The Conversation is fact-checking claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.
I know that since 1976, there have been 70,000 asylum seekers settled in Australia who arrived by boat. Not one of them has been found to have a link to terrorism. – Tasneem Chopra, cross cultural consultant, speaking on Q&A, November 23, 2015.
Since the recent Paris terrorism attacks, Chopra and others have argued that Australians have nothing to fear from refugees arriving by boat.
But others have linked national security concerns to refugees.
Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi recently told the ABC that:
In our previous refugee intake, we’ve had examples where people who’ve been accepted as refugees have gone on to commit terrorist acts or plan terror attacks in this country.
So are Chopra and Bernardi right in making those two claims?
The answer is not entirely black and white, partly because of a lack of publicly available information. But based on my knowledge of this area, research and contacting senior police investigators, this is the best evidence available.
The first thing to remember is that the majority of asylum seekers arriving in Australia do so by plane.
It’s also true that of the handful of former refugees who went on to involve themselves in terrorist activities, most grew up in and were radicalised in Australia. Most arrived as children. They did not step off planes or boats in Australia as fully formed terrorists who somehow evaded security checks and slipped into Australia.
When asked for a source for her assertion, Chopra sent a comment from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre that said:
The statistic is based on the past 15 years of work in that sector where not one asylum seeker who arrived by boat has been charged with domestic terrorism. Man Haron Monis, the perpetrator of the Lindt Cafe seige, arrived by plane. And regarding the numbers of boat arrivals, this was drawn from stats with this parliamentary library link, indicating around 69,000 since 1976.
I know this is not a very satisfying answer, but we can’t say with absolute certainty that no refugees who arrived by boat have been linked to terrorism. That’s because the police who have investigated the handful of terrorist plots in Australia that have been perpetrated by former asylum seekers didn’t always collect information on their mode of arrival.
It’s also true there’s no obvious, compelling evidence proving Chopra is wrong. As an expert advising the Australian government and courts on terrorism and counter-terrorism, I am not aware of any perpetrators or plotters who arrived in Australia by boat.
Some people who have arrived by boat may have gone on to break Australian laws or commit crimes, but that is obviously not the same as saying they are terrorists.
It is true the man behind the 2014 Lindt cafe seige, Man Haron Monis, was a refugee who arrived in Australia from Iran. However, he did not arrive by boat – he came on a plane, just like most refugees. In fact, he arrived on a business visa.
Whether or not the Lindt Cafe seige qualifies as a terrorist act is also contested. Some experts say it was; others contend that while Monis latched onto Islamic State as his cause, there’s no compelling evidence to indicate that Monis had any confirmed links with them.
Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, the IS-inspired 15-year-old who shot police officer Curtis Cheng outside the NSW Police Parramatta headquarters in October, was of Iraqi-Kurdish background. His family moved to Australia. No reliable evidence has emerged so far to suggest he arrived in Australia by boat.
A spokesperson for Senator Bernardi also referred The Conversation to a plot to attack the Holdsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney.
One of the plotters in that case, Saney Edow Aweys, arrived in Australia as a 15-year-old refugee, but we don’t know for sure if he came by boat or plane. The judgement in that case doesn’t say.
Senator Bernardi’s spokesperson sent another news article on Mohammad Ali Baryalei, accused of conspiring to behead an Australian in a random attack.
Baryalei’s aristocratic Afghan family came to Australia as refugees when he was a child, the ABC has reported.
Again, it’s not clear whether Baryalei arrived in Australia by boat or plane. There’s no compelling evidence suggesting it was one or the other. We do know he was a child when he arrived.
So Bernardi is also correct to say that, in general terms, there are a handful of documented cases of refugees who have settled in Australia being linked to terrorism. These refugees did not arrive as fully formed terrorists who slipped through security measures.
Let’s look at the two claims separately.
We can’t say with absolute certainty that Tasneem Chopra is correct to say that no refugees who arrived by boat have been linked to terrorism. However, there’s no obvious compelling evidence showing she is wrong.
