September 11: Australia's heavy war on terror toll

New Zealand flags on the Auckland harbour bridge at half mast in 2002 in memory of the people who died in the Bali bomb blasts. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand flags on the Auckland harbour bridge at half mast in 2002 in memory of the people who died in the Bali bomb blasts. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Since September 11, 2001, more Australian civilians have been killed in terrorist acts than Americans.

It's a chilling reminder that Australians are still key targets in the decade-long war on terrorism despite all the flak directed towards the US and other allies.

The main reason for this remains the Bali bombings of 2002, described in Britain at the time as "Australia's own 9/11".

Of the 202 people murdered in the holiday island bombings, 88 were Australian, making it Australia's worst peacetime calamity abroad.

Four Australians were also among 20 people killed in repeat bombings on the tourist island three years later, though Australians were not among the nine victims of a car bomb attack on Australia's embassy in Jakarta in 2004.

Though the Bali atrocities will forever scar the Australian psyche, the fact remains that all of these attacks occurred in Indonesia.

No such strike has occurred on Australian soil, and many believe that has shaped a different perspective on terrorism during the past decade than that held by Americans.

"If the Bali bombings had happened in Australia they would have had a much deeper impact on Australian society," said Australia's top foreign affairs bureaucrat Dennis Richardson, who was head of ASIO at the time of 9/11.

Similarly, the deaths of 29 Australian soldiers fighting the Taliban have occurred in Afghanistan.

Australia's toll there, shocking though it has been, is far below that of the US (1648 as at August 6) and Britain (378) as well as Canada (156), France (74), Germany (56), Denmark (41), Italy (41) and Spain (33).

Though 11 Australians died in the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington that kick-started the decade of terrorism, geographical distance again seemed to have some effect on perceptions.

"Our airspace was not closed, as it was in the US and Europe," said Richardson, now the Foreign Affairs Department secretary.

"It impacted on the American psyche in a way not experienced in Australia.

"Six weeks after 9/11 I was reading the Washington Post and got to page 22 before there was a single article not related to 9/11."

Richardson experienced another difference when he visited CIA number three Joan Dempsey in Washington, and asked her about a bag he noticed in the corner of her office.

She told him it was packed with clothes following a standing instruction from CIA Director George Tenet that if he was out of contact for over 15 minutes she should assume "something bad" had happened to him.

"We (Australia) never had that experience," Richardson told a Sydney University US Studies Centre seminar.

Australians have glibly adopted the American shorthand term of "9/11" even though for them it's back to front; it should be "11/9".

Yet they have no such numerical term for the atrocity that occurred over their own back fence in Bali on October 12, 2002 - no "12/10" to refer to a slaughter so much closer to home.

The cold, hard numbers of death show that, per head of population, Bali was fully half as devastating for Australia as 9/11 was for America.

The wheels of justice in Bali at times seemed to grind slowly, but the resolve of Australian and Indonesian authorities did produce significant results.

Alleged Bali mastermind Hambali was captured and is in US custody at an undisclosed location.

Three of the perpetrators - Imam Samudra, Amrozi Nurhasyim and Huda bin Abdul Haq - were executed by firing squad in 2008 on the island prison of Nusakambangan.

Dulmatin, believed responsible for setting off one of the bombs with a mobile phone, was killed in a shoot-out with Indonesian police in Jakarta in 2010.

Abu Bakar Bashir, alleged spiritual leader of the violent Islamist group Jemaah Islamiah, was found guilty and sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment, though served only 18 months because of his indirect involvement.

Umar Patek, the last of the key operatives captured, has been transferred from Pakistan to Indonesia to face trial.

And terrorism's master puppeteer, Osama bin Laden, has been killed by US forces in Pakistan.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland says that during the past decade Australia has foiled four terrorist plots with the potential to cause mass casualties.

Of the 38 people charged with terrorism-related offences, 37 have been Australian citizens and 21 were born here, adding fuel to concerns about home-grown terrorism.

Twenty-three of the 38 have been convicted.

Dennis Richardson believes it's too easy to overlook those successes when assessing the past decade.

"It's important not to lose sight of the bullets we have dodged," he said.

If a terrorist plot had succeeded, if 100 or 200 people had been killed in Sydney or Melbourne, he argues, "what would be the nature of our discussions today?"

John Howard, prime minister at the time of the Bali bombings, described them as a reminder that the war against terrorism had to continue in an uncompromising and unconditional fashion.

"Any other course of action would be folly," he wrote in his 2010 book Lazarus Rising.

"It is impossible to escape the reach of terrorism by imagining that if you roll yourself into a little ball you will not be noticed.

"Terrorism is not dispensed according to some hierarchy of disdain; it is dispensed in an indiscriminate, evil, hateful fashion."

The fight continues around the clock to this day, unseen by most civilians.

Australian Customs and Border Protection Service boss Michael Pezzullo calls it a "daily arms wrestle".

"Not a day goes by when I don't see a fragment (of information) that has to be pieced together with other fragments," he said.

"Some are directed at us."

Such painstaking work, in cooperation with authorities in other countries, is part of the unrelenting effort to prevent another Bali.

Or worse, a Bali on Australian soil.

-AAP

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