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Say that again: Iraq and the terrorist threat


On 1 September 2014, the Prime Minister delivered in parliament a Statement on Iraq in which he condemned the ongoing violence and outlined the next phase of the Government’s humanitarian intervention. However, in declaring that would-be terrorists ‘don’t hate us for what we do; but for who we are and for how we live’, Mr Abbott has revived a key element of the Howard Government refrain from over 10 years ago that Australia’s involvement in the US-led ‘War on Terror’ and the conflict in Iraq did not make Australia more of a terrorist target.

Mr Abbott also used his speech to remind the community of the threat posed by returning Australian ‘foreign fighters’ and the resulting need for increased counter-terrorism funding and updated legislation. While the Government is at pains to stress the humanitarian basis for Australia’s current involvement in Iraq, the Prime Minister seems to be trying to maintain the momentum on the need for national security reforms by emphasising that Australians are hated by those ‘who kill without compunction’ for letting people live ‘in whatever way they choose’, and not because of anything the Government is doing (or might do) in Iraq.

This echoes moves by Prime Minister Howard a decade ago to put some distance between Australia’s military involvement in Iraq in particular, and the terrorist attacks around the world at the time, particularly those in which Australians were killed or injured.

In November 2002, one month after the Bali bombings, Mr Howard said he believed such attacks occurred because ‘there are [sic] a group of Islamic fanatics who hate us for who we are, people of liberal democratic persuasion in the Western world … they hate us because we have an open society…’. Australia was, at that time, actively involved in the ‘War on Terror’ following the attacks of 11 September 2001, but it wasn’t until March 2003 that Australia deployed defence personnel to Iraq as part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’.

In June 2003, Mr Howard said, ‘we’re not a target because of what we did in Iraq, we were a target long before that … it’s very clear that this country, because of who we are, and not what we have done, we have been a target for some time’.

A few days after the train bombing in Madrid on 11 March 2004, the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, stated that ‘if this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it's more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies took on issues such as Iraq’. Commissioner Keelty was publicly rebuked by the Government for these comments, including by the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who said that Mr Keelty was ‘expressing a view which reflects a lot of the propaganda we're getting from al-Qaeda’. The then Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove (now the Governor-General), was reported at the time to have said, ‘I think we’re being attacked by al-Qaeda, [Jemaah Islamiah] and all other terrorists because of who we are and what we are, rather than where we’ve been or when we’ve been there’.

In the week after the Madrid bombing, Prime Minister Howard said, ‘now my view that is [sic] our involvement in Iraq did not make any material difference to the long term terrorist threat to this country. It’s there now and it would have been there irrespective of whether we were involved in Iraq or not … And my view is that we are a target because of who we are rather than what we have done…’

In May 2004, Mr Howard said in a speech on Iraq, ‘international terrorism is an enemy of Australia because of who we are, not what we have done’. In August 2004, the Prime Minister declared to parliament that ‘we are a target because of who we are and what we believe in, not for what we have done’.

Mr Abbott has so far ruled out deploying Australian troops ‘on the ground’ and as both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have pointed out, the situation in Iraq now is very different to Iraq in 2003. Former Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans agrees, stating that ‘the current Western military intervention in Iraq is not 2003 revisited’, but warns that ‘any Western military intervention with overtly political rather than simply humanitarian objectives runs the risk of inflaming sectarian Islamist sentiment’.

When asked if the Government’s current intervention in Iraq increases the terrorist threat to Australia, both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have deferred to intelligence advice, with Mr Abbott paraphrasing a recent public statement by the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation—‘there was, in his professional judgement, no specific correlation between what the Australian Government might do in the Middle East and domestic terrorist threats’. The Prime Minister then immediately added, ‘there is a certain type of terrorist organisation which hates us, not because of what we do but because of who we are and how we live’.