With the current intake of the 12,000 Syrian refugees, there are tight selection processes and comprehensive screening procedures conducted before refugees enter Australia that dramatically reduce any chances of terrorists (or criminals) slipping into Australia.
Bernardi is correct. There have been a handful of asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by plane who we know have been eventually linked to terrorism.
It’s also worth noting what Chopra’s co-panellist, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said on Q&A the same evening:
… when you have a massive exodus of refugees, there may very well be a couple of insurgents that infiltrate but it’s neither here nor there. Both the terrorist attacks and the refugee influx are symptoms of the same problem but one doesn’t cause the other.
– Clarke Jones
This is a sound analysis. There is an unfortunate trend in the debates about national security and border security towards both hyperbole and generalisation. This article is careful to avoid these. It examines the publicly available material and ultimately concludes that it is impossible to say whether or not any Australian terrorists arrived in this country by boat. While this lack of certainty may be frustrating for some readers, there are two important points to be taken from this article.
The first is that extremely few – if indeed any – of the people who have arrived in Australia by boat have later had any involvement with terrorism.
Secondly, this article highlights the irrelevance (including to the police) of how terrorism suspects arrived in Australia. In my experience – both in co-authoring a book, Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials, and also appearing as junior defence counsel for Saney Aweys (linked to the Holdsworthy Army barracks plot) in his trial before the Victorian Supreme Court – whether a person arrives in Australia by boat or plane has no bearing on their likelihood of later being involved in terrorism. To the best of my knowledge, the mode of arrival was not even something that we discussed with Aweys during our pre-trial interviews.
The only thing that I would add to this article about Aweys’ background is that he spent many years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before coming to Australia and being granted a humanitarian visa.
This – in combination with the fact that his arrival coincided with the Australian government’s decision to accept a significant number of refugees from Somalia and that I have no recollection of him spending any time in immigration detention – would suggest that he did not arrive here by boat. This could be confirmed by speaking to Aweys but that is of course easier said than done, given his current detention in a maximum security gaol. – Nicola McGarrity
Terrorism’s goal is principally psychological. So, in the wake of events like those in Paris, a good starting point is to refuse to take the bait and become victims to fear.
Such a mindset must break away from simplistic notions such as that another round of “tougher” laws will equate to greater security. The production of muscular, hard-line campaigns camouflage that there is no clear-cut legislative “fix” against terrorism.
Thinking we can destroy Islamic State (IS) via the pressure of the perennial growth of a security state and an intensification of domestic surveillance, secrecy, interrogation and detention displays the machinations of a dog that is content to repetitively chase its own tail.
Terrorist groups aim to incite both terror and power-projection. Such deadly tactics also hope to spark an over-reaction that will feed into their propaganda, divide societies, empower recruitment efforts and result in a mis-allocation of energies and resources by targeted governments.
Reports suggest that a Syrian passport found next to a suicide bomber in the Paris terror attacks might have been planted in an attempt to implicate refugees and make people feel unsafe. This points to terrorist movements being highly attuned to the kinds of enduring faultlines embedded throughout different societies and the utility of terror as a deliberate tactic to manipulate such uncertainties and produce disproportionate reactions.
We should also remain aware that a considerable majority of Muslims – in countries such as Jordan and Indonesia – unequivocally reject IS and its perverted Wahhabi theology.
The human rejoinder to the Paris attacks is understandable. We feel shock, sadness, anger. The urge to inflict payback. The desire to drop a bomb on something.
This genuine outburst exists alongside the political necessity for leaders to appear strong, decisive and stoic. However, defiant words do not automatically translate to careful, shrewd actions.
The projection of “do something” mandates has tended to lend itself to executive over-reach and a search for quick-fix solutions, like calls for tougher laws to give governments even greater arbitrary powers. This is despite many initiatives having a track record since September 11 of being completely ineffective and counter-productive.
The Australian prime minster, Malcolm Turnbull, has in his public comments thus far resisted the lure of warrantless speculation and a fixation on a hasty redesign of legal and democratic boundaries.
The rise of widespread public confusion is another of the Paris attacks’ clear side-effects.
