SYDNEY, Australia — The Australian Jewish community is a “prime target” of Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups operating in Southeast Asia, according to intelligence analysts and Jewish officials in Australia. An attack on the Jewish community here would serve a dual purpose for the terrorists, the experts say, striking at an Israeli/Jewish target in a country that steadfastly has supported the American campaign in Iraq.
The community, which numbers approximately 100,000, is spending almost $10 million a year on security for its synagogues and schools, and is urging the Australian federal and state governments to participate in funding additional protection. Jewish schools in Sydney and Melbourne look like armed garrisons, surrounded by high-wire fences and vigilantly supervised by both armed professional guards and scores of local volunteers.
“To sum it up in a word,” said Vic Alhadeff, co-editor of the Australian Jewish News,“Australian Jews are living in fear.”
Apprehension of a clear and pres- ent danger facing the Jewish community were intensified recently following the trial of a British-born Muslim-convert, Jack Roche, who was sentenced in a Perth court to nine years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to conspiring to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Canberra. In his confessions to the police, Roche recounted his terrorist training in Pakistan and several briefings that he received from the heads of the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group, as well as a personal interview in 2000 with Osama bin Laden. Among other targets, Roche had been asked to examine the possibility of a terrorist attack on Jewish and Israeli facilities in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as a possible assassination attempt against prominent Orthodox businessman Joseph Gutnick.
Following the arrest and trial of Roche, the Australian government has begun to take the threats to its Jewish community much more seriously, according to Jeremy Jones, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a roof body of Jewish organizations in the country. “After Roche,” he said, “there was a sea of change in the attitude of the politicians. They no longer make do with promises to ‘add more policemen.’ but are now seriously considering what kind of security can be provided.”
The Melbourne daily The Age also recounted last week a 2002 plot to blow up the main building of the local Jewish community Beth Weizman. Although the paper did not identify the potential perpetrators, informed sources say that Australian intelligence ascribed the plot to an Al Qaeda cell operating outside the country.
The particular and enhanced fears of the Jewish community in recent years come against the general backdrop of the Palestinian intifada against Israel, but also emanate from an increased sense of vulnerability in Australia as a whole. The September 11 attacks in New York, the September 2002 Bali bombings — in which 88 Australians were killed — and the recent train bombings in Madrid all convinced Australians that they are prime candidates to be next in line. Indeed, the Labour opposition in Australia has accused John Howard’s conservative government of having turned Australia into a primary terrorist target by virtue of its unflinching support for, and participation in, the American campaign in Iraq.
Ever since the apprehension and deportation last September of Willy Brigitte, a French-born suspected Al Qaeda agent, Australian newspapers have devoted numerous banner headlines to the battle of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization as well as other law enforcement groups against terrorist plots aimed at Australia. There was widespread public protest against the relatively light sentence meted out to Roche, which the prosecution is appealing. An even greater uproar arose recently when a suspected Al Qaeda operative, Bilal Khazal, who was convicted in absentia in Lebanon after blowing up a McDonald’s restaurant, was released on bail following his arrest. The Australian government subsequently introduced legislation that would mandate a judiciary presumption against bail in cases of terror suspects.
There are 17 groups officially designated in Australia as “terrorist organizations,” a list that includes Hamas, Hezbollah and, the most recent addition, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Brigitte was alleged to have operated under the umbrella of a Pakistani-based Islamic terrorist group dubbed Lashkar-e-Taiba, but the main threat to Australia is thought to come from the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out the Bali attack. Indonesia’s geographic proximity to Australia naturally turns it into Canberra’s number-one intelligence target, and the Indonesian government, in the wake of Bali, has agreed to widespread counter-terrorism collaboration with the Australians. Now, however, Australian officials quietly are expressing concern about the outcome of the upcoming July 5 presidential election in Indonesia, saying that a deposal of President Megawati Sukarnoputri might jeopardize the cooperation, thus enhancing the security risk for Australia.
Ian Shore, a security expert for security consulting firm Intelligence Risks, said that Indonesian extremists have depicted Australia’s participation in peacekeeping roles in East Timor as an “imperialist conspiracy” aimed at breaking up Indonesia. Jemaah Islamiyah, he said, has set up extensive ties with the Al Qaeda network, as well as with other terror groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and terror groups in Algeria. Jemaah Islamiyah has devoted significant efforts, he said, to infiltrating Australia and to setting up clandestine cells, both for fund-raising and propaganda purposes and, potentially, for carrying out attacks.
Shore traces the latter-day victimization of Israeli and Jewish targets in Australia to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when threats were leveled against both the Israeli team and Jewish facilities in the Australian metropolis. Both he and prominent Jewish officials note that there is a historical precedent for concerted terror attacks against Jewish targets in Australia in the double bombing carried out in 1982 against the Israeli Consulate and the Hakoah club in Sydney, in which no one was hurt.
Shore said that first-generation immigrants to Australia tended to integrate and blend in with the general community, but the recent development of insulated “ethnic ghettos” in Australian cities, especially among Sydney’s 400,000-strong Muslim community, spells trouble and increases the dangers of insider assistance to external terror groups. The Jewish community, he acknowledged, is probably “more at risk than any other community,” but he nonetheless noted that the fear in the community “may be a slight overreaction.” Shore maintained that the Australian intelligence services are doing a good job in counterterrorism and that the Jewish community has a “very good intelligence network” and maintains a high-level dialogue with the government.
Michael Danby, Australia’s sole Jewish member of parliament for the Labour Party, also says that ASIO and other intelligence bodies have increased their vigilance. Danby said that in a recent “Hanukkah Day in the Park” held in Melbourne — in which more than 10,000 people participated — there were at least 50 policemen present to maintain security. He also expressed concern, however, at the growth of “radical tendencies” within the “substantial” Muslim community here.
Jones, who serves as the official Jewish liaison to the Australian federal government, said that not all the threats against Jews stem from Islamic groups. A number of antisemitic incidents, he said, originate in either far-left or far-right hate groups. His organization, which monitors antisemitic incidents in Australia, has reported a dramatic increase from the Olympic year 2000, in which 242 incidents were reported, to a yearly average of 500 to 600 incidents. In 152 physical attacks carried out in 2003, including cases of arson, physical assault, vandalism and graffiti, he noted, the arrests have been few and far between.
Most experts seem to agree that the Australians are keeping a vigilant eye on both homegrown and imported terrorists and have proved successful in thwarting plots to carry out attacks. But it is the unknown that is troubling both the experts and the Jews: It would only require one major perpetrator slipping through the net of government and Jewish security for untold damage to be inflicted on the community here, and for the hitherto tranquil history of Australian Jewry to be violently marred.