Ten Australians were killed on 11 September 2001 when two hijacked Boeing 767 aircraft were flown into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan and a third plane, a Boeing 757, crashed into the western side of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda group he led took sole responsibility for the attacks immediately thereafter.
Since then, Australia has maintained a continuous military presence in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, countries that soon became the scapegoats for attacks claimed by bin Laden’s affiliation of non-state actors. Of the 19 hijackers who died alongside their victims on 9/11, none were Afghan or Iraqi.
For the first and only time in its 71-year history, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was invoked 24 hours after the towers fell. The article states that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members and gives support for allied members to assist the ally that was attacked. George W. Bush, the president of the United States at the time, quickly organised an unprecedented multinational military campaign, and on 7 October, less than one month after the hijackings, a US-led coalition entered Afghanistan and began its ‘stalibilisation’ bombings.
Though Australia is not a member of NATO, another military alliance named ANZUS commits Australia and New Zealand to a solidarity agreement with the United States in times of war. It is perhaps for this reason, as well as the close personal relationship between Bush and John Howard, that Australia came to deploy more than 33,000 soldiers to help with the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Australian contribution is known as Operation Slipper and Operation Highroad. In an interview to mark a decade since the Twin Towers attacks, Howard said he had no regrets about joining the war in Afghanistan. ‘I just knew instinctively that if an international effort were needed, Australia should and would be part of it and would be a very early and willing part of it,’ he said.
What followed is now popularly known as the War on Terror, wherein much of the world suddenly reckoned with the threat of a new and uniquely Muslim bogeyman. The political rhetoric of the time cast the perpetrators as barbarians opposed to a civilised way of life, and commonly employed the language of evil to shore up public support for the costly, lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful campaign. In his Christmas address to the armed forces, then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called terrorism a ‘shadowy evil’, and his almost religious appeal to support the war presumed the position of good.
The Department of Homeland Security was established in America to defend its borders, and, closer to home, Australia also reorganised its national priorities and federal budget to prepare for what was seen as the inevitability of a terrorist attack. Unlike the United States, however, the Australian Constitution does not include a statute of inalienable human rights, so the expansion of the government’s legal reach under the nebulous directive of counter-terrorism had no framework to mitigate its engorgement.
The Anti-Terrorism Act 2004, the first of such laws, was a set of three bills introduced by then attorney-general Philip Ruddock and implemented by the Howard Coalition government with support of the Labor opposition. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had their powers significantly broadened and the amount of time a terrorist suspect could be detained without charge was doubled from 12 hours to 24. The Law Council of Australia decried the new laws on the grounds that they had ‘the potential to operate harshly and will unfairly target members of minority groups, especially those of the Islamic faith’.
A year later, despite no threat against Australia, the federal government once more took precautionary action and passed another sweeping expansion of the powers given to security operations and surveillance known as the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005. This law gave ASIO the power to interrogate a detainee without evidence of criminal involvement while also criminalising disclosure of the identity of a person who had been interrogated. Control orders in the legislation significantly increased the restrictions that could be placed upon individuals, including freedom of movement, freedom of association, demands to present to any place at any date and time, tracking devices and encouragement to submit to re-education. A controversial ‘shoot-to-kill’ clause instructed police to treat people wanted under detention orders in the same way they would a wanted suspect. In effect, this meant that police could use lethal force if they perceived a terrorism-related threat to life. The suggestion here is that innocence is not the assumption.
Two decades have now passed since the events of 9/11. In that time, the Conversation reports, the Australian Parliament has passed 82 counter-terrorism laws, and between 2001 and Howard’s defeat in 2007, a new anti-terror law was enacted once every 6.7 weeks. The Islamic State (IS) declaring itself a caliphate in 2014 drove Australia’s terrorism alert to new heights and instigated a further swarm of anti-terror legislation. The most notable instance of this was the National Security Legislation Amendment Act (No 1) 2014, which exempted undercover ASIO officers from criminal prosecution, expanded their access to computer networks and restricted the leaking of sensitive information.
University of Toronto professor Kent Roach described Australia’s response as ‘hyper-legislation’ because the staggering number of anti-terror bills enacted by the Australian Parliament pales in comparison to Canada, Britain and even the United States. The total sum of these bills is staggering, but the severity of them, as well as their infringement on individual freedoms, is further cause for concern. For instance, it is now an offence for an Australian to enter, or remain in, a part of a country the Australian government has deemed criminal, such as Mosul in Iraq. This, in addition to laws granting the responsible minister the power to strip Australian citizenship from dual passport-holders due to terrorist affiliation, makes Australia’s punitive powers towards terrorism among the harshest in the world.