Such instances of shared disorientation have been compounded by a media cycle that too often demands facts be made scary and instantaneous assessments of events take place before information and conditions have been pieced together.
It’s much less dull to hype the terrorist threat and boldly speculate about worst-case clichés such as looming “Australian deaths on our own soil” or indulge in xenophobic fantasies like “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. These shrill appeals to casual bigotry are not only wrong-headed but unhelpful in that they serve to undermine both stability and security.
From a counter-terrorism perspective, gathering actionable intelligence will entail – in part – building trust and working with the general public and different communities to obtain information to disrupt future criminal plots and violent planning.
The dynamics of a prolonged proactive security approach also require additional measures, such as steady efforts to address disenfranchisement among troubled youth.
More broadly, inaccurate declarations of a “clash of civilisations” provide no public value – except to implore citizens who are already feeling shaken and powerless to remain alert and alarmed. Much of the gloomy crystal ball gazing is useless in guiding people’s movements and adding to informed decision-making.
The bigger picture is that terrorism remains a weapon of the weak.
This does not ignore that the world has always been a dangerous, unstable and violent place. Nationalist and sectarian groups – and not just those that are hijacking and defaming Islam – continue to engage in politically motivated violence all over the world. Troublingly, many other traditional state-based or state-driven threats remain a much more serious security headache.
But, we appear to be highly selective about when to collectively tune in or tune out to human suffering and respond to events like humanitarian tragedies abroad.
Soundbites – Paris has been a “wake-up call”, for example – are simply crude political opportunism that helps to spread irrational fear. Instead, the problem is actually the opposite.
Much of IS’s warfare template is linked to deception. People in Australia should not be implored to remain in a perennial state of distress and vigilance.
The security sector does not have such a luxury. But, for the most part, we are talking about highly trained and skilled professionals who work largely behind the scenes and in a methodical and calculated manner. It is also impossible to guard every single conceivable soft target. It will always be about risk mitigation rather than risk elimination.
In a similar light, an unannounced attack by a handful of marginalised individuals on civilian targets is not the work of super-villain “masterminds”. While the suicide bombers might have been motivated by factors such as revenge, desperation, defiance or perceived injustice, they are small-fry, disposable cannon fodder.
IS is a group of nihilistic and misogynist gangsters. They have grand revolutionary goals, such as a caliphate that will reach Rome and govern the entire Muslim world. But such desires are based on pretentious make-believe rather than reality. IS military gains in Iraq might be conspicuous, but they are narrow and limited.
Critically, IS and other self-appointed foot soldiers do wish to undermine social cohesion and unity of purpose in lands beyond Iraq and Syria. They anticipate that terror attacks abroad can help to create the conditions to advance the alienation of particular segments of society, creating anger and disillusionment that might serve to enhance their authority, legitimacy and influence.
The hope is that this might translate to galvanising popular support, generating financial support and attracting recruits for future suicide missions.
The bottom line is that terrorism is designed to turbo-charge our emotional buttons. It is not only about violence but the threat of future violence. It can be highly effective as intimidation and propaganda. But we are only compounding problems by hyping threats, searching for extraneous scapegoats and indulging in fear-based decision-making.
The terrorist attacks in Paris have resonated around the world. In addition to physical violence, Islamic State (IS) is pursuing a strategy of socially mediated terrorism. The symbolic responses of its opponents can be predicted and may inadvertently further its aims.
In the emotion of the moment, we need to act. We need to be cautious, however, of symbolic reactions that divide Muslims and non-Muslims. We need emblems that act against the xenophobia that is a recruiting tool for jihadists.
Reactions from the West should not erode the Muslim leadership that is essential to overturning “Islamic State”. Queen Rania of Jordan points out:
What the extremists want is to divide our world along fault lines of religion and culture, and so a lot of people in the West may have stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims. But really this fight is a fight between the civilised world and a bunch of crazy people who want to take us back to medieval times. Once we see it that way, we realise that this is about all of us coming together to defend our way of life.
