THE reported beheading of British aid worker David Haines by so-called Islamic State terrorists was, as British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “an act of pure evil’’. After months of murderous atrocities in northern Iraq and Syria, including the beheadings of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, a broad coalition of Western and Arab nations will take on an enemy unlike any seen before. Islamic State extremists threaten the stability of every nation in the Middle East and the security of Western countries, including Australia.
For that reason, the Abbott government’s cabinet and the National Security Committee were right to respond generously to a request from the government of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and from the US to commit to military action. Australia will deploy a 600-strong military force with as many as eight Super Hornet aircraft, an early warning and control aircraft, aerial refuelling aircraft and a contingent of special forces troops. Tony Abbott said these were not combat troops, but they would endeavour to help prevent the humanitarian crisis from deepening. Australian military instructors, using the experience they gained in Afghanistan, will return to Iraq to provide training and logistical support to Kurdish and other forces fighting the jihadists. But Mr Abbott acknowledged there were “obviously further decisions to be taken before Australian forces will be committed to combat operations in Iraq’’. Despite a couple of renegades in his ranks, Bill Shorten sensibly offered the government bipartisan support for Australia’s involvement, acknowledging we had a part to play in eradicating the barbaric Islamic State. In contrast, the Greens, which even refuse to describe the extremists as terrorists, condemned the government’s move as an act of war.
Australians should be under no illusions. The campaign, as the Prime Minister warned, is likely to take months rather than weeks. Islamic State, which the CIA believes commands about 30,000 ground troops, including 12,000 from overseas, controls a portion of territory across Iraq and Syria with about six million inhabitants. As Greg Sheridan wrote on Saturday, it has made money from kidnapping, stolen money from conquered banks and grabbed large weaponry arsenals. In the past, it secured donations from supporters in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who possibly did not realise how extreme the organisation was to become.
Disrupting Islamic State will take what the Chief of the Defence Force, Mark Binskin, described as a “comprehensive and sustained effort.” The risk of doing nothing, however, would be even greater, allowing what Mr Abbott accurately called the Islamic State “death cult’’ to further destabilise the Middle East and spread its influence further afield.
The situation was also “as much a matter of domestic security as it is of international security”, as Mr Abbott said, which is why ASIO’s decision late last week to advise the government to lift the national security level from medium to high was not taken lightly. Contrary to flippant and ill-informed views about “war mongering’’ peppering the twittersphere, the upgrade should not be dismissed easily. The alert level was last increased, from low to medium, in 2003 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the Bali bombings of 2002. It was not lifted, however, after the attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004, multiple bomb attacks in London in mid-2005 or the uncovering of a plot to launch a suicide attack on Sydney’s Holsworthy Army Base in 2009. The decision to raise the level was based on intelligence gathering and driven by the risks posed by the 60 to 70 Australians fighting for extremists such as Islamic State or the al-Qa’ida offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, the return of fighters from the war zones and the fact that about 100 people in Australia are supporting jihadists fighting overseas.
Despite comments by the Greens and some Guardian commentators, it would be shortsighted for Australia to back away from participation in the coalition against Islamic State out of fear that our involvement will make us an even greater terrorist target. Australia, as a modern, secular democracy that values the rule of law and freedom, is already a target, along with other Western nations. So are Arab nations and Israel as well as Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq, Shia Muslims and others who do not share Islamic State’s gruesome outlook. After a slow start confronting the extremist menace, one of the most encouraging features of the coalition put together by the US is the inclusion of 10 Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. In conjunction with such a broad coalition, it is in Australia’s interests and morally right that we should play our part as a middle-ranking power in confronting Islamic State terror. The commitment announced yesterday is significant, and deserves to be matched proportionately by others.