To an outsider this flurry of legislation gives the impression that the Australian government and its intelligence apparatus take a zero-tolerance and preventive approach to terrorism. Yet, as many scholars have noted, the ambiguity of what can be classified as terrorism grants governments the discretionary power to define who or what can be considered terror. The ASIO website, drawn from its legislative classification, defines terror as ‘politically motivated violence’ and goes on to assert that ‘The primary terrorist threat in Australia today comes from a small number of Australia-based individuals who are committed to a violent anti-Western, Sunni Islamist extremist ideology.’ Here it is inferred that any threat to Australia is an external one posed by Muslims. The growing trend of domestic terrorism and internal combatants, by this logic, comes from naturalised foreigners and not our own true-blue Aussies.
Yet a cursory look at the uniquely Australian right-wing extremism taking root in public life and the war crimes outlined in shocking detail by the Brereton Report tells a different story. Both examples, the first of home-grown white supremacists terrorising immigrants with xenophobic aggression, and the second of Australian Defence Force (ADF) soldiers allegedly slaughtering Afghans in cold blood, incite terror among plenty of innocent civilians. The identities of the perpetrators and victims make these actions unlikely to be considered terrorism or charged under the bloated punitive powers of Australian counter-terrorism.
Among the deluge of Australian neo-Nazi white supremacist groups founded and popularised in the past two decades, several are notable for having sustained momentum and membership. Founded in 2009, the Australian Defence League (ADL) gained widespread notoriety for stalking and photographing Muslim women on public transport, verbally abusing Muslims, displaying anti-Islamic posters outside mosques and threatening to blow up an Islamic school. The ADL were a core component of the coalition of white supremacist groups formed to stop the construction of a mosque and Muslim cultural centre in Bendigo in 2014. Two of the leaders of this movement, Blair Cottrell and Neil Erikson, filmed a video featuring them beheading a dummy in protest against the mosque, for which a magistrate found them guilty of inciting contempt for Muslims. They were fined $2000.
It wasn’t until 2019 that counterterrorism legislation was applied to the threat of right-wing extremism, after Phillip Galea was found to have ordered ingredients for explosives and premeditated the bombing of leftist organisations in Melbourne, including Trades Hall, the Melbourne Anarchist Club and the Resistance Centre. His attacks were motivated by Islamaphobic sentiment and many of his attitudes were fomented in the online forums facilitated by the United Patriots Front (UPF) and the True Blue Crew (TBC). In her ruling, Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth attributed Galea’s ideological posture to ‘fanciful and immature rubbish’ fuelled by alcohol during late-night ramblings. It is intellectually lazy to dismiss the motivations of Galea’s terrorism in this way and doing so skirts over the deadly xenophobia and Islamaphobia that license it in Australian culture.
As crucial architects of the UPF and the TBC, two of the most prominent white supremacist groups, Cottrell and Erikson helped organise an unruly anti-immigration rally on St Kilda beach in 2019, where attendees brawled with counter-protestors. Police said they had received intelligence on the ideologically incisive nature of the rally, and yet firsthand reports of the day suggest that police largely aided the rally attendees and supported their right to terrorise local community members. Later that year, Cottrell received ample praise from the white Australian Christchurch shooter, who livestreamed his Islamophobic killing spree that murdered 51 people and injured 40 others.
There are direct causal links between extremist discourse among far-right groups and terrorist acts, despite what the legal ramifications for their instigators, or lack thereof, might suggest. It is in the meeting rooms, rallies and chat forums of these groups that animosity towards Muslims and other immigrant communities is stoked. It is then reinforced by the purity fantasies of Pauline Hanson and Fraser Anning, with the result that many white Australians see the mere presence of Muslims in Australia as a threat to their way of life, due to successful efforts throughout the War on Terror to paint Islam as inherently barbaric and accommodating of terrorism. It is not enough that, accounting for its GDP and population, Australia ranks among the lowest in the world for its annual refugee intake. There are still a significant number of Australians who turn to armed militias to resolve their anxieties about the diversifying population of their country.
