Criticism Mounts, But Australia Defends Anti-Terror Operations

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Australian Prime Minister John Howard Friday shrugged off an outcry - including diplomatic complaints - about raids on homes of Muslims suspected of supporting terrorists. He said he fully supports the security agency leading the operation.

Raids by Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) agents and federal police would continue, Howard said, dismissing complaints of "heavy-handed" tactics.

More than a dozen homes in three of Australia's four largest cities have been raided this week. In some cases, agents have confiscated documents, computer records and other items.

The properties targeted in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth are the homes of Indonesian citizens living in Australia, or Australians of Indonesian extraction.

They have denied any links to Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the newly-outlawed terrorist group active in southeast Asia, although some have confirmed they attended sermons delivered by Indonesian cleric and suspected JI leader Abu Bakar Bashir, when he visited Australia during the 1990s.

Australian Muslim organizations and civil liberties campaigners complained about the behavior of the police, who according to witnesses were armed with machine pistols and shotguns and dressed in balaclavas and flak jackets.

In some cases, they used sledgehammers and splintered doors.

At least two of the families raided said they were seeking legal advice on whether they could sue the government.

The government of neighboring Indonesia also objected, saying it should have been notified beforehand about plans to act against its citizens living in Australia.

At least six Indonesian men have been detained by immigration officials on suspicion of visa-related offenses, although the authorities said that was an unrelated matter.

Howard told an Australian radio station Friday the law enforcement agencies had acted in accordance with Australian and international law, and had his full backing.

"There were reasons for those raids, and I defend 100 percent what ASIO has done," he said. "I find it amazing that people could seriously question the national need for this to happen."

Howard said Australia had done "what any country in our situation would have to do."

About half of the more than 180 people killed in a terrorist bombing in Bali earlier this month were Australian citizens.

Ongoing joint Indonesia-Australia investigations into the bombing have yet to establish the perpetrators, but JI has been named a likely suspect. The group, which is allegedly linked to al-Qaeda, has been implicated in previous bombing plots and attacks in the region.

Canberra last week applied for the U.N. to add JI to a terrorism sanction list, and then activated security legislation outlawing it at home.

ASIO has not commented on what prompted the raids, but challenged the notion that it suspected people simply because they had heard a radical speak.

"Self-evidently, we could not legally conduct an entry-and-search on the basis that someone had attended a lecture by a cleric who was visiting the country. That is simply a matter of law," said ASIO security head Dennis Richardson, making a rare public appearance at a conference in Canberra on homeland security.

While the government takes flak, it has won support from the official opposition Labor Party.

Bob Carr, the Labor premier of New South Wales - Australia's most populous state, with Sydney as its capital - said the probe into the possible presence of terrorist cells must continue.

"We've got to be serious about facing an altogether different threat and it's a threat that must take account of the possibility sleeper cells having been set up in Australia - even a decade ago - ready to be activated when required," he said.

Attorney-General Daryl Williams confirmed that Bashir had visited Australia at least 11 times, accompanied by Abdullah Sungkar, the man the State Department named last week as the founder of JI, and who died in 1999.

"The assessment is that they came here to establish a JI presence in Australia," Williams told a radio station in Western Australia, without elaborating.

Strained relations

After months of pressure from other Southeast Asian countries as well as the U.S. and Australia, Indonesia passed anti-terror regulations shortly after the Bali bombing and took Bashir, who runs a religious boarding school in Java, into police custody in connection with earlier bombings.

But Jakarta said this week's raids in Australia, which have received considerable media coverage in Indonesia, could undercut its attempts to crack down on extremists at home.

Vice President Hamzah Haz suggested the raids could also strain bilateral relations.

"We hope the Australian government can create a better relationship with Indonesia," he said, adding that the police tactics "could pollute the relationship between the countries because it concerns our citizens."

Haz, the head of the country's largest Muslim party, has been criticized for his associations with militants.

He paid a controversial solidarity visit to Bashir earlier this year, although in recent weeks he has said that anyone involved in terrorism should be punished.

Investigations into the Bali bombing are bearing fruit, meanwhile, with Indonesian police saying they believe they now have the identity of one of three suspects, believed to be a bomb expert.

They have not named the person, who was evidently recognized after police released sketches of three men seen by witnesses at the scene of the bombing.

"We vow to hunt him down," police chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar told lawmakers.

Richardson of ASIO said there was no doubt Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda was involved in some way in the attack.

He told the Canberra conference there would "certainly" be more terrorist attacks.

"We should be in no doubt whatsoever, that should bin Laden and al Qaeda ever get their hands on WMD [weapons of mass destruction], they will seek to use them to a devastating effect," he added.

"That is not an alarmist comment, it is a measured assessment."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow