What the Sydney attack reveals about extremism

A makeshift memorial near the scene of a fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district. Photo: Peter Parks / AFP
A makeshift memorial near the scene of a fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district. Photo: Peter Parks / AFP

As the world watched the unfolding horror of the hostage crisis in Sydney, many points emerged about how history should treat the attack.

Labelling Man Haron Monis as a “terrorist” implies the gunman was part of an organised cell. The reality was quite different. And, while the notion of the “lone wolf” who is self-radicalised has long been discussed in counter-terrorism circles, Monis was far removed from a typical militant. He was a grievous criminal who had been charged with a string of sexual and violent offences.

There is no history of Monis having been involved with the types of Sunni Islamism that would be considered “gateways” to ISIL’s toxic ideology. That fact leaves the “conveyor-belt” theory – in which the radicalised individual proceeds from one type of extremism to another – inapplicable in this case. That is not surprising. Counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation specialists have been saying for years that the “conveyor-belt” theory leaves much to be desired.

Continued investigation into how individuals can be pushed into extremism remains important. The safety of all of us depends on looking at the evidence very closely, and relying on as little speculation as possible.

Was Shami Witness, a prominent Indian pro-ISIL propagandist who was arrested this week, an example of a “conveyor-belt” extremist? No official information suggests he was. What does seem clear though, was that he became radicalised more quickly by the material he accessed online. The amount of radicalisation that happens through the internet is still not properly understood.

But the past few days have not all been grim news. In the midst of this tragedy in Sydney, two positive themes emerged.

The first was the way in which the Australian media responded to the crisis in a calm and collected way, although there were a few isolated examples of sensationalism on show, particularly in the first moments of the siege.

Secondly, and perhaps most encouraging of all, was the way in which Australian society reacted. Muslim Australians suffered along with everyone else – and no doubt felt another type of pain by seeing the name of their religion being used to justify such an atrocity.

But Australians didn’t force them into the position where Muslims had to say sorry for the actions of this deranged lone wolf.

On the contrary, a social media campaign using the hashtag #Illridewithyou” ensured that the wedge Monis wanted to be placed between Australians failed to materialise. It is not clear this would be the case in every western country today – but it is something for all of us to remember.

Last but not least is the lesson we can all take from the astonishing sacrifice that the café manager exhibited. Tori Johnson died from a shot delivered by Monis, but only after he attempted to free his fellow hostages. The bravery of his spirit should stand as a lasting testament.

There will continue to be questions raised around how Monis was able to operate so freely in Australian society given his track record. And, indeed, how he was still able to acquire a firearm. There will also be those who will ask why was he not under closer surveillance.

These are legitimate questions that deserve answers. But these answers will hopefully lead Australians into a place where they recognise they need to take a wide view in tackling radicalisation and violent extremism. Perhaps the world at large can also learn from their experience, without having to suffer the same deadly consequences.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: December 18, 2014 04:00 AM

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