The common conviction of many Australians is that Islamist terrorism was visited on us out of the blue twenty years ago, through no fault of our own.
Such myths of nationhood are under challenge at present, like the ‘peaceful’ settlement of Australia that was in fact genocidal, the part of the ANZAC myth that celebrates the glory of war, and the realisation that many of our elite soldiers may well be war criminals.
Some mainstream commentators forcefully reject the argument that we brought any of it upon ourselves. In many ways Australia is still in denial. The ‘black wars’ have long been denied, the ANZAC myth is still vigorously defended, and despite considerable evidence not one soldier has yet been charged with murder after the war in Afghanistan.
A key question, rarely asked or interrogated in the media, is what responsibility, if any, do Western nations have for extremist terrorism? Nothing ever justifies the murder of civilians but understanding the motivations of those committing it could help in avoiding future attacks.
Conservative commentators especially have defended the idea that ‘Australia can do no wrong’. Gerard Henderson of the right-wing Sydney Institute took strong exception to the suggestion the 2002 Bali bombing was instigated by the Western attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.
In fact, however, motive is central in the terrorism question and many Islamist terrorists have cited revenge as the motive that drove them to terrorism, from Osama bin Laden to the Islamic State (IS). The Islamists’ extremist ‘grand narrative’ is vengeance.
The answer was repeatedly stated by Osama bin Laden and ignored in the West: get your forces out of our Muslim lands. He cited his motivations the presence of the US military in Saudi Arabia, the brutal occupation of Palestine by Israel, and the wars in Islamic countries of the Middle East.
The deadly Bali bombings came almost exactly one year after the US invaded Afghanistan on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, blamed for the 9/11 attacks. Following Bali, Bin Laden mentioned Australia critically for our actions in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. (Note that Bin Laden mistook East Timor as a Muslim country invaded by Australia, when in fact it had in modern times always been a predominantly Christian country.)
Bin Laden’s reasons based on this reasoning could not have been made clearer:
‘Why are we fighting and opposing you? Because you attacked us and continue to attack us’.
What connected many of the IS recruits was a belief that they had a duty to fight for Muslims wherever they were attacked, as successive IS leaders instructed.
Joining US wars despite the risks
With our part in the invasions, bombings and drone strikes since 9/11 – leading to over a million deaths and nearly 40 million forced to flee as refugees – Australia became a target for terrorist payback. This consequence of war was never discussed by then-Prime Minister John Howard – nor did the Australian parliament have an opportunity to discuss it – as he pledged Australian support for the American wars.
We continue to be warned that terror plots persist. ASIO head Mike Burgess has recently admitted that the extremist grand narrative is now subscribed to by more Australians who are in fact not Islamists than by those who are.
Australia saw this graphically in December 2022 when three right-wing conspiracists, brothers Gareth and Nathaniel Train and Stacey Train, shot two police constables and a neighbour dead at their Wieambilla property in Queensland where they kept an arsenal of licensed weapons ‘to survive tomorrow’, as Gareth put it. The Trains were white Australians, brought up as Christians by their pastor father. But they were terrorists.
The growth of extreme nationalism and of far-right terror threats are a clear and present danger. Still though, the ‘grand narrative’ is rejected by some, despite a new mood in Australia towards introspection.
‘The extremist grand narrative has no place at the table’, argues Rodger Shanahan, a non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. A former Australian army officer who has served in East Timor and Afghanistan, and now a leading public expert on the Middle East and terrorism, his ideas are influential and undoubtedly many Australians share them. He advocates a popular view of the general population: little sympathy for anybody who joined the IS.
His new book published this month, Islamic State in Australia, builds on the report he produced for the Lowy Institute in 2019 about Islamists in Australia, Typology of Terror. His book attempts to analyse Australia’s Islamist terrorists.
The book asks how and why ‘more than 200 Australian men, women and children travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with Islamist groups and to help establish an Islamic State by force, and dozens more assisted Islamic State by supporting those overseas or by planning or carrying out terrorist attacks in Australia’.
Shanahan found in 2019 that most extremists came from just a few suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne, and more than average were unemployed, and from single-parent households. They included 44 people in 19 sets of siblings. He identified violent extremism as their shared platform, but he challenged assumptions that they were all recent migrants or poorly educated.
Shanahan pointedly stated that mental health problems were not significant among Australia’s ‘home-grown’ Islamist terrorists. But an examination of court records and press reports shows otherwise.
At least ten of the most significant ‘terrorists’ in Australia, according to various press reports, have been diagnosed with or described as having mental illness.
The 2014 Lindt Café killer, Man Mohan Monis, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, as were Khaled Sharrouf, his brother Arken, the Sydney IS recruiter Hamdi Alqudsi, his Melbourne 2005 co-conspirator Abdul Nacer Benbrika, and a member of Benbrika’s group, Izzydean Atik.
One of the Queanbeyan killers in 2017 was said by his barrister in evidence submitted to the court to have been schizophrenic. Ihsas Khan, the Minto terrorist in 2019, pleaded that he too was schizophrenic.
So too did Saeed Noori, who drove his car into Melbourne pedestrians in December 2017; the family of the 2018 Bourke Street terrorist, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, said he was schizophrenic.
Whether mental illness is an accurate diagnosis, an excuse, a pension racket, a result of drug abuse, or whatever, it cannot be easily discounted as a significant factor in a range of terror attacks in Australia.
The mental health factor
Mentally ill younger men may in fact be more vulnerable to recruiting or provocation by older more politically motivated men, who are often older relatives. There is good evidence to support this.
