A Blunder Down Under

Australia is trying to combat homegrown terrorism. Sending 800 police officers and a helicopter after suburban wannabes isn’t how to do it.


There’s nothing especially remarkable about Omarjan Azari or Abdul Numan Haider. No high-level training, no exotic travel histories or vast overseas networks, not even any pattern of political agitation. Just about everything in their lives looked manifestly, ordinarily suburban.

Then last month, Azari found himself at the center of the biggest counterterrorism raid in Australian history. Deploying some 800 police officers and a helicopter, security forces arrested 15 people across two states. Azari would be the only one of them charged with a terrorism offense — one other faces a firearm charge — for an alleged plot to execute a random Australian in a public "demonstration killing." The police claim he planned to drape an Islamic State (IS) flag over his victim. 

Within a week, in an entirely separate incident, Haider was shot dead by police. Perhaps fearing he would travel to the Middle East to fight, police had deemed him a person of interest and cancelled his passport. When they arranged a meeting with him, he attacked the police with a knife. Two officers were injured — one critically, with stab wounds to his head, neck, and stomach. The police found an IS flag in Haider’s pocket.

Both men are now the emblems of a newly heightened Australian terrorism threat that has emerged in the wake of IS’s notoriety. Amid fears of repatriated fighters — the government claims that dozens of Australians have traveled to join IS — lawmakers in Canberra have proposed a suite of counterterrorism laws that, among other things, would legalize expanded surveillance, criminalize certain speech deemed incendiary, and ban individuals from traveling to certain "declared areas" where terrorist groups are warring. Meanwhile, on Oct. 5, Australia began combat operations in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

The alleged plot of a random, public execution has plenty of shock value, but perhaps the most crucial lesson here lies in the thorough ordinariness of these young men. Azari and Haider never traveled to Syria. They are not formal operatives of IS or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. However catastrophic their ultimate intentions, and however passionately they hold their radical politics, they do so as amateurs. They are not embedded within a discrete, coherent terror organization — one that can be eradicated through conventional security operations. Rather, they are products of polarizing forces within Australian society itself.

Neither Azari nor Haider had proven ties with IS combatants. The most that can be said is that Azari had some phone contact with a senior IS recruiter. But even the nature of that contact is being disputed in court, since Azari’s lawyers assert the charges are based on a single call, and that Azari was not taking orders from the person on the other end of the line. For these Australian men, IS is not fundamentally an organization to be joined, but a symbol to be appropriated. Fidelity to the group is not a product of authority or even recruitment in the traditional sense, so much as of inspiration and persuasion. For the disaffected Muslim youth of Australia, IS exists in the mind, and especially online.

This appeal, though, is engendered by local grievances: anger at Australia’s involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; perceptions of discriminatory policing; a public culture hostile to Islam; and a sense that Muslims’ concerns are sidelined in Australian politics. Such grievances are mutually reinforcing and come together in a single overarching idea that the West (Australia included) is engaged in a "war on Islam." Proponents of a radical brand of Islam trade on this argument to further alienate disaffected youth. Thus, for some, these two identities — Muslim and Australian — are perceived as mutually exclusive.

The threat, therefore, has social dimensions that simply cannot be countered by the security apparatus of the state. A police raid — while occasionally necessary — does not make alienated young Muslims feel more Australian. It is unlikely to reduce the inspirational appeal IS may hold for such an audience, and may even increase it if it is perceived to be in any way excessive, discriminatory, or arbitrary. Here, then, is the great paradox of Australia’s situation: What may be an action necessary to secure short-term security risks inflaming further radicalization.

Within hours of the Azari raid, photographs of badly bruised young Muslim men, allegedly injured by intruding police, circulated wildly on social media. By day’s end, the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir organized a 400-strong protest in Sydney, where demonstrators held placards demanding that police "Stop Terrorizing Muslims." Some in the community have focused the debate around the timing of the raids, arguing they were excessive and politicized, and used to justify the deployment of Australian troops in Iraq. (Many Muslim leaders have been outspoken in condemning IS, yet these statements go mostly unreported in mainstream media.)

These events have set off a different sort of radicalization, one that emerges from broader society, and even the country’s political class. Three days after the raids, Jacqui Lambie, a minor party politician, equated sharia law with terrorism and said it should be outlawed. She subsequently introduced a bill into Parliament to ban face-veiling in all public spaces, with the support of some government MPs. Soon after, on Oct. 2, parliamentary speakers issued a bizarre procedural rule that, for security reasons, all people wearing face coverings must observe the proceedings of Parliament from within a separate glass enclosure. A number of politicians denounced the decision and Prime Minister Tony Abbott quickly asked his Senate and House leaders to reconsider.

Meanwhile, Australia has witnessed an unprecedented spate of anti-Muslim violence. On Sept. 29, an unknown assailant attacked a Muslim woman and threw her from a moving train. Earlier that week, vandals defaced a Brisbane mosque with hateful graffiti, and a group of youths threatened a young man, whom they wrongly assumed to be Muslim, with beheading. This is but a fraction of the incidents that have occurred. The police have described the spate of attacks against Muslims as "relentless," leaving some in the community too scared to even venture outside.

What are young Muslims, grappling with the question of whether or not Australian society has a place for them, to make of this? About the worst message that can be sent to Australia’s Muslims is that they must make a choice — that Islam and Australia are irreconcilable. And yet that is precisely the message coming from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremes. On some level the government understands this, which is why its senior members warn against demonizing Islam and Muslims. But this only reveals the government’s inability to control such things — even within its own ranks, let alone across society.

This is a snapshot of a society becoming polarized. Australia is a nation in the grip of something cyclical: a mutually reinforcing — and radicalizing — dynamic of suspicion and counter-suspicion. The question for now is whether this is merely a reflexive episode triggered by the trauma of such a dramatic raid, and the gut-wrenching plot it allegedly uncovered, or rather a reflection of underlying social currents that have merely now been exposed. Because what’s the use in ensuring not a single, hardened, professional terrorist returns from Syria, if young, disenfranchised Australian Muslims are running towards them?

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