The Growing Threat Of Terrorism In Australia

By Dr David Wright-Neville

The recent release of the respected 2016 Global Terrorism Index carries some worrying implications for Western nations such as Australia. Of particular concern is the increasingly migratory nature of the kind of fury that inspires terrorism in other parts of the world. The report drives home the point that in the 21st century, anger does not need a passport. It travels quickly and efficiently so that resentments fuelled by events in, for example, the Middle East, increasingly merge with local frustrations to form a highly combustible rage that has erupted in the streets of Paris, Nice, an Orlando nightclub and other spaces once considered safe.

Although much of this increase in terrorist violence in the West has been inspired by Islamic State – 18 deaths caused by IS-affiliated attacks in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in 2014 rose to 313 deaths in 2015 – it would be incorrect to credit the group as the only reason for the growing incidence of terrorism in the West.

Terrorism has been trending upwards globally for over a decade, a development from which Western countries have not been immune, as witnessed by tragedies such as the attacks on the public transport systems in Madrid (2004) and London (2005) – killing 192 and 56 people respectively – the killing of 77 people in Oslo by the right wing extremist Anders Breivik (2011) and, among others, the Boston marathon bombing (2013).

Over this period, there have also been a series of near misses with a combination of good luck and good police and intelligence work avoiding mass casualty attacks in places ranging from Copenhagen to Times Square.

And, of course, Australia has not been immune from this trend, with a series of small-scale terrorist attacks and a few larger scale strikes interrupted by police and security services before being carried out, suggesting that like comparable Western nations, terrorists reside among Australians and public spaces no longer offer protection.

Just a small sample of these incidents occurred in September 2014, when the 18-year-old Numan Haider was shot and killed by police after stabbing two officers outside a Melbourne police station. Several months later in December, a refugee from Iran, Man Haron Monis, took 17 people hostage in the Lindt café in inner Sydney, resulting in three deaths (including Monis). Then in February 2015, two men from Sydney (a 24-year-old and a 25-year-old) were arrested and charged with preparing to commit an act of terrorism. A homemade Islamic State flag was discovered in their possession. In May 2015, a 17-year-old boy from the outer Melbourne suburb of Greenvale was arrested after being discovered in possession of homemade bombs. This was followed in October 2015 when a 15-year-old Iranian-born Kurdish refugee shot dead 58-year-old accountant Curtis Cheng outside the Paramatta police station in Sydney. More recently, in September 2016, a 22-year-old student was arrested after allegedly stabbing a pedestrian in a park in the Sydney suburb of Minto – a copy of the Islamic State’s online magazine Dabiq was reportedly found on his computer.

Although not on the same scale as attacks in Western Europe and the United States, the attacks in Australia have nevertheless impacted significantly on the national psyche and rendered the threat of terrorism as an organising principle for many aspects of public policy.

In many respects, Australia’s reaction to the threat of terrorism can be explained by the nation’s comparable lack of experience with terrorism. Until the events of 9/11 – when 11 Australians were among the 2,996 people killed – the nation had been relatively immune from the threat. Small, isolated acts in the name of Irish nationalism during the late 1800s; an attack on a picnic train by two Turkish nationalists near Broken Hill on new year’s day 1915; a series of bombings and shootings targeting Turkish, Yugoslavian and Jewish interests in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1970s and 1980s; the 1978 bombing of the Sydney Hilton during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), and a series of small-scale arson attacks by white supremacist groups in the 1990s meant that acts of terrorism were small and rare compared to equivalent Western societies in Europe and North America.

But since 9/11, Australians have changed the way they think about their safety, about the right of government to pry into their private affairs in the name of security, and in the way they treat people of different faiths and backgrounds. Terrorism, or fear of terrorism, is now firmly embedded within the Australian consciousness and is a fixed part of the political landscape. It now informs Australia’s foreign policy, its willingness as a society to trade away key rights for the dubious promise of ‘safety’, its approach to refugees and asylum seekers, and even local planning laws (witness the long debate over the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural centre in the small Victorian rural town of Bendigo).

In the wake of these episodes, it is now understood that a terrorist might be the young person at the tram stop, a neighbour’s teenage son, a nephew or niece, or sadly for a growing number of parents even their own children. Yet despite this, many Australians continue to labour under a troika of misperceptions about the nature of the terrorist threat confronting the country.

Grounded in hysteria and a seemingly irresistible urge to reduce the complex phenomenon of terrorism to glib clichés and headlines, an informal alliance of politicians and media seem to have become addicted to peddling these non-sequiturs.

In short, what is needed is a calmer approach to discussing the nature of the threat faced by Australia, beginning with the dispelling of three enduring myths.

Myth 1: Terrorists hate Australia for its way of life

In the aftermath of any significant terrorist attack it is common to hear politicians attribute the actions to the terrorists’ ‘hatred’ of Australia’s way of life. People are told that terrorists, particularly those linked to Al Qaeda or Islamic State, hate freedom and democracy and are hell bent on its destruction. This reduction of terrorist motivations to a single obsession glosses over some important nuances and diverts attention from a more detailed and sophisticated understanding of what drives terrorists to kill.

