The bungled, sledgehammer handling of another case is a blow to
counter-terrorism efforts, writes Tom Allard.
When Izhar ul-Haque went back to Pakistan for his older
brother's wedding, he was a bitter young man.
It was early 2003 and the Bali bombers had wrought their carnage
only a few months earlier, creating deep suspicions in the
Australian community about those of Islamic faith.
It was a difficult time for all Muslims and ul-Haque's family
was under great strain. They had never really settled into Sydney's
western suburbs after migrating three years earlier and ul-Haque's
father could not find work. To compound matters, ul-Haque, a
brilliant student at North Sydney Boys High, had failed his
second-year medical exams.
"I'm fed up with Westerners," he wrote to his father. "Western
patients look at me as if I'm a frog. They don't wish to speak
English to me. How can I spend five to six years with them?"
At the suggestion of Faheem Khalid Lodhi, a firebrand Islamist
and architect he had met in Sydney's Pakistani community, ul-Haque
opted to go to Lashkar-e-Toiba's Aqsa camp, nestled in the
foothills of the Himalayas in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
The two men had again caught up in the Pakistani city of Lahore
at a Lashkar-e-Toiba office, where the idea of doing an
introductory course in the arts of warfare with the group dedicated
to ousting Indian forces from Indian-controlled Kashmir was
At this time, Lashkar-e-Toiba had thousands of offices and
hundreds of schools across Pakistan. It had yet to be proscribed as
a terrorist group, even as its followers espoused a violent agenda. "I was really naive and foolish. When
I left my house I was really emotional," ul-Haque later
However, the reality of a jihadist camp was a shock, harsh and
quite different from his idealistic notions of fine young men
following a pure path of Islam. "I didn't want to associate with
these people. I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could," he
He lasted less than three weeks. His father was appalled and had
followed him to the camp to beg him to desist. It was advice he
heeded and was soon on his way back to Australia, anxious to resume
There were nerve-racking moments. He was detained at Sydney
Airport, where his notebooks and material from the camps were
confiscated. Ul-Haque told the authorities about what he had done,
and his regrets. He heard nothing more for months and a chapter in
his life seemed closed.
It was, in fact, the start of a four-year odyssey through
Australia's counter-terrorism machinery, an experience that ended
this week in vindication for ul-Haque when the single terrorism
offence against him was dropped following revelations of kidnapping
and false imprisonment by ASIO and oppressive conduct from the
Australian Federal Police.
The saga was "reminiscent of Kafka" said the Supreme Court's
Justice Michael Adams. Moreover, the ul-Haque case has exposed the
highly questionable methods of spies and police and, most worrying
of all, dealt a body blow to counter-terrorism efforts more
generally. What member of the Muslim community - the front line in
efforts to identify dangerous extremists - would co-operate with
anti-terrorism authorities now?
The mad pursuit of Izhar ul-Haque is the more disturbing because
authorities never regarded him as a threat, just a potentially
valuable informant, someone who could wear a covert listening
device for them and report on the activities of Faheem Lodhi. By
late 2003, Lodhi - an associate of the French terrorist Willy
Brigitte who had embarrassingly slipped the net of ASIO - was
suspected of planning a domestic terrorist attack.
Dubbed Operation Newport, the joint ASIO-federal police
investigation prompted the authorities to revisit ul-Haque and
confront him at Bankstown railway station. He was taken to nearby
Francis Park for the first of three aggressive interrogations by
ASIO officers and was told if he didn't co-operate he was in
"serious trouble". It was an illegal intervention; ASIO had a
warrant only to search ul-Haque's home, not interview him.
Even still, ul-Haque believed he offered all the co-operation he
could. He detailed his limited contact with Lodhi and his time in
Pakistan. He told them he knew nothing of any terrorist plot. Even
when he flirted with radical Islam and Lashkar-e-Toiba, it had only
ever been about the Indian presence in Kashmir, he told police.
