Terror then and now

On 15 and 16 October 2001, 131 packages were reported to the police on the suspicion that they contained anthrax. Between 11 September 2001 and February 2002, the authorities investigated more than a thousand such claims.

The now-forgotten anthrax panic makes an interesting contrast with the current reaction to ISIS-related terrorism, not least as an illustration of the extraordinary evolution in threat perception.

In the aftermath of September 11, ‘bioterrorism’ ranked as one of the top risks that all those newly minted ‘terror experts’ assured us we faced. The Australian and New Zealand newspaper databases for 2001 return a startling 1899 references to anthrax. Do the same search for 2014, and you uncover a mere 62 results, most of which pertain to cattle.

In all the coverage about the Islamic State, no-one – not even the most nervy of our national security bedwetters – has raised the prospect of anthrax poisoning.

Does that mean we’re less easily frightened, less prone to scare ourselves with improbable threats?

No, not quite. Rather, what leaps out from a comparison of the headlines thirteen years ago with those from today is that, right now, the media needs far, far less in order to whip up a panic.

In October 2001, the towers had just fallen. With thousands of New Yorkers spectacularly murdered, all manner of grand plots sounded at least vaguely plausible. When, for instance, the Daily Telegraph informed Sydneysiders that ‘intelligence sources’ understood Osama bin Laden to be building nuclear bombs, the idea did not necessarily seem entirely ridiculous.

Had not al-Qaeda just demonstrated its capacity to steer jet liners into New York skyscrapers? Why not believe that its chief would follow up with another act of almost cartoonish super-villainy – like, say, detonating a ‘dirty bomb’ (another once ubiquitous term that’s entirely vanished from the national security lexicon) in a western metropolis?

Now, think of today. The Australian senate has just passed draconian restrictions on journalistic freedom. Why? The current panic began, not after some spectacular mass casualty attack, but because a man was allegedly overheard talking about stabbing a stranger in the street.

Yes, that’s right. Not deploying a nuclear bomb, not engaging in bioterrorism, not hijacking planes but scheming – if you can even call it that – to randomly knife someone in Sydney’s CBD.

The tiny scale of that ‘plot’ was not at all anomalous, either. Here’s Abu Mohammed al Adnani from the Islamic State advising Western supporters:

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be.

Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.

Smash his head with a rock? Run him over with your car? Not exactly biowar, is it!

In fact, the speech amounts to an acknowledgement of incapacity: Adnani’s murderous bluster implicitly accepts that his listeners cannot access weapons or bombs (let alone anthrax), and so must rely on whatever tools they can scrabble together.

Yet, George Brandis says Australians face an existential threat, more of a security risk than during the Cold War. Think about that: he’s saying, with a straight face, that Adnani’s call to push people from tall buildings represents more of a danger than the ten thousand nuclear warheads that the Soviets once aimed at their Western enemies.

Others have spelled out this upsidedownland logic even more explicitly, arguing that the obvious diminution of the mooted terror plans actually represents an escalation. Thus Fairfax recently explained that schemes like the random stabbing supposedly planned for Sydney would, in fact, ‘be more powerful in terms of [their] psychological impacts than a mass casualty attack.’

Here’s a logic that’s moved from the realm of politics into the domain of magic, where anything even tangentially connected to terrorists or terrorism becomes imbued with a powerful demonic aura. Consider the Australian’s report on the teenager shot to death in Melbourne by anti-terror police.

So did Haider, who says he learned to ‘follow instructions with speed and accuracy’ as a supermarket shelf-packer in suburban Melbourne, go to his death on the instructions of Islamic State? The early evidence suggests he did …

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, terrorists were presented as dangerous because they were highly skilled specialists, who had honed their talents at elite training camps. Today, they obtain their fearful abilities from entirely mundane and everyday occupations such as supermarket shelf-packing.

This transformation in attitudes to terror parallels an equally peculiar transformation in attitudes to war.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 never drew much popular support. Protests against the conflict mobilised more people than any previous demonstrations in human history, as millions of ordinary folk assessed, perfectly correctly, that the war would bring nothing but more misery and chaos.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasts for Operation Iraqi Freedom could mount a more-or-less coherent argument about what was supposed to happen. The neoconservative intellectuals insisted that the overthrow of Saddam’s tyranny would be greeted with wild enthusiasm, before the success of a liberated Iraq set off a domino effect across the Middle East, in which the US would throw its military weight behind liberty lovers across the region.

By contrast, the return to Iraq – the mission against the Islamic State – remains staggeringly incoherent, with few commentators or politicians even pretending to know what it’s supposed to achieve.

For instance, Australia’s already been helping to supply weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga forces who, says Fairfax, are working hand-in-hand with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Why is that of note?

