Decisions have consequences, even if decision makers sometimes go into denial. In the weekend edition of the Herald, Debra Jopson provided case studies of the 21 men who have been convicted of terrorism-related charges following Operation Pendennis in Sydney and Melbourne and Operation Neath in Melbourne. A large number are of Lebanese Muslim descent.
In his address to the Sydney Institute on January 24, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, David Irvine, pointed out that ”of the 38 people prosecuted for terrorism-related offences in Australia, 37 were Australian citizens and 34 were either born here or lived here since childhood”. Clearly home-grown terrorism is a threat in Australia.
The breakdown of the jihadist-related terrorism prosecutions is revealing. In a paper titled Explaining Australia-Lebanon Jihadist Connections, Monash University academic Andrew Zammit broke down the statistics as at September last year. He pointed out that 20 out of 33 men prosecuted ”have been of Lebanese descent”. Moreover, ”while Lebanese-Australian Muslims make up 60 per cent of those charged over alleged jihadist activity, they constitute only 20 per cent of all Australian Muslims”.
It is reasonable to assume that most of these Lebanese-Australian Muslims came to Australia as a consequence of what was called the Lebanon concession, when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister of the Coalition government in 1976, or of the family reunion scheme afterwards. There had been a long tradition of migration to Australia by Maronite (that is, Christian) Lebanese and they settled successfully. There was also a small number of Muslim Lebanese who were accepted under the migration intake and did well.
The Lebanese Civil War took place from 1975. At the time, some Maronite Lebanese Australians approached Fraser with a view to Australia accepting some of their fellow Lebanese who were caught up in the conflict. Fraser agreed and introduced what was called the Lebanon concession. It was a concession because the Fraser government agreed to accept individuals, under Australian refugee and humanitarian intake, who were not strictly refugees.
As the cabinet papers for 1976 reveal, this was bad policy and appallingly implemented. It turned out that the Maronites did not want to come to Australia. But poor and poorly-educated Muslims were attracted by the proposal. Contrary to the plan, few – if any – had connections in Australia. As I documented in my pamphlet Islam in Australia (Policy Exchange, 2007), the policy got completely out of hand. The Lebanon concession was jettisoned in November 1976.
A majority of the Lebanese Muslims who arrived in 1976 and after settled in Sydney’s south-western suburbs. They arrived when the Australian economy was in relatively poor shape. Many were ill-equipped for employment in Australia at a time when the manufacturing industry was in decline. Some never obtained meaningful employment and became reliant, with their families, on welfare.
Fraser’s political memoirs, which were published in 2010 and written with journalist Margaret Simons, are replete with errors and omissions. The Lebanon concession is barely mentioned. In 2006, I asked Fraser about the policy. He replied that he had no memory of it but volunteered this was something he could have set in action.
Some Muslim Lebanese-Australians have done well. Many have not. Too many are involved, with others, in criminal gangs in Sydney’s south-west. A few have been convicted of conspiracy to commit quite horrendous terrorist acts.
In late 2005, John Howard introduced new counterterrorism legislation, which was supported by Kim Beazley’s Labor opposition. This legislation was criticised by some members of the civil liberties lobby. In 2006, Fraser linked the legislation to Hitler’s Nazi regime. Chris Maxwell, when president of Liberty Victoria in 2001, described the earlier Howard counterterrorism legislation as ”redolent of Stalinist Russia”.
In the real world, the legislation that came into effect after al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US has not endangered civil liberties in Australia. In their 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community report, which was released late last month, Robert Cornall and Rufus Black concluded that ASIO, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the like have performed well in recent years.
In particular, Cornall and Black reported that they ”did not hear any substantial criticism of the balance in our anti-terrorism laws”.
Maxwell is now president of the Victorian Court of Appeal. In October 2010, he dismissed the appeals by seven men (including their leader, Abdul Nacer Benbrika), against their convictions for membership of a terrorist organisation. The evidence indicates that most judges, even those with a civil libertarian background, have been convinced by the sheer weight of evidence in the cases that followed Operation Pendennis and Operation Neath.
It is easy for leftists to sneer at ASIO, especially its role during the Cold War. Yet, despite some mistakes, ASIO performed well. In his book The Family File, Mark Aarons wrote that ASIO’s assessment of his Communist Party family was ”basically accurate”. Sheila Fitzpatrick reached a similar conclusion concerning her civil libertarian father, Brian, in My Father’s Daughter.
It is now widely recognised that the Soviet Union was involved in espionage in Australia during the Cold War. ASIO was right about that. It makes sense to accept that ASIO and police have identified a small number of Australians who are intent on violent jihad and respond appropriately – and honestly.
Correction: This article originally said Andrew Zammit’s paper recorded 33 men who had been convicted of terrorism offences. Some were acquitted, and his figures applied only to jihadist-related terrorism.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.