It was an explanation that ASIO and the federal police officers
accepted. In an ASIO memo presented to the Supreme Court as
evidence dated less than one week after his first interrogation,
ul-Haque was assessed as "no immediate danger, may be able to be
used as a source". Ul-Haque refused to wear a wire, not least
because the police were telling him that Lodhi was dangerous and
plotting a mass casualty attack. What would happen if he was
The police persisted for close to six months, calling him in for
further interviews, demanding he kept in regular contact, visiting
his home and approaching his brothers as they sought to apply the
As his objections hardened, the police went for the coup de
grace, charging him with the offence of training with a terrorist
group and throwing him into Goulburn's Supermax prison. Kept in
isolation, ul-Haque lost eight kilograms and received one final -
and illegal - visit from the federal police. Without telling his
lawyer or reading him his rights, they grilled him for another
2½ hours. Co-operate, they said, and it will help your case
"After being in prison, he was a different person," says Waleed
Kadous, a friend who knew ul-Haque from the Islamic centre of the
University of NSW and later emerged as a leading advocate for the
Muslim community grappling with the terrorism laws. "He was very
fearful any time someone knocked on the front door. He would move
to the back of the house. He just looked so pale. He always had
this self-confidence about him but it was like they had broken him.
He was weak, his handshake was limp. He never used to be like
If ul-Haque's experience was extreme, it was far from uncommon,
says Kadous. In seeking co-operation in counter-terrorism
investigations, the authorities seem to reflexively opt for the
sledgehammer approach. "They are always saying you can do this the
easy way or the hard way. They will threaten to take away your
passport. They will threaten to deport you or withdraw your visa if
you are an immigrant. If they are an Australian citizen living
abroad, they tell them they won't be able to return [unless they
There's another explanation for their behaviour - great pressure
from both politicians and the national security chiefs to pursue
prosecutions to justify the infringement on civil liberties and
enormous expense of Australia's counter-terrorism regime.
"At the time, we were directed, we were informed, to lay as many
charges under the new terrorist legislation against as many
suspects as possible," Kemeul Lam Paktsun, a senior AFP
counter-terrorism official explained to Justice Adams.
Indeed, even after Lodhi was tried and found guilty without any
involvement of ul-Haque last year, the authorities pursued its
spurious charge against a man who was no danger to society and
couldn't have been aware he was committing a crime when he went to
the Lashkar-e-Toiba training camp.
David Wright-Neville, from Monash University's Global Terrorism
Research Centre, says terrorism investigations are difficult for
those participating, not least because the public and media have a
tendency to blame the officials if anything goes wrong. "It leads
to high stress levels, reactive policing and highly intimidatory
forms of policing," he says. "In terms of our long-term security,
this is a highly dangerous form of behaviour."
As Wright-Neville says, building ties with the Islamic community
is the "the essence of effective counter-terrorism". "People will
only volunteer information when there are relationships of trust.
It takes a long time to build these relationships and it takes a
very short time to destroy them."
In the wake of the bungled handling of Mohamed Haneef and
ul-Haque, those levels of trust are at a nadir. "It's a disaster
and it's a double whammy," Kadous says. "People in the Muslim
community, including moderates, are much less inclined to
co-operate and come forward if they do know something because they
feel the authorities are going to come after them. And then those
who are more radical will use these cases to convince people that
the government and ASIO are anti-Muslim, so it fuels
As ul-Haque contemplates his future career as a doctor without
the shadow of a long prison term handing over him, the
recriminations have started in the national security community.
Three inquiries have been announced or flagged and senior officials
are comprehending the enormity of the damage done to their
reputations and the counter-terrorism causes. As one senior
official put it this week: "Basically we have to go back to the
Islamic community and start again from square one."
A frank and public admission of wrongdoing and an apology from
the ASIO director-general, Paul O'Sullivan, and the federal police
commissioner, Mick Keelty, to Izhar ul-Haque, would be a useful
Tom Allard, Sydney
Sydney Morning Herald , 17 November 2007