Last year, Bernard Keane of Crikey (rather loftily) asserted that the threat posed to Australia by lone wolf terrorism was merely ‘the new black’ in terrorism narratives, that terrorism was simply a reaction to Western military intervention in Muslim countries, and that terrorism carried out by white people ‘isn’t seen as terrorism in the same way that violence by Muslims is’ – he sort of has a point there, but you can almost hear the Provisional IRA and Anders Brevik scratching their heads in disappointed bemusement.
Given the recent terrorism raids in Melbourne, where a 17-year-old was found to have prepared three explosive devices for a terror attack, and raids that disrupted the Anzac day plot, this rhetoric is not only misguided, but harmful to understanding the threat Australia faces.
Keane manages to capture many of the fallacies associated with modern terrorism discourse. Australia’s jihadist community, tiny by Western standards, has seen a corresponding growth in both the unprecedented number of Australians fighting in the Syrian war, and in the efforts of Isis. People who declare that Western governments are crying ‘wolf’ when it comes to terrorism would do well to remember that, at the end of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, there is, er, actually a wolf. Far from being a new phenomenon, with roots in the 19th Century, the idea of lone actors carrying out acts of terrorism was long ago co-opted into contemporary jihadist strategy by Abu Musab al-Suri, following on from the message espoused by the white supremacist Louis Beam.
Beam’s vision of a protean, leaderless resistance of lone actors, sharing only ideology, was built on by al-Suri, and duly co-opted by al Qaeda and later by Isis.
What Keane and others fail to grasp is that mental illness and a sober subscription to jihadist ideology aren’t mutually exclusive: plenty of overlap exists. That ‘little attention’ is paid to a perpetrator’s possible history of drug use, say, doesn’t change the politically motivated nature of the offence; the terroristic aspect. Such lone wolves are deranged by definition. They don’t hold an operational position within a terrorist organisation, they act isolated from a wider network, so as to make their plots difficult to intercept, and give random, unsolicited acts of terrorism the appearance of a grand jihadist strategy, complete with the appearance of outside coordination and direction.
The benefits of this are obvious. Lone wolves are low-cost, low-maintenance, and – if successful – appear to enhance a terror group’s transnational force projection capabilities if they take the option of claiming credit for the attack retrospectively, as Isis did after the recent shooting in Garland, Texas.
Since Isis’s call last year for attacks by lone fighters in the West, we’ve seen numerous foiled plots, one successful attack in Sydney, and similar occurrences across the West. Isis, pace their rivals al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have been immeasurably more successful inspiring lone wolves in the West, predominately through their English-language publication Daqib, and disseminating through social media and twitter.
Since 9/11, there has been a serious discourse failure among the commentariat whenever a successful terror attack occurs. As David Martin Jones and MLR Smith argue in Sacred Violence, the reaction runs like clockwork: a frenzied media reaction, followed by numerous spokespeople, politicians et al declaring that jihadism has nothing to do with Islam – indeed, that jihadism is ‘un-Islamic’ – and as soon as the dust has settled, then declaring the threat posed by terrorism is over exaggerated, while ‘simultaneously exporting responsibility for its origins’.
The fact that such jihadi luminaries as Musa Cerantonio, or Abu Sulayman, operated for years on Australian soil with a high degree of latitude is ignored. For context: Cerantonio was outed by the International Centre of the Study of Radicalisation as one of the most influential ‘clerics’ that foreign fighters in Syria look to for ‘inspiration and guidance’, and Sulayman currently occupies a senior role in Jabhat al-Nusra. Instead of confronting the idea that Islamism poses a threat to liberal democracies, there’s a horrible reversion to the Adam Curtis-esque idea of ‘the politics of fear’. When ASIO raise the terror-threat level, it’s a ‘political stunt’; when men are intercepted before beheading someone picked at random from the street, there’s an outcry for Australians to resist initiating pogroms against Muslims. Despicable attacks on mosques – and occasionally Sikhs, which points out the irony of racists finding discrimination possible – becomes a larger story than the threat within our midst. Why not tackle both?
The foreign policy argument is continually baffling. Should the foreign policy of Australia be carried out only if met with approval from jihadists? Keane’s assertion that Western involvement in Muslim countries is the overwhelming cause of terrorism falls short of serious consideration. After all, it was non-intervention in Syria that has proved a potent force of propulsion for an unprecedented number of Westerners to flock to Syria, joining the groups most hospitable to Westerners – Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis.
As Jones and Smith point out, ‘Western action in defence of Muslims in Kuwait, Kurdistan, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo’ is ignored by Islamists, who, in the footsteps of Sayyid Qutb, consider pluralism, secularism, and moral degradation as repulsive as any of the military misadventures of the past decade in Afghanistan or Iraq. Combating terrorism, whether spectacular or by lone wolves, must be done with the corollary of the ideology that nurtures it. As Maajid Nawaz wrote in the Wall Street Journal ‘This will require not just the voice of Muslims but the whole of civil society standing in solidarity with those Muslims brave enough to challenge the extremists in their midst.’ Let us hope we’ll stumble to such a conclusion.
Joseph Power is an Executive of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Qld. Views are his own
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