Ill-informed comments hinder fight against terrorism
13 Nov 2018|

Regrettably, terrorist attacks like the one that occurred in Melbourne on Friday evening have become an all too familiar occurrence both in Australia and across the Western world.

The deployment of rudimentary modes of attack such as stabbing or vehicular ramming, frequently by people with non-existent or tenuous relationships to organised terrorist networks, has been the dominant tactic used by Western-based believers in the cause of violent, global, Salafi-jihadism. This has been highlighted repeatedly by ASIO and its partner agencies in other Five Eyes jurisdictions since the establishment of the so-called Islamic State caliphate in June 2014.

Unfortunately, recognising that this tactic dominates doesn’t make it any easier to disrupt or prevent. Nor does it constrain the cacophony of voices and comments that, either wilfully or through ignorance, contribute a range of unhelpful comments to the broader debates and discussions that quite rightly follow a terrorist incident.

It’s important to restate that the methods used in the Bourke Street attack are the result of a strategy adopted by both al-Qaeda and Islamic State that seeks to provide potential operatives with direct access to a diverse range of propaganda designed to radicalise them through ideology (theological and political) and through operational guidance.

For instance, the use of vehicles as a tactic was suggested in the second edition of Inspire magazine, published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2010. The idea has been frequently repeated in Islamic State’s online propaganda such as the Just Terror series, which advocated using trucks for attacks. The ongoing online discourse involves not just ‘official’ material endorsed by the terrorist organisation, but also an increasing number of online users who contribute their own posters, images and memes.

All of this is contextualised by the enduring, overarching authority of the late Islamic State strategist Abu Muhammed al-Adnani’s audio announcement, ‘Indeed, your Lord is ever watchful’, released two days before the Endeavour Hills stabbing attack in 2014. Al-Adnani told his followers:

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.

There has been a continuous supply of individuals (and couples) willing to act on al-Adnani’s call to arms. The Western world has found itself facing an ongoing threat, and in that context the Bourke Street attack should have come as no surprise. The ‘defeat’ of the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq has, unsurprisingly, not proven to be the panacea that some Western leaders and commentators had hoped.

After each disrupted or actual terrorist attack, there’s a predictable volley of opinion and rhetoric in the media that is as frequently incorrect as it is unhelpful. In particular, and certainly with the Bourke Street incident, the media offers a broadly misinformed discussion of the relationship between terrorism, radicalisation, extremism and mental health, and calls for the local Muslim community to ‘do more’ to counter acts of terrorism.

There are numerous commentators who advance the notion that the perpetrator’s mental health condition renders him or her incapable of being designated a terrorist. The reductionist discussion of these two issues by media observers and political leaders is often rooted in opinion rather than fact, and in a desire to explain away the more complex issue of what leads an individual to commit a terrorist attack.

It’s not that there’s a lack of high-quality research in this area, as the work of Dr Emily Corner from ANU testifies, but that both terrorism and mental health, and their relationship with one another, are inherently complex and multifaceted. The absence of detailed, reliable information in the immediate aftermath of an incident doesn’t lend itself to subtle or nuanced analysis.

Those who contribute to these public discussions would do well to inform themselves more fully, or to refrain from contributing ill-informed perspectives on what are often sensitive matters. Whether discussing the relationship between mental health and terrorism, or the role of the Islamic community in counterterrorism, prudence ought to be the starting point, unless there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise. Tarnishing specific communities with associations of terrorism doesn’t diminish the threat; nor does it assist those tasked with countering it.

It’s unlikely that Western jurisdictions will see an end to this type of terrorism in the short to medium term. In the face of a continuing threat such as this, it’s essential that the manner in which it is discussed is moderate and proportionate.

Terrorism does not require additional oxygen. Marginalised communities that already contribute enormously to the success of counterterrorism do not need to be singled out to do more. And proposing one-dimensional causal explanations for why people engage in acts of terrorism is as incorrect as it is counterproductive.

Given the abundance of open-source information available on terrorism, perhaps it would be more helpful if those who wish to add to the debate inform themselves about the subject first.