THE domestic struggle against terrorism should focus on winning the hearts and minds of alienated Islamic communities and avoid the phrase "war on terror", says one of the nation's top law enforcement officers, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon.
In the strongest comments by any senior policing figure, Ms Nixon rejected the phrase coined after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and used extensively by the Howard Government to justify the war in Iraq.
"It has very much a ring of what used to be the 'war on drugs' and I think that it was not necessarily a good term to use," Ms Nixon told The Age.
"It is not about a war on that issue (terrorism). It is about policing in many ways, it is about working with local communities and so I think it exaggerates the issue."
Ms Nixon's comments come amid a growing international debate about how much the Iraq war is contributing to the threat of terrorism.
An opinion poll to be released by the Lowy Institute for International Policy next week will show twice as many Australians see the deployment of troops in Iraq as a contribution to the US alliance as do those who see it as a fight against terrorism.
Ms Nixon said the conflicts in Iraq and other global hot spots were monitored locally because of their potential to motivate Australians with radical views.
Asked if the turmoil in Iraq was one of the biggest motivators for groups in Australia, Ms Nixon said: "I think it is probably one, I think there is probably a set of different conflicts that we watch, given just the complexity of our communities … we have ranges of people here who get offended." Ms Nixon nominated India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as among countries of interest to local authorities.
Former and serving counter-terrorism officials in Victoria and NSW have told The Age the potential terrorist threat is greatest in minority pockets of the Sunni Muslim community in south-west Sydney, but that concern also surrounds small numbers of individuals in Melbourne and in other states. They said the local threat was influenced by traditional criminal elements, especially in Sydney. There was also the potential for infiltration by overseas-based radicals.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has banned government use of the "War on Terror" slogan after attempted car bombings in June, stressing the need for a "hearts and minds" campaign to prevent the radicalisation of young Muslims. But Prime Minister John Howard has continued to use the term.
"The war on terrorism is taxing the patience of many in the Western world, but we have to maintain our commitment," he said in June.
Ms Nixon stressed the importance of good relations with Muslim groups.
She said it was important to assure Australians that authorities were working to prevent an attack, but said the response needed to be measured. "When you look at the number of people who have been killed from terrorist incidents within Western countries, yes, it is an appalling tragedy and a loss of life, but we are losing a lot more people in a lot of other ways," she said.
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