For more than four years, Major General Justice Paul Brereton investigated credible allegations that a group in the elite Special Air Services and commando regiments killed and brutalised Afghan civilians, in some cases slitting throats, gloating about their actions, keeping kill counts, executing prisoners to ‘blood’ junior soldiers and photographing dead bodies with planted phones and weapons to justify their actions. In November 2020, Brereton’s damning report emerged, though many of its details remained classified. What has been released to the public indicts Australian soldiers for the bloodthirsty slaughter of 39 innocent Afghan men and children in 23 separate incidents. None of the killings took place in the heat of battle, and none of the victims were combatants.
Patricia Grossman, senior researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, observed that the perpetrators of the war crimes cannot be dismissed as outliers because the severity of the report points to a deeper cultural problem among the ADF: ‘It was part of a sick culture that essentially treated Afghans living in these contested areas as if they were all dangerous criminals—even the children—or even as not human.’ Indeed, there is no humane explanation for the brutal murder of two 14-year-old boys on the vague suspicion that they might have been Taliban insurgents. The ‘bad apples’ train of thought cannot justify why a civilian was killed for lack of room on a helicopter or why another Afghan with his hands up was shot twice in the chest and then again once more in the head until he died. Earlier leaks revealed a widespread sense of entitlement, arrogance and elitism among ADF soldiers, and it is this conviction of moral and racial superiority that motivates the ruthless massacre of Afghans, and which appears commonly in minor forms throughout Australian cultural and public life.
The Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell initially promised to accept all 143 recommendations of the Brereton Report and demonstrated remorse for his part in the massive leadership oversight that permitted the war crimes to take place under his watch for more than a decade. Days after Campbell’s comment, however, Prime Minister Scott Morrison steamrolled his own general’s promise and moved to block one of the report’s recommendations: that the Meritorious Unit Citation be stripped from the Special Operations Task Group responsible for the most egregious murders. In Morrison’s view, the actions of a few do not stain the outstanding service of those who knew of the atrocities yet stayed quiet.
It is no coincidence that the innocent victims of the ADF’s culture of impunity and blood lust were Afghan, since Afghanistan is a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim majority population. Australia has been primed for the terrorist threat of Islam to invade its shores and bomb its citizenry since 9/11, and, in lieu of the threat ever truly materialising, these ADF soldiers adopted a preventative stance to counter-terrorism that made evident the latent attitudes that see Muslims and terrorists as inseparable. Not only were the slain Afghan civilians easy targets for the soldiers, but the victims’ features and faith corresponded with the media images of evil and anxiety popular in dispatches from the War on Terror.
The war crimes detailed by the Brereton Report are endemic to a growing culture of white supremacy in Australia that has also clearly taken root in the ADF. It is telling that the defence chief was more willing to admit the structural responsibility of the war crimes than the Prime Minister himself, for whom any true reckoning would invariably include many in his own party and political base. Days into his role as acting prime minister, Nationals leader Michael McCormack linked the 2020 racial justice protests in America instigated by the police shooting of unarmed Black man George Floyd to the 2021 siege on the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, by a white supremacist mob. McCormack later defended his comments with the ‘All Lives Matter’ refrain popularised by its repudiation of the original viral hashtag, Black Lives Matter. The comments of the acting Prime Minister and the war crimes detailed by the Brereton Report represent the realised outcome of racist and Islamaphobic sentiments that have been accelerating largely unchecked on Australian shores. None of these elements are unrelated.
What is crystal clear is that denial and defensiveness are no way to account for Australia’s troubling history of white supremacy, nor does it endow the communities most harmed by this history with the respect and accountability they deserve. There are approximately 50,000 Afghans in Australia, and the number of Muslims is significantly higher, although, much like my own parents, many would hesitate to disclose their faith on a census form for fear of further surveillance and discipline. There is little mention of the dizzying uptick in hate crimes towards Muslims in Australia since 9/11, much of which goes unreported. On the contrary, the ongoing and nebulous nature of the War on Terror and counter-terrorism as a racially charged punitive apparatus of the government fuel an ‘us versus them’ narrative that always places the foreigner as the enemy, while failing to investigate the dire threats from true-blue Aussies. •
Born to Afghan refugees, Bobuq Sayed is a writer, editor, artist, agitator and aspiring novelist. They tweet @bobuqsayed.