LESS THAN 10 per cent of Australians with an involvement in terrorist groups will ever face a court of law, according to ASIO Director-General Dennis Richardson. “In many cases, the capacity to obtain evidence sufficient to meet proper legal standards is beyond reach,” he said.
“The great majority of people in Australia who are assessed to have trained with al Qaeda [or] associated groups remain free in the community because, amongst other reasons, the relevant laws did not come into force until July 2002.”
Despite this, Richardson said Australia’s anti-terrorism laws were working well. “There is a misconception that terrorism has been used as an excuse by countries to rapidly introduce draconian laws that impinge on people’s rights. I believe the legislative response to terrorism has, in fact, been quite measured. “What stands out over the past decade and more has been the reluctance of countries to introduce laws specifically targeting terrorism, except where directly challenged.”
The world had not properly acknowledged the emergence of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda during the 90s, despite the World Trade Centre bombing in 1993, attacks in East Africa in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 among other events, Richardson said. Throughout this time the organisation had a safe haven in Afghanistan, where its camps provided training to people from around the world, including Australia.
“The training largely went unhindered and unchallenged,” Richardson said. “Far from being quick to act, we have often been too slow and counter-terrorism is not a game in which it pays to only act when you can see the whites of eyes.”
He said care had been taken to ensure legislative responses were proportionate and balanced, no matter what controversy might surround some specific legislation. In Australia, six separate terrorism Bills had been introduced to Federal Parliament, five of which were passed quickly and given Royal Assent in July 2002. The sixth, which concerned ASIO’s questioning and detention powers was passed after three Parliamentary Committee enquiries and significant compromises to accommodate different views across “the political spectrum”.
“The questioning power has been utilised, the detention power has not,” Richardson said.
“Australia’s terrorism laws have been a response to real threats and to real attacks. Bin Laden first ‘legitimised’ Australia as a specific target in a statement on 3 November 2001. Since then, we have been specifically mentioned on numerous occasions by bin Laden, his deputy al Zawahiri and the terrorist leader in Iraq, al Zarqawi.
He said the threats had been given substance by at least one aborted, disrupted or actual attack in Australia or against our interests overseas in each of the five years between 2000 and 2004 inclusive. “Our terrorism laws do not exist in a vacuum.”
Balanced, tough laws were an essential component in the fight against terrorism, Richardson said. “We should also keep an open mind about the need to further develop and make changes to terrorism laws, as new issues or challenges are identified.”