Bushfire Jihad In Australia?

As fires swept through a hot and dry Victoria State, Australia in February 2009, some observers (including myself) wondered if this might not be an Islamist attack on the country. But one stayed quiet, not having proof.

Now, Mervyn F. Bendle, a senior lecturer in History and Communications at James Cook University, Queensland, has come out and made the argument in a 6,000-word article, "Australia's nightmare: bushfire jihad and pyroterrorism," in the National Observer. Bendle marshals an impressive body of evidence. But first, a review of what happened:

The fires began in the mountainous forest areas north-east of Melbourne, and in Gippsland, Bendigo and other parts of the state, on Saturday, 7 February 2009, and continued for several weeks. The fires broke out on a day of extraordinarily high temperatures (up to 47˚C) and gale-force winds (exceeding 100km/h), after an extended heat wave and a protracted drought. In a ghastly conflagration, they caused the largest ever bushfire death toll in Australian history, leaving at least 210 people dead, some 500 injured, and over 30 missing. Some towns were virtually wiped out, including Kinglake, Marysville, St Andrews, Steels Creek, Flowerdale, Strathewen, and Narbethong. The fires destroyed more than 2,000 homes and 1,500 other buildings or structures, and damaged thousands more, leaving an estimated 7,500 people homeless. An area of approximately 4,500km² (450,000ha) was burned out and millions of animals were destroyed. At one point, fires came close to the main electricity transmission lines supplying Melbourne from the Latrobe Valley, and also threatened the Hazelwood Power Station. Insurance payouts could reach several billion dollars.

A fire blazes on February 9, 2009, in Healesville, Australia.

Then to the evidence (mostly Bendle's, some added by me):

Police believe that the Victoria fires were the result of human action, as are over 90 percent of Australia's fires.

Australian authorities have long worried about this form of jihad; for example, in 2003, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Daryl Williams stated that "Arson attacks are just one of a wide range of scenarios which have been considered as part of our investigations into al-Qaida's ability to conduct attacks in Australia."

An article by Josh Gordon, "Islam group urges forest fire jihad," appeared in Melbourne's Age newspaper on September 7, 2008 and described how "a group of Islamic extremists [is] urging Muslims to deliberately light bushfires as a weapon of terror" against Australia.

Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations not only celebrated the fire but held it up as a model for future action.

A number of non-Muslim groups have resorted to pyroterrorism, such as the Earth Liberation Front in the United States. "Globally, between 1968 and 2005, some 56 terrorist groups employed arson as their principal form of attack."

This form of terrorism has increased greatly in recent years. Between 2003 and 2004, for example, the number of fatalities from fires jumped from 7 to 254.

Islamists have long engaged in pyroterrorism in Israel, starting in 1988. By 2002, the chief ranger od the Galilee region, Gilad Mastai, estimated that the vast majority of deliberate fires were started by Arabs with political motives.

Despite this evidence, Bendle notes, the Victoria Police hyperbolically dismissed the possibility of an Islamist attack even as the blaze was in full force and well before it had any knowledge of the fires' cause. He worries that this willful blindness renders Australia (and, by extension, the entire West) vulnerable to this simple but devastating form of attack. (March 26, 2009)

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