Australian Terrorism Fears Materialize

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 4

The prediction concerning the potential targeting of Australia, made in the last edition of Terrorism Focus, duly came to pass. It came in the form of two incidents within a few days of each other, one an attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta, the other in the reputed abduction of Australian nationals working in Iraq.

On September 9 a car bomb exploded outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, resulting in the death of at least 9 Indonesians and the wounding of hundreds more. No Australians were killed in the attack. The bombing was claimed by the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Indonesian terror network linked to al-Qaeda. The bombings could conceivably have been timed to coincide with the September 20 Indonesian presidential elections or the impending prosecution of jailed cleric Abu Bakar Basyir, accused of heading the JI. However a statement posted on an Islamist site by the JI outlined its purpose, as it warned all Australians to leave Indonesia “or else, God willing, we will make it a graveyard for them” and demanded that the Australian government withdraw its troops from Iraq.

The statement by the Jemaah Islamiyah , issued a month before the Australian presidential elections of October 9, has a particular resonance for Australia since it is the same organization that carried out the October 2002 Bali bombings in which 88 Australians were among the 200 killed. Investigations are at present focusing on establishing the link between two major suspects to the destroyed car via its chassis number, a technique that led to successful prosecutions following the Bali bombing. The chief suspects are Azahari bin Husin, a British-trained engineer who taught bomb-making classes in Afghanistan and the Philippines, and Noordin Mohammed Top, an explosives expert. Both are Malaysians who, authorities say, are key members of JI. They are both still at large and Australians now fear an attack from a second active JI cell in the country.

Further pressure on the Australian elections was applied a few days later on September 13, with the announcement that two Australians had been taken hostage in Iraq by a group calling itself the Islamic Secret Army’s ‘Horror Brigades’. This name cropped up earlier in the month on notices plastered on walls in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, which announced the killing of ‘three Mossad agents’ and the abduction of a Turkish driver. According to a report by the AFP News agency, in statements circulated in the city of Samarra, the kidnappers have threatened to kill the hostages ‘without a second chance’ if Australian Prime Minister John Howard in person does not announce the withdrawal of the over 800 Australian troops remaining in Iraq. However, at the time of publication the Australian defense minister Robert Hill said that the government had accounted for all Australian citizens in the country. In addition, the fact that the kidnapped Australians were never named — the abductors merely referring to them as ‘security contractors’ — along with the passing of the 24-hour deadline in mid-week, means that strong doubts are cast on the Islamic Secret Army’s claims.

If Australians have indeed been taken hostage, the situation will have been complicated for them by Howard’s outspoken criticisms of Spain and the Philippines for having given in to terrorists’ demands, and by opposition leader Mark Latham’s closing of ranks with the Prime Minister in rejecting negotiations.

The Madrid bombings last March were seen by jihadists as a success, due to the subsequent withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. If a tie-in with an electoral process promises the potential of more direct, domestic political leverage, the next obvious candidate for the tactic might appear to be the U.S. presidential elections in November. As to whether this is attempted will depend on whether the kidnappers are more Iraqi ‘nationalist’ in orientation than ‘global Jihadist’. If the former, the lack of an opposition party’s explicit call for troop withdrawal removes much of the attraction. If the latter, a group that sees in President Bush an important focus for popular antagonism, a dramatic terror attack will serve their purpose well.