Stripping away the surface-level rhetoric of terrorists and examining the life histories of those who commit such acts reveals that the violence is very rarely motivated by any existential contempt for the accoutrements of modern liberal democratic lifestyles. Although they might not agree with the universal franchise, the consumption of alcohol, licentious behaviour or wear revealing clothing, this disagreement is not enough to trigger the urge to kill. Rather, violent rage is more often based on the belief that the dominance of these lifestyles leaves little room for alternatives.

In the case of groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, anger with the West is given added momentum by foreign policy where support for repressive regimes in the Middle East is conflated with a general hostility towards Islam and a desire to prevent Muslims from pursuing the kinds of social choices that are taken for granted in the West.

This view was articulated clearly by Osama bin Laden himself after the 9/11 attacks when he rejected the view that the attacks were motivated by a hatred of freedom per se but were the result of opposition to American foreign policy. “I say to you that security is an indispensable pillar of human life and that free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. If so, then let him explain to us why we don’t strike, for example, Sweden?” he said.

The same is true of Islamic State and its recent attacks by its supporters’ targets in the West. It is important to note that until the commencement of the Western-led bombing campaign in August 2014, the group’s message focused on trying to attract Western recruits to assist in consolidating the so-called caliphate declared by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This only changed with the commencement of Western-led airstrikes and overt Western actions designed to roll back Islamic State’s successes.

Of course, this is not to argue that the international community, particularly the West, should not have involved itself in the struggle to defeat Islamic State, whose grotesque use of violence posed both a moral and political challenge to the entire international community. But it is wrong to argue that Islamic State’s actions against the West are motivated by an existential hatred of Western society and a desire to obliterate democratic freedoms in the West.

Myth 2: Terrorists are insane

Another myth about terrorism is that those who perpetrate the violence must be insane or in some way mentally impaired, with the most common diagnoses suggesting either psychosis or paranoid or narcissistic personality disorders. Until very recently, there was no evidence to support this view. In fact, most research suggested that the vast majority of terrorists were as ‘sane’ as ordinary members of the public. Some research even suggested that the rate of psychopathological illnesses within terrorist communities is slightly lower than their incidence among the general population.

This research makes sense when the difficult circumstances under which terrorist groups exist are considered – the need to remain alert to police and intelligence operations militates against the presence of mercurial personalities within terrorist networks, particularly those prone to erratic or unpredictable behaviour likely to attract the attention of the authorities.

It is true that some research suggests this might be changing with the growing phenomenon of lone wolfs and solo actors. The development of digital communication technologies and the associated emergence of virtual terrorist communities has certainly opened a space for personality types which in previous times would not have struggled to find a place within terrorist groups. However, research in this area is still in its infancy and a clearer picture is still some time away.

Myth 3: Religion causes terrorism

As demonstrated by the research of Peter Neumann and others, a large number of those fighting for Islamic State have been attracted to the organisation, not because of its religiosity – for they themselves are often religiosity illiterate – but because membership addresses deeper feelings of inadequacy and social impotence. Whereas once they felt powerless and weak, as part of Islamic State they feel empowered and important, imbued with a social significance and authority they could never have dreamed of in their previous mundane lives.

In other words, it is not religion per se that fuels their violence; it is a complex set of grievances and psychological dispositions that are given a veneer of religiosity through their attachment to a highly selective use of Islamic thought.

In the same vein, it would be wrong to blame Christianity as a whole for the actions of Eric Rudolph, the man convicted of the Atlanta Olympics bombing and a series of attacks against abortion clinics and a lesbian bar, despite his affiliation with the shadowy Army of God. Rather, Rudolph – a loner with long-standing grievances against women and homosexuals – was angry and primed for violence before gravitating towards a terrorist network whose warped interpretation of Christian scripture provided a pseudo-religious justification for Rudolph to act out his pre-existing anger under the guise of religiosity.

Reducing terrorism to these myths partly explains why after over ten years of the incremental erosion of human rights and civil liberties in the name of security – the so-called freedom-security trade off – the nation is no safer. Indeed, the data released by the Institute for Economics and Peace suggest the nation is at greater risk than ever before.

There is no denying that Australia’s police and intelligence services do an outstanding job in anticipating and eliminating threats as they emerge. But it is also true that they remain hamstrung by a lack of political and social leadership and are more often than not reactive rather than proactive when dealing with the terrorist threat.

This lack of leadership is epitomised by the ease with which political leaders and journalists retreat into the easy stereotypes discussed above. Holding to these myths not only obviates the needed for deeper reflection and more honest explanations about the complexity of the threat, but also feeds a public expectation that defeating terrorism is simply a matter of killing, capturing or incarcerating irrational fanatics who hate Australians for their way of life.

But this is precisely what Australia has been trying to do for more than a decade and, despite its efforts, the threat continues to grow. Surely it is time for a more honest public discussion about the complexities of the challenge that confronts Australia.


Dr David Wright-Neville is a Senior Political Risk Analyst at Globe Communications. He can be contacted via email