Because in 2010, the AFP conducted anti-terror raids targeting organisations (such as the Kurdish Association of Victoria) said to be providing support to the PKK, an organisation officially listed as a terrorist group in Australia. Under the terrorism legislation, it’s a serious offense to fund a terrorist group – an offence defined by the government as follows (PDF):

Financing terrorism involves the intentional collection or provision of funds (including on behalf of another person) and recklessness as to whether the funds will be used to facilitate or engage in a terrorist act.

It does not matter if a terrorist act does not occur, or if the funds will not be used for a specific terrorist act or for more than one terrorist act.

This is precisely what the Australian government’s doing in Iraq now. Fairfax writes:

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott first announced Australia’s renewed military involvement in Iraq, he was asked about concerns that arms delivered by the RAAF could fall into the hands of the PKK. His response: the Kurdish government had assured the US and others that the weapons will be used by the Peshmerga.

But in the chaos of war, no one is in a position to make those guarantees. […]

Najat Ali Salah, a Peshmerga commander stationed in Makhmur, speaks openly about the military cooperation between Kurdish forces and the PKK

How, then, is the government not in breach of its own anti-terror laws, laws deployed against Kurdish people in Australia only four years ago?

This is more than mere hypocrisy. It typifies the bizarre alliances that the new intervention rests upon, alliances that almost guarantee more wars down the track.

For example, the new support from Western governments will undoubtedly strengthen the positions of Kurdish forces. What happens, then, if, in the wake of this adventure, the Kurds declare an independent state, a goal that they’ve long been seeking? What does that mean for Iraq or for Turkey? Has anyone given the question a moment’s thought?

Likewise, Slate recently reported that Obama has been secretly coordinating US air strikes with both the Iranian dictatorship and the Syrian tyrant Assad, two regimes the magazine dubbed ‘America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS’. Yes, that’s right: this humanitarian mission involves a de facto alliance with Assad, the most vicious dictator in the region, and Iran, of Axis-of-Evil fame.

Meanwhile, within Iraq, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – whose militias are currently fighting the Islamic State – has been calling demonstrations against the deployment of American ground troops. At one of these recent protests, Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji publicly claimed that the US was behind the IS, while other demonstrators burned American flags.

But if Obama’s putative allies want the Americans to stay out, his enemies can’t wait for them to get in, with representatives of the Islamic State proclaiming that they crave a ground invasion.

‘Is this all you are capable of doing in this campaign of yours?’ said spokesman Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in response to recent air strikes. ‘Are America and all its allies… unable to come down to the ground?’

‘They are aching for a conflict with the West,’ Peter Neuman, from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told the BBC. ‘The execution videos [of Western hostages] were bait to provoke an over-reaction. As soon as there are Western boots on the ground it then becomes the old narrative of the West versus Islam and they can claim they are fighting the occupation. They are trying to suck us in.’

In conventional battle, the Americans will pulverise the Islamic State’s ragtag forces. But a military defeat short of complete annihilation will be an ideological victory for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, bolstering his claim to be leading the worldwide struggle against forces innately hostile to Muslims.

For the caliphate to possess any credibility it must be central to the Islamist struggle – and nothing demonstrates that more than a war with the US.

The Islamic State grew out of opposition to the corrupt Maliki government in Iraq and then from the revolution against the Assad dictatorship in Syria. In both cases, it attacked other oppositionists, seeking to transform struggles for freedom into sectarian wars. It wants to present a stark choice: either you’re for the oppressive status quo – or you’re with us.

The West seems determined to oblige, with an incoherent intervention depending on openly antagonistic forces, a mission that seems almost tailor-made to intensify the crisis in the region.

Whereas the 2003 intervention was a war of choice for the US, Obama’s return to Iraq has been largely forced upon him – either he destroys the Islamic State or else acknowledges America’s loss of control of Iraq. The war represents an attempt by Obama to reassert authority in the Middle East – and, by extension, to bolster his political fortunes at home.

That’s why there’s nothing approaching a coherent plan. America’s doing this simply because the White House can’t afford to do otherwise.

Likewise, Australia’s involvement is purely political. No doubt the Islamic State has a few supporters in this country. But, until recently, the group’s interests were exclusively regional. The name ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ is a clue: it’s an organisation preoccupied with the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Quite obviously, Abbott’s involvement in another Iraq war massively intensifies the prospect of terrorist outrages, and the unwillingness of the government to acknowledge something so obvious speaks volumes about the hypocrisy in which debates about terrorism are cloaked.

In a sense, then, these missions are self-perpetuating, in that they create the conditions that subsequently justify them. The risk of terrorism probably has climbed over the last weeks, something which is being used to bolster an intervention that will, without doubt, elevate the risk of terrorism further.

Within, of course, a certain context. This remains one of the safest countries in the entire world, a place where no Australians have been killed by terrorists since 1978 – something you’d never grasp from the reporting over the last weeks, despite the bipartisan support for legislation that will fundamentally change the political culture.