Early plotters in Australia were Sheikh Abdul Nacer Benbrika, who organised failed terror attacks in Sydney and Melbourne in 2005, and the Sydney recruiter Mohammed Ali Baryalei (Abu Omar), who urged younger people who hated Westerners and desired revenge to fight in Syria. He was named in connection with a plot to film a beheading in Sydney’s Martin Place, and fled to Syria in 2013.
Family connections incited the would-be Federation Square attacker, Ali Khalif Shire Ali, a Somali Australian, who was jailed in 2017. Ali associated with both the son of Benbrika and Benbrika’s future son-in-law, Junaid Thorne (who later took the name Jamil Abu Sulaiman). Benbrika told his Melbourne followers to ‘continue the jihad in jail, everywhere’, his explicit aim being for Australian withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.
From 2014, Ali’s older brother Hassan had been communicating online with Khaled Sharrouf, saying he wanted to be an IS terrorist. As a result authorities cancelled his passport when he tried to leave for Syria in 2015. Finally, in November 2018, Hassan set fire to his ute loaded with gas bottles and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, attacked men in Melbourne’s Bourke Street with a knife, killing one and wounding two. Shot by police, he died in hospital.
There were also two notorious ‘brothers in terror’. Shayden Jamil Thorne and Mohammed Junaid Thorne, who for a while grew up in Saudi Arabia, had returned to start promoting terrorism in Australia. Shayden had in 2016 joined ISIS recruiter Musa Cerantonio’s boatload of foreign fighters bound for the Philippines, five of whom were arrested near Cairns.
His brother, Junaid, was in and out of court and prison from 2015, and was refused release in 2020. He told ABC TV in November 2016, that being born in Australia didn’t oblige him to be loyal to it. He said he didn’t respect a law that treated him as a slave or an enemy. As long as Muslim lands are being invaded, he declared, ‘Muslims will feel like they’re targeted and oppressed’.
The motivation for violence
What connected many of these young IS recruits was a conviction that they should fight for fellow Muslims wherever they were attacked. The prospect of Supermax prison didn’t deter young ‘foreign fighters’ from their felt ‘obligation’ to seek revenge on those whose nations attack Muslims.
Tamim Khaja was just 18 when he tried to go to Syria in February 2016, and after being detained pled guilty to planning terrorist acts in Western Sydney. He expressed his motive simply: ‘I mean to take down as many of them as I can’. After his passport was cancelled, he told an online contact that, as he couldn’t travel, he would ‘fulfil [his] obligation here in darul kufr (the abode of unbelief)’.
Mehmet Biber, who went briefly to Syria in 2018, predicted more attacks like the police accountant Curtis Cheng shooting ‘as the Australian government sticks its hands deeper into the blood of the Muslims via joint attacks on Muslims oversea [sic]’, saying these would inspire ‘retaliation and consequences’.
On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Ihsas Khan attacked an older man with a knife in the Sydney suburb of Minto. He shouted, ‘You rape our women [and] children, you bomb our countries’, and told police the sight of his victim’s blood was ‘beautiful’.
A boy arrested in Bankstown in Sydney’s Western suburbs with guns and a knife in 2016 told police, ‘Whatever Allah orders me to do, I’m going to do it’. Anyone who worked with police was ‘an apostate dog’, he said, and added, ‘Youse are nothing but a bunch of pigs…you will all die in the hell fire at the hands of Allah…we are going to rules this earth by sharia’.
Australia’s perceived failure to measure up to sharia’s moral standards is preached in numerous mosques. But if such impurity drives young Muslims to fight in Syria, they don’t say so. Some are disillusioned or bored and come back to ‘sinful’ Australia. Instead, many cite IS leader Abu Mohammed al-Adani’s fatwa, instructing Muslims to kill the disbelievers by whatever means they can and display the results.
That’s what Mohammed Elomar and Khaled Sharrouf did in 2013. They joined IS and rampaged through northern Syria and Iraq, documenting their attacks in videos in English on social media. An Australian child, Abdullah, the son of Sharrouf, did this in 2014, holding a severed head, and appeared again in 2017 in an online video with guns and a knife, being tutored by his father in killing non-Muslims and Australians.
Sharrouf’s wife Tara Nettleton and their five children joined him in Syria in 2014, where she died of infection after an appendix operation in 2015. The elder girl, only 14, married Elomar, who had left his wife and four children in Sydney. They had a child before he was killed in 2015 in ISIS-controlled Raqqa by a drone strike. She then married another ‘brother’ from Saudi Arabia.
Sharrouf, repeatedly thought to be dead, was confirmed killed in August 2017 by another US drone strike near Raqqa with two of his sons, aged 11 and 12. The surviving members of his family were repatriated in 2019.
The price we pay
The continued deployment in the Middle East of US and allied forces including Australian created vengeful fervour among some Muslims in Australia and globally. Clearly the rise of IS and its brief Caliphate, along with persuasive online networking, contributed to the radicalisation of many of the young jihadis, and also their older recruiters.
A mix of mental illness, youth, and the influence of radicalised family members were strong factors in the rise of Islamist terrorism in Australia. It was not some often quoted opposition to ‘our way of life’ that drove most of the young jihadis – it was as revenge for the violence against Muslims that they saw.
Anti-terror laws, passport cancellations, de-radicalisation programs, and unprecedentedly long jail sentences did not displace influential family networks and the desire for revenge.
Nothing can justify the resort to violence even by people directly and emotionally affected by the bloodshed in their countries and regions of origin. But under great pressure, cracks quickly appeared in the affected communities. The young, mentally ill, and easily influenced became the kernels of the violent terrorism we have seen in Australia over the past two decades.
War is not consequence-free.