Queen Rania’s statement characterises the Paris attacks as part of a wider conflict around cultural values. How are these values playing out symbolically across the globe?
IS’s socially mediated propaganda is sophisticated and planned. This supports an argument that the Paris attacks are the beginning of a global campaign. Symbolic materials characterise IS as invincible. However, other evidence may indicate that it is weak.
The spontaneous celebration on Twitter by IS supporters was predictable. Its representational coverage of the Paris attacks, however, suggests deep planning.
This planning is embedded in professionally designed images. A reworked image depicts the Eiffel Tower as a triumphal arch with the IS flag flying victoriously on top.
The tower is illuminated and points to the heavens and a God-given victory. The inclusion of a road running through the Eiffel Tower provides a sense of speed, change, even progress. In Arabic, the text states, “We are coming, France” and “The state of Khilafa”.
IS is using symbolic representations of the Paris attacks to garner new recruits.
A sophisticated pre-prepared image of an intrepid fighter walking away from a Paris engulfed in flames was quickly distributed. It is inscribed with the word “France under fire” in Arabic and French.
The five million young Muslims in France are particular targets. Among online recruitment materials are videos calling them to join other young French nationals who are with IS.
Support for the victims in Paris and for the democratic values of liberty, equality and fraternity are embedded in the blue, white and red lights movement. These lights shone in major cities in the US, Britain, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Taiwan and South America. The blue, white and red lights also were displayed in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Malaysia.
However, the light displays were seen in few countries with Muslim majorities overall. Such countries are in an invidious position. Display the lights and you may be characterized as a lackey of the West. Don’t display the lights and appear unsympathetic to the victims.
Support also is embedded in a parallel Facebook function that allows members to activate a tri-colour filter. Adapted from a rainbow filter used to support same-sex marriage, this filter attracts those with liberal sentiments.
The question of whether to use the French flag to show sympathy for the victims is invidious at a personal level. Many people find themselves exploited and condemned to poverty by neoliberal economic models. They are put in a difficult position. They feel sympathy for the victims. However, they are bitter about how they are being treated by “the West”, including France.
As the blue, white and red activism plays out around the globe, there is a potential for this to transform into a symbolic manifestation of an “us and them” mentality. Such a division would support xenophobic forces, which steer recruits towards IS.
The global impact of the attacks can be related to the iconic status of Paris. The attacks hold a personal dimension for millions of people who have visited this city. They have a sense of “there but for the grace of God, go I”. This emotion echoes responses to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.
The Japanese and Italian cafes included in the attacks are symbolic targets for their countries. In March 2015, IS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnan stated that the group would attack “Paris, before Rome”. Rome is a target because of its symbolic role as the centre of Christianity. Japan is a target because of its role in coalition forces. It has already suffered the execution of Japanese hostages early in 2015.
In Japan, the cultural reaction has been relatively low key, as part of a strategy of minimising terrorist attention. The blue, white and red lights solidarity received minimal press coverage. There have been few reports of the Japanese restaurant that was one of the targets. In addition to factual coverage of the attacks, Japanese reports have concentrated on implications for security at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Are there any symbols indicating good news? The Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers could be a sign of weakness. It could have been “planted” there – why carry a passport on a suicide mission?
If so, its purpose is to increase European xenophobia and encourage the closing of borders to Syrian refugees. This suggests the mass exodus of Muslim refugees from Syria is hurting IS. The propaganda could be a sign of alarm in IS leadership ranks.
In our responses to the Paris attacks, the grief of the West should not be allowed to overshadow the opprobrium of Muslim countries. Muslims are best placed to challenge the Islamic identity of this self-declared state.
As Queen Rania states, the war against IS must be led by Muslims and Arabs. To ensure success, the international community needs to support, not lead, Muslim efforts.
A store belonging to the Primark clothing chain just outside Paris is reportedly being held up by two or three gunmen with hostages inside.
Local police said there are around 10 hostages inside the store near the French capital, Agence France-Presse reports.
According to the BBC, the gunmen were attempting to rob the store. Special forces are reportedly at the scene.