Throughout the entirety of the Cold War, ASIO directed its efforts both against foreign spies and against local activists – indeed, it regarded the two categories as synonymous. If you look at any of the histories of ASIO, or peruse the declassified files available at the National Archives, you’ll see that almost anyone active in, say, the struggle against apartheid, the campaign against the Vietnam War, the movement for women’s liberation or any other progressive cause of note became a target of surveillance.

For decades, ASIO ruined lives in Australia, ensuring that leftwingers were denied jobs or promotions, often without even knowing why. It took decades of campaigning to push the organisation back.

Now that’s all been undone.

The bipartisan support for the new ASIO powers represents the unity of a political class confidence that its own interests will be protected. But Paul Farell is right – under these new laws, journalists and activists will, eventually, be jailed.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. Really great read. But I now feel liking listening to Anthrax and Isis. All these subliminal messages in your writing to drive me towards the Devil’s music, Jeff! Where will it end!

  2. A couple of alarm bells resonated for me as I read this telling piece:

    Common wisdom has it:

    (1) Without mass media you can’t conceive of terrorism – how inept then has mass media reporting become?

    (2) To win a war you need to go in on the ground – how can you win a war with yourself that you can’t or won’t recognize to begin with?

  3. Fantastic article. I’m so bewildered at how willingly our government bodies and media are assisting ISIS is scaring the crap out of everyone based on very little.

    Headaches, so many headaches.

  4. I haven’t forgotten the anthrax attacks. They were done specifically to be blamed on Saddam Hussein as a fig leaf of cover for the invasion of Iraq. The problem is the anthrax didn’t come from Iraq, it came from a CIA biowarfare lab. Writing in ‘The American Conservative’, in 2008 Christopher Ketchum summed up what is known.

    “The FBI seemed to do all in its power not to come to the conclusion that was staring it in the face: that the anthrax was homegrown. By November 2001 the New York Times was complaining about the FBI’s ‘missteps’. One of the missteps was to ignore a piece of evidence that would have put a whole different perspective on the attacks. The FBI had in its possession an anonymous letter sent to them identifying an ex-USAMRIID biologist, Egyptian born Ayaad Assaad as being part of a terrorist cell linked to the anthrax attacks. The FBI made no attempt to track down the sender of this letter even though it arrived days before the existence of the anthrax laced mail became known, according to the ‘Hartford Courant’. Assaad was soon exonerated by the FBI but they still made no attempt to investigate the anonymous letter even though it indicated foreknowledge of the anthrax attacks, showed insider knowledge of USAMRIID operations and used language similar to that used in the anthrax letters. The FBI did, however, give a copy of the letter to Vassar College professor and language forensics expert, Don Foster. Foster had helped to catch the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber. After studying 40 samples of writing from USAMRIID employees Foster ‘found writings by a female officer that looked like a perfect match’, as he wrote in an article for the October 2003 Vanity Fair. When he brought his findings to the attention of the FBI they did nothing. In the same Vanity Fair article Foster also published circumstantial evidence that pointed the finger at Steven Hatfill, another ‘suspect’ pursued by the FBI. Hatfill sued the magazine and was paid an undisclosed damages payment. Later he also sued the FBI and received nearly $6 million dollars damages for a campaign of harassment and false accusations made against him which had destroyed his reputation and his career.

    Assaad, for his part, told a journalist that, ‘The letter writer clearly knew my entire background, my training in both chemical and biological agents, my security clearance, what floor I work on, that I have two sons, what train I take to work, and where I live.’ Assaad told the FBI that he suspected two former colleagues, Marian Rippy and Phillip Zack who had once been reprimanded for sending him a racist poem. Even though there was video evidence of Zack entering the lab after hours and going into the area where pathogens were kept the FBI seem never to have questioned or investigated him or Rippy.

    Even more extraordinary is the story of the laboratories in Ames, Iowa. Ketchum reveals that the Ames database ‘maintained and overseen by Iowa State University, was a comprehensive culture collection of some 100 vials gathered since 1928. It listed all parties, agencies and labs that acquired its anthrax strains’. The university became afraid that terrorists would gain access to the laboratory and offered to destroy its anthrax cultures. The FBI agreed. By doing this they effectively wiped out all evidence of anyone who had gained access in order to create the weaponized anthrax used in the anthrax letters. Francis Boyle, professor of law at the University of Illinois who drafted the 1989 Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act for President George H.W. Bush reacted to this by saying that it was, ‘An astonishing thing to do. It should have been preserved as evidence.’ But it was not and the FBI, it seemed, was completely uninterested.

