Real and present danger: defeating the terror threat in Australia
Sydney Siege Martin Place memorialAssociate Professor Felix Patrikeeff has studied a century of terror attacks and he has no doubt that Sydney siege killer Man Horan Monis was a terrorist. “He was an angry misfit but he had political objectives and aspired to be recognised by holding people. That’s good enough for me to define him as a terrorist,” he says.
And David Olney warns that we will see his kind again. “It’s amazing it took as long as it did. There are always people who try to use fear and violence to make the world more like they want it to be,” Mr Olney says.
But while the two University of Adelaide terror experts accept the threat is real and broadly agree on how we can contain, but not eliminate, what are all but inevitable future attacks, subtle distinctions emerge as they talk about the scholarship that informs their judgements.
Associate Professor Patrikeeff is urbane and erudite, a scholar whose interest in terror originates far from the modern Middle East, in Manchuria a century past, where the Russian and Japanese Empires fought both each other and Chinese rebels, the Red Beards. While working on his doctorate at St Antony’s College, Oxford, he became interested in the broader security issues of terrorism as a member of the Oxford Intelligence Group. “This group got me interested in strategic culture and how people are motivated to take up action,” he says.
And for all the differences between Manchuria a century ago and the Middle East now, he says there are similarities in the tactics of terror. “The Red Beards terrorised the Russians and Japanese by kidnapping and holding people to ransom. They changed the nature of politics in Manchuria,” Associate Professor Patrikeeff says.
Mr Olney came to the study of terror from a very different direction – novelist Albert Camus, one of the subjects of his PhD, was a Frenchman from then occupied Algeria, which endured a long terrorist campaign as part of the push for independence from France. “My interest in terror comes from a pursuit of freedom, which they did not know what to do with,” he says.
Both scholars share the idea of the terrorist as shaped by rage that lacks political objectives that are either achievable or enduring. The ISIS terror organisation, which is now fighting to create an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, and inspires the murderous Boko Haram insurgency in Africa, wants to create a theocracy modelled on the caliphates of the golden age of Islam. But ISIS fails to see the caliphates were well-ordered states, which endured because of stability and tolerance. “ISIS can’t tolerate difference. It has no capacity to build a state and will always have a dead-end economy. In the end it will devour itself because it will always pursue glory on the battlefield,” Mr Olney argues.
Associate Professor Patrikeeff suggests that while ISIS is “infinitely flexible” it cannot tolerate dissent and its desire for “a caliphate of terrorism” means it must keep expanding, as Boko Haram does in Africa. “ISIS wants to control territory. It’s like Genghis Khan quickly terrorising opponents and moving on,” he says.
If this all sounds like it is a long way from Australia, both men argue that in fact the threat exists here. “Monis was an angry misfit who found something to identify with, he is like the young men going to Syria who find redemption and purpose in terror. ISIS uses social media to radicalise individuals. There are individual pockets of radicalism around the world that can hook into franchises,” Associate Professor Patrikeeff says.
“Young men looking for a rationale for brutality can fly from Sydney into the caliphate,” Mr Olney adds.
Or they can act here. The murder of English soldier, Lee Rigby, on the streets of London in May 2014, “showed what can be done with a camera and a meat cleaver,” Mr Olney adds.
“Australia is far easier to attack because we are not used to the level of radicalisation that the UK and Europe are,” Patrikeeff warns.
But while we cannot eradicate the risk of more attacks in Australia we can reduce it. Associate Professor Patrikeeff wants increased intelligence, on and understanding of, Australians who go to the Middle East to fight. “We don’t know anywhere near enough about what drives people to violence and we need to study what can be done to stop radical preachers speaking to vulnerable audiences,” he says.
And he draws a parallel between containing potential terror attacks by deploying enormous resources and reducing alcohol fuelled violence in Sydney’s Kings Cross. “It seemed really excessive but it was the measure needed,” Associate Professor Patrikeeff says.
Mr Olney agrees on the measures to suppress ISIS and its allies. “We need to cut off their money, cut off their supply of recruits,” he says. “It’s not productive to call ISIS a ‘death cult’ as Tony Abbott did”. Associate Professor Patrikeeff agrees, pointing to the way the Malaysian and Indonesian governments pay close but unobtrusive attention to mosques and religious schools.
However Olney worries whether Australians will respond aggressively to the threat of terror attack. “Could we end up surrendering political and social freedoms in pursuit of an impossible level of community safety, in contrast to the Europeans who demonstrate society can cope with terrorism? The attack at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris was traumatic but the French state is not at risk, the economy will not collapse, people will keep going to work. We must not go to extreme restrictions on our freedom,” he says.
But in the end both believe that education and awareness can do most to reduce ISIS’s appeal. In Manchuria, Associate Professor Patrikeeff warns the Russians did best in dealing with the Red Beard insurgents who used terror tactics. “The Russians learned Chinese and engaged with the Chinese living in Red Beard territory while the Japanese just wanted to fight to control territory they occupied, and could not cope with Red Beard tactics,” he says. And Olney suggests the lessons of the French Revolution apply to ISIS and its supporters. “I’m interested in the English anarchist philosopher, William Godwin, who observed the French Revolution and saw that using violence to achieve utopia means violence will always follow,” he says.
“We can’t appease the ISIS caliphate but it can be contained. That may be enough because groups with a paranoid ideology become a danger to themselves,” Mr Olney says.
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