IT is obvious that John Howard, facing federal election this year, has not completely ruled out Australia as the possible next target of al-Qaeda terrorists in the wake of the Madrid train bomb blasts two weeks ago.
Although the Prime Minister is not fully convinced that the Madrid mayhem has raised terrorism to a new level coinciding with national elections, he has nevertheless ordered an urgent review of Australia’s transport security systems.
All states and federal transport and security agencies will examine the current security arrangements, despite the terrorist alert level in Australia remaining at medium.
Australia’s security and intelligence agencies are constantly monitoring the global situation. Their capacity to counter terrorism will be boosted by an extra A$400mil that Howard announced last week, even before the May Budget is delivered in Federal Parliament, to raise the total security expenditure to A$3bil.
This is certainly imperative in view of the “holy war” warning against the United States, Australia and Britain by Jemaah Islamiah (al-Qaeda’s affiliated group) spiritual leader Abubakar Ba’asyir in a secretly recorded interview from his prison cell in Jakarta last week.
Abubakar, 65, who will be released from jail next month after Indonesia’s highest court recently reduced his sentence for fraud by half, says the people of Spain are right to believe that the Madrid bombings is the result of their government’s support for the US in the Iraq war.
Whatever Howard’s views on the apparent new focus of al-Qaeda, the fact is there is an eerie feeling among the general community that Australia could be in real danger of the Madrid-type bombings, which killed 202 commuters and injured more than 1,400 others.
Many people here have not really forgotten how 88 Australians died in the Oct 12, 2002, Bali bombings that took the lives of, coincidentally, 202 people – mostly innocent young tourists.
If the videotape in English language claiming al-Qaeda responsibility for the Spanish train bombings is verified as authentic, then the fear of possible bombings when Australians go to the polls around November is justified.
Not surprisingly, this viewpoint is supported by FBI’s senior anti-terrorism agent John Pistole, who spoke at a counter-terrorism conference in Sydney on Tuesday.
“I hate to give credit to whatever terrorist group for influencing an election, but if that was the intended outcome then it raises the stakes in terms of vulnerability and potentials we must deal with,” he laments.
More pointedly is former Australian Office of National Assessments analyst David Wright, now a lecturer at Monash University, who says that the terrorists would be motivated to attack during elections as a result of the poll outcome in Spain.
Elections have now become the soft targets for the terrorists because of crowds gathering at campaign rallies, movements of politicians to their constituencies, train commuters, sporting events and even people in shopping malls.
Clearly, the intention of al-Qaeda is to get rid of any government that backs the US-led war in Iraq. So Australia and Britain, which have been in the forefront of the “coalition of the willing”, are obviously in the terrorist sights.
At the same time, EU believes that the whole of Europe could be at risk and has called on all its member-states to review their security arrangements. Concerns have also been expressed about the safety of athletes at the Athens Olympics to be held later this year.
Certainly, it is impossible to check every passenger who goes up on a train or bus. Nor could every bag a person carries be X-rayed.
The authorities could only have surveillance cameras at strategic points and watch the screens closely for people behaving suspiciously.
Even then, it is not easy to stop a terrorist strapped with bombs around his body to trigger an explosion suddenly.
This is the new fear – a fear of the uncertainty, the unknown lurking among the crowds prepared to sacrifice his life for martyrdom. It is a kind of nightmare, not only for people in Australia, but in many parts of the world.
Yet people must move freely. They must be able to catch a train or bus to work and return home in the evening. They must go to the shops to buy food and other daily necessities. Otherwise the whole nation would come to a standstill and the economy would collapse.
Worst still, if any government succumbs to the intimidation, the terrorists would have won a psychological war against democracy and liberty, and the people’s right to live peacefully.
But the fear is quite real in Australia as evident in a radio talkback programme when Howard was asked whether he would change the foreign policy in view of the bombings in Spain.
He replies emphatically: “The idea that terrorists could intimidate a democratic country into changing its policy, which seems to be implicit in some of the criticisms that have been made of the government ... I think the reality is that a lot of people in the community, including in the political sphere, remain bitterly opposed to what my government did in relation to Iraq.
“Every opportunity they get to have a go, they do. I understand that, but life moves on.”
Could there be a voter backlash against the Howard government for its involvement in Iraq, just as the Spanish conservative government did and was voted out of office?
Howard points out: “We are a target because of who we are rather than what we have done and where we’ve been involved. If you change your foreign policy because you’re frightened of what a terrorist might do, you really have thrown away control over your own destiny.
“I don’t think we’re as big a target as some other countries because we don’t have terrorist cells operating in Australia. There was an al-Qaeda presence in Spain; there’s no al-Qaeda presence in Australia.
“But I have to say that we are a potential target. I cannot guarantee there won’t be an attack on Australia and we have to do everything we can to try and make this country as safe as possible.”
Undoubtedly, the terrorist attack in Madrid has highlighted the worldwide threat of terrorism.
Howard agrees that the world is no safer place after the removal of Saddam Hussein. But he argues that as a result of Saddam’s downfall, the action of the US and its allies may have influenced Libya’s abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction.
“The people of Iraq, sad though their circumstances are now, are still better off,” he says.
“The mass graves that were uncovered after Saddam’s downfall are testament to that. So I don’t regret for a moment the action we took (to enter the Iraq war).”
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