    Bearing all this in mind makes what happened to Bruce Ivins slightly less startling but only slightly. Ivins was, in fact, one of the scientists given the job of analyzing the anthrax sent in the letters. Dr. Gerry Andrews, a microbiologist, wrote in the New York Times that when Ivins’ team looked at the powder they found that it was ‘startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparations, the likes of which had never been seen before by the personnel at Fort Detrick’. Andrews also made what Ketchum calls ‘an astonishing allegation’ namely, ‘It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced at Fort Detrick, certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope.’ So, whodunnit? Ketchum writes that Francis Boyle suggests in his book, “Biowarfare and Terrorism”, that if the FBI had pursued a proper investigation the evidence would have ‘led directly back to a secret but officially sponsored U.S. government biowarfare program that was illegal and criminal, in violation of (the) biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989.’
    Ketchum adds that the New York Times made a similar claim on September 4th 2001. Namely that:
    ‘the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that, some officials say, tests the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons…earlier this year, administration officials said, the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax.’

    In the end Ketchum sums up with the only thing that is known with certainty:
    ‘The acknowledged certainty is that the anthrax letters weren’t the work of Islamists or Iraqis. The attacks were perpetrated by someone with high-level access to U.S. government supplies of the deadly bacteria.’

    I don’t think you’re actually on top of what went on and is going on here.

  5. I did try, but obviously have failed! Some time or other, during the past ten years, and perhaps a few times, I managed turning around on an ASIO tail, (who I get to mention the existence of, because of their case against one Kerry Browning, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when she eventually became acquitted of firebombing South African diplomat’s cars: and because of the huge expense of her case, many of her friends and acquaintances found out, that ASIO definitely already had files on ourselves; a fact I myself already once had cause to mention in an Australian law court), and instructed them, in how to catch their culprits. That being by going undercover, into Australian prisons, and finding out who on the inside, was framing others into needing return. Apparently there were kind of “only daytime” options for undercover police work. And in undertaking such undercover work, police, of course, get to have to reveal themselves to the department of corrective services staff, and thereby receive adequate “protection” afforded no other inmate, or, I heard, employee. No wonder they rely on informant operatives.

  6. The 2005 anti-terrorism legislation, which broadened terrorist offences to include attacks without any specific time, place, target or method in view, probably marks the moment at which (official and media) presentation of the threat changed.

    No longer did the menace come from well-drilled crews with a high-profile attentat in mind, but rather from confused suburban loners, led astray by local preachers and mail-order DVDs, and supplied with ammonium nitrate by their ASIO handler. Less organized, goal-oriented and competent, sure, but now less predictable, more insidious and difficult to contain: thus went the conventional wisdom.

    In reality, the “random” victim on the street presumably means nobody had any firm plans in mind to kill anybody. But the law, as described by a NSW Supreme Court judge, is designed to address such cases of lurid daydreaming, to “bite early.”

    The distinction between idle velleity and actual danger hasn’t been publicly recognized for a while now.

    Furthermore, today it seems that the “primitive” (low-tech, labour-intensive) method of execution by beheading provokes scary associations that more advanced techniques like aircraft hijacking, lab toxins in the post and explosive devices can’t supply: pre- industrial “medieval barbarism” (the UN General Secretary), the enemy of progress made visible. Usefully for Obama, Kerry, Abbott and Brandis, ISIS appear quite obviously alien to Our Way of Life to a degree exceeding even Saudi engineers trained on flight simulators.

    Moreover, the fact that beheadings are so vivid, the ghastly scene so readily summoned to mind (generic conventions are already familiar from a few videos) means that a mass citizenry, once exposed to suitable cues from media and politicians, will tend to overestimate the risk they pose to public safety, even judging them more threatening than similarly hyped mass-casualty attacks. Availability bias, officially encouraged, wins out. It’s hard to picture the result or imagine the symptoms of being exposed to anthrax, invisible toxins, radiation, etc. It’s easy to imagine your own neck being sawed away.

    Beheadings thus make a particularly effective attentat, a handy pretext for military interventions and emergency lawmaking, and (from what I’ve overheard at the office and on the tram) good fodder for gruesome jokes and anxious conversation.

    Finally, complementing the official response, public risk perception about terrorism seems to be cumulative: as the repertoire broadens the “jihadist” threat is seen to grow, rather than (as might logically be thought) simply diminishing the use of previously favoured techniques. The danger from each new method of attack thus arrives in addition to what has come before, not supplanting but supplementing the earlier threat, allowing an accretion or ratcheting upwards. Beheadings thus require new state powers and prerogatives to guard against the novel threat.

    In this popular perceptions track reality, for in the thirteen years since the GWOT/Long War was launched, no repressive power won by a police or spy agency has been conceded or handed back. They just keep piling up.

  7. Great article. My only quible is that Obama is not being forced into the war for cosmetic reasons, but rather that the US is going in to protect western oil companies in the Kurdish territories

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