s totalitarianism.

Canberra has allocated more than $51 billion to update Australia’s military capability over the next 10 years. Regional strategic support will go to moderate Islamic leaders such as Malaysia’s Ahmad Badawi and Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The latest budget allocates $1 billion in aid to Indonesia.

Australia has more than 3,300 troops deployed overseas, and Nelson has not ruled out sending more if they’re needed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

As Nelson said in a recent speech, “We are dealing with people who are not just fanatically anti-American; they are fanatically opposed to countries like ours.”

Alan Goodall is former Tokyo bureau chief for The Australian.

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