In Australia, Muslims react cautiously to terror bust

The government claims to have thwarted a terror attack after the arrest of 16 suspects in Sydney and Melbourne.

As 16 Muslim men were arrested in pre-dawn raids in Australia's biggest ever antiterror operation, leaders from within the Muslim community appealed for fair trials for the accused, and expressed hope for a break in the clouds cast over the community by recent terror warnings and government pressure.

"We merely ask that these suspects should receive the due process of law and be given the benefit of the doubt. Let the law decide if they are guilty or not," says Keysar Trad, the head of the Islamic Friendship Association, based in Sydney.

The arrests in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne come at the end of 18 months of investigation by the authorities and just days after Prime Minister John Howard warned that his government had uncovered terror attack plans. After publicizing the threat last week, Mr. Howard urged Parliament to pass tough new antiterror legislation that had been in the works.

The arrested were charged with offenses ranging from being members of a terrorist organization and conspiring to make explosives, allegedly similar to those used in the London bombings in July this year. One of the arrested, Abu Bakr - known for his often inflammatory remarks showing support for Osama Bin Laden - was also charged with directing the work of a terrorist organization. However, the name of this organization remains a mystery.

"There is some suggestion that they might be members of Lashkar-e Tayyaba," says Mr. Trad, referring to a Pakistani militant group active in Kashmir.

Wahid Aly, a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that far from anger at the government, many Muslims are glad that rather than fighting shadows and creating a generalized sense of fear within the community, the government can now focus on some concrete suspects.

Walid Kadous, the co-convener of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network, decried the way the arrests have unfolded in the media. "I think that what has happened creates a strong presumption against innocence. The whole thing has been politicized through leaks to the media about the names of these people and the fact that the cameras were in place when the raids began."

Trad concurs. "For the last six months, ever since the police began questioning anyone and everyone, including construction workers taking pictures of a building site they were working on, I repeatedly have been given the names of these people by the media and asked what I know about them."

Walid Kadous too had been asked about some of the same individuals.

"We had heard of these guys and knew that they had beliefs that most Muslims would consider to be basically beyond what was reasonable and to that extent there was a general fear that they may cause a problem for the community," says Mr. Kadous. "But no one really was thinking that they were planning attacks like London or Madrid."

Some fear that these arrests may change the mood of a sunny Australia forever, especially if the authorities are right, and the suspects turn out to be home-grown terrorists rather than foreigners. While Muslim leaders prefer to take a wait and see approach on this one, seasoned military analysts like Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, are more dismissive of a gloom and doom scenario.

"I don't believe that this changes anything in Australia as we have been aware of the possibility of home-grown attacks post Sept. 11, and ever since Jack Roche the Anglo-Islamic convert was tried in Western Australia for his alleged links to Al Qaeda."

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