It is a well-established principle of defeating terrorists that you have to be able to think like one. But we in Australia are more comfortable thinking of our terrorists first as foreigners or Islamists. The word “Australian” is rarely appended to the word terrorist in this country. The people of Paris, a mega-cosmopolitan mix, have no such difficulty seeing their terrorists as French. The Australian government policy of confusing terrorism and citizenship issues has aggravated the lack of analytical clarity. The intervention this week of Australia’s Treasurer, Scott Morrison, and the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, commenting after the Paris attacks, that Australia would give some preference in refugee intake from Syria to Christians, took this confusion between terrorism and Australia’s national identity to new and dangerous levels.
Australia has a new policy fog around the character of Australian terrorists that is not helpful and needs to be dissipated.
The lack of analytical clarity is fueled by the failure of government and community leaders in Australia to support sustained and consistent research into Australian terrorists across the breadth of the problem. There is a preference for focus on counter-radicalisation and this bias feeds nicely into the community disquiet about immigration and how different Muslims are imagined to be from a putative (and almost mythical) Australian identity.
There appears to be almost blanket denial among government officials and journalists that there is anything in Australia that feeds into the making of an Australian terrorist. This comes in part from a couple of correct suppositions. First, Islamist terrorists do what they do more because of what is happening over there (in the Middle East) than because of anything in Australia. Second, Australia is a great place to live and for the most part is a country that is very welcoming to immigrants. These are two very good reasons for believing that we in Australia contribute little to the “formation” of an Australian terrorist’s mind set.
Notwithstanding these considerations, there are two debates that need to be heard more clearly in Australia. The first is that Australian participation in Allied military campaigns against groups like Islamic State and the Taliban does make us a target for potential terrorists who sympathise with those groups. That is the inevitable price we have to pay and one which we have to bear willingly and openly if we undertake such action. But we do need a more nuanced view of this. Changes in the campaigns over there, such as the Russian military intervention against the Syrian opposition forces in early October to prop up Bashar al Assad, can make us more susceptible to a new wave of attacks. (Such an assessment was made three days before the Paris terror attacks.)
The second debate is possibly tougher. This concerns the motivation of Australian terrorists. On this subject, there may need to be more attention to issues more outside the realm of religion or Islamophobia, than inside them. Here the research of an international group of researchers, including one based in Australia, Lazar Stankov, is particularly worthy of note. Their ideas received considerable coverage in Australian media over a year ago, for example on SBS, on 19 August 2014. They suggest that the “militant mindset” is better understood if we look at three characteristics: grudge, nastiness and excuse. Their research published in 2010 by the American Psychological Association deserves to be read (and understood) by every official and every civil leader involved in counter-terrorism work.
They believe that their findings “can be used to assess longitudinal changes in public beliefs and feelings” and that such assessments can help “in tracing the impact of major political events in the world”. If such research were conducted in Australia, the country would be able to anticipate “political volatility and a potential for an increase in political violence.”
To date, the Australian federal and state security and police agencies have proven themselves unwilling to fund such longitudinal research on a consistent and sustained basis. We have a world class cohort of researchers who receive occasional funding for ad hoc snapshots, but the country does not bring what I would call a “homeland security” intensity or seriousness to the need for exhaustive, contestable long-term research.
We need to be able to track grudge, nastiness and excuse much more than we need to track what the government calls radicalization. This can often be as simple as discovering whether a person of interest has a criminal record (a measure of nastiness and attitude to the law). That can be a predictor of a choice for violence. Given the turmoil and violence in the Muslim countries, radicalization in Australia is inevitable. We cannot stop it. It is the choice by a handful of Australian residents for terrorist violence that we must prevent, and to do so needs a laser-like focus on the strongest drivers of the Australian terrorist mindset.