Op-Ed: Maps, Snaps, Taps and SIM cards: Tools of an accidental terrorist by Agnes Chong Print E-mail
Sunday, 16 December 2007


When the Chaser team arranged for an American tourist to take snaps of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, no security guard came to question what he was doing even after fifteen minutes. When Chas Licciardello himself dressed up in a bad Arab costume, stuck on a big bushy beard, and walked onto the bridge with a camera, he was stopped within three minutes. He hadn't even got to the same spot where the American tourist had loitered. When the same experiment was repeated at Lucas Heights, the American tourist took plenty of pictures and was pointed out where to get security clearance to visit the facility. When the Arab Chas approached the facility, a security vehicle screeched right up to him within three minutes, and he was told that no photographs were to be taken in the vicinity at all.

This is comedy of course, but comedy is truly great when it rings of truth. When people are encouraged to be alert to their surroundings, it is not difficult to imagine which acts or which people will appear most suspect. While we may laugh at Chas Licciardello being questioned by security, there are some for whom this is an everyday reality. Some Muslims feel that the post-September 11 environment places extra pressure on them to behave very well in public, and become unnaturally conscious of performing commonplace activities such as disposing of garbage or taking photographs.

What has contributed to this heightened state of alert that makes the general community suspicious of Muslims, causing some Australian Muslims to feel less welcome than a busload of tourists? Yes, there is that constant concern about the unrelenting negative media coverage of arrests, raids and searches related to terrorism and the often unsubstantiated link that is made to Islam and/or Muslims. There is also the distinctly unhelpful commentary as well as verbal stoushes between politicians and their desire to appear to have a tough stance on terrorism, sometimes at the expense of reason and logic. The most recent example is the Queensland Senate candidate James Baker calling for "all radical Muslims" to be incarcerated in the event of a terrorist attack in Australia.

However, the most significant contributing factor is the anti-terrorism laws that have been introduced since September 11. These laws have been described as being too broad, as the definitions in the laws are vague and all-encompassing. Certainly the nature of prevention requires that some activities leading up to a terrorist act should be examined and scrutinised. However, the laws that have been introduced appear to cover a broad range of activities and situations, some of which are far removed from any actual terrorist act.

For example, not only is it an offence to commit a terrorist act, it is also an offence to recklessly provide resources for a terrorist act; not only is it an offence to be a director of a terrorist organisation, it is also an offence to meet or communicate with that director of a terrorist organisation on two occasions intending to provide support. It is an offence to train, to finance, or even to possess anything connected to the preparation or planning of a terrorist act. To avoid committing a terrorism offence, the mere act of making a charitable donation requires a careful examination of who you are donating to, what that money will be used for, or where that money may end up. And as we have seen in the recent Haneef case, it appears that even giving away your phone card to a relative because you don't want to waste the credit on it could mean that you are detained for questioning for more than 12 days, charged with recklessly providing support to a terrorist organisation, and then having your visa revoked because the Minister deems that you are associated with alleged criminals.

While every murder, armed robbery and kidnapping is investigated with the noble aim of bringing every culprit to justice, it is impossible to check and monitor every charitable donation and every SIM card. Such broad offences necessitate some discretion as to how these laws are applied. Law-enforcement agencies have to be selective in who they target or monitor. Recent laws have given police the power to intercept certain communications without a warrant. Phone lines of non-suspects may be monitored. Video surveillance on everyday activities is permissible without warrant. Police now even have the power to enter your premises (trespassing through your neighbour's property if necessary), search it, photocopy documents and so forth without your knowledge.

In addition, because the definition of "terrorist act" requires an examination of the person's motives on political, religious or ideological grounds, it also requires law enforcement agencies to judge which ideologies are acceptable. This means certain groups will be of particular interest to intelligence gathering communities and law enforcement agencies. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of banned organisations are self-identified as Muslim organisations. Neither should it be surprising that the consequent use of police and ASIO powers would be concentrated on the section of the population that identifies as Muslims.

However, the problem is that a real terrorist is more likely to dress in plain clothes than in Arab garb. The misdirection of attention could lead to oversight that could potentially be devastating. At the same time, the perception in the Muslim community that they are being targeted, scrutinised and marginalised by the government's response to terrorism is counter-productive. This is all the more so at a time when Australia's Muslims already feel alienated, marginalised and targeted – there have been six years of relentless bad press, with or even without the attacks on September 11; they have had to respond to Muslim gang rapes, Muslim "queue-jumping" asylum seekers, the Cronulla riots, speaking English, integration, citizenship, Aussie values, and all the appropriate and inappropriate comments from their community leaders, representatives and non-representatives. They have had to defend, explain, excuse, distance, condemn, and at times, it seems, even to justify their existence.

Justified or not, many in the community have developed a siege mentality. Some adopt the mindset of victims, others show manifestations of fear, isolation, insecurity or even paranoia. Parents are careful to advise their children not to go to protests, certain classes or certain mosques. Worryingly, some members of the Muslim community feel as if they are being watched for their every move. Recent research from Edith Cowan University has found that since September 11, Australian Muslims are likely to be afraid of even "being in the city, in their neighbourhood, or in any public place". Almost half of the respondents to a small-scale survey conducted by the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network in 2005 felt they were monitored in some way by authorities – they believed that their mail was being opened, or that their phones were bugged.

The Edith Cowan University research also found that the community experiences "a fear of government" and "distrust of media" which lead to a closure of the community. It revealed that some Muslims were suspicious of connections between government and the media, and the fear led to loss of trust in their own society.

Each of these perceptions causes ripples of disempowerment which serve to undermine the spirit of cooperation that must exist between Muslims, the wider community and the authorities if terrorism is to be fought and eliminated. More dangerously, if it seems that maps, snaps, taps and SIM cards can constitute accidental terrorist behaviour, then it is not just the Muslim community that should be concerned about the effects of this, but the wider community also. In fact it may already be the case, if the heavy-handed approach to APEC security is anything to go by.

Agnes Chong is Co-Convenor of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network.

Chain Reaction Issue #101 - Special Features on Counter-Terrorism

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