Spies in the eyes of others
Saturday, 17 November 2007


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 raised.


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 recounted.


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 says.


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 his studies.


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 discovered?


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 maximum pressure.


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 immensely.


"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 that."


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 assist]."


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 radicalisation."

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 first step.


Tom Allard, Sydney

Sydney Morning Herald , 17 November 2007