Wednesday, 15 November 2006

"White powder" hoaxes

On Thursday 2nd June the Indonesian embassy in Canberra (federal capital of Australia) was closed and staff quarantined and decontaminated following the discovery of a white powder in an envelope.

While this proved to be a hoax, there were some interesting security aspects.

The white powder tested positive for the presence of a bacterium of the bacillus family, of which anthrax is a member. The hoaxers were obviously aware that this test was routinely applied to all suspicious powders and that the test was unable to distinguish between anthrax and other bacilli, most of which are harmless (for example, a bacillus produces yoghurt).

The hoaxers were aware that any identified bacillus would have to be cultured for two or three days before identification could be made, and that during this period the embassy staff would have to be placed under quarantine and the embassy decontaminated, thus causing embarrassment to the Australian government and maximum disruption to the embassy while Australian security officials searched every room.

The letter which accompanied the powder was written in Bahasa, the official language of Indonesia, and described as containing “abusive words”. In Australia Bahasa is a widely taught language in schools, but few Australians outside of academic or intelligence circles speak it at an educated or even truly colloquial level. Indonesian police were given the note to identify the level of language. The text of the note has not been made public, allegedly for forensic reasons, but allowing the government to pursue the incident for narrow political ends.

The media have revealed for the first time that 360 “white powder” incidents have taken place since September 11th 2001 ("9/11"). This news had been suppressed by the government who had issued D notices to the media for all such incidents. So there has been one "white powder" incident approximately every four days, an astonishing number.

There are two interesting issues here:
- Suppression of news about “white powder” hoaxes does not seem to stop copycat hoaxes. So much for "denying them the oxygen of publicity"
- The hoaxers seem well informed on biological security measures and able to assess their vulnerability. What was the source of this information?

There was speculation at the time that this hoax attack on the embassy could either be payback from some Australian nationalist group or individual for Schapelle Corby’s imprisonment. (,5478,15429371%255E661,00.html) or else some type of provocation – it certainly produced inflammatory headlines and demonstrations in Indonesia.

Media coverage within Australia was at that time sympathetic to Corby with some commentators normally supporting the Liberal government being quite inflammatory. The hoax attack on the Indonesian embassy allowed the government to regain some ground with the media that it had lost over its inaction in the Corby case.

The Australia-Indonesia relationship is very delicate. The undeclared “Konfrontasi” war of the 1960s saw Australia, Britain and Malaysia defending Malaysian territory against Indonesian infiltrators. East Timor’s independence is seen by many Indonesians as part of an Australian policy to destabilise and break up their country. Certainly there is widespread support within the Australian public for independence for Irian Jaya province. The bulk of Australia’s $1.6 billion dollars in aid for tsunami victims is earmarked for Aceh, also seeking independence. At the time of the hoax here was an unsubstantiated accusation that a senior Australian intelligence officer had been suborned by the Indonesians.

No one was ever charged and the authorities have seemingly forgotten the incident, so we are left to speculate on the hoaxers' identity and motives.

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