The arrest of five teenagers in counterterrorism raids this week sparked fresh claims of racism and police brutality. It also highlighted the need for deeper investigation into the motivation of young  jihadists. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The delicate balance of policing suburban extremists

Each day I see them, filling the seats and aisles of my morning tram. The dynamics of the kids are familiar to anyone who remembers high school: the gendered segregation, the breathless exaggerations. The mix of the introverted – embarrassed by the cramped public space – and the gratingly unabashed, reclined confidently and broadcasting soliloquies. This week I overheard two lads discussing English football, and watched as another boy practised his graffiti tag in the condensation on the window. As the tram emptied, a mess of purple moved towards the Northcote High grounds. On one brick wall the outline of large block letters marked in white paint: “JUMP”. Old shoes, their toes pointed skyward, were being glued inside the lines to comprise the letters. The project is half complete. 

Adam Dahman came here. Had he stayed in school, he would have graduated in 2013. He lived just 300 metres away from Northcote High, and just a few blocks from my house, in a middle-class street cosseted by trees and touched by cobblestone. There are cafes nearby and a small grocery store. Melbourne’s CBD is just eight kilometres south. 

But Dahman didn’t graduate. He dropped out of school the year before, dreaming of violent martyrdom. Where school was once a happy place of mates and girls, worked with his grinning ebullience, it was now irrelevant. The curriculum another method of the kafir’s indoctrination. And no longer would he project optimistically upon the city’s skyline, the one you could glimpse from the school oval. It was now a manifestation of Western arrogance. In 2008, his brother-in-law Ahmed Raad was found guilty of plotting with others to destroy an iconic piece of that infrastructure, the MCG. 

While Dahman was losing interest in school, Jake Bilardi was sitting bored and contemptuous in his classroom. At Craigieburn Secondary College, he was dreaming of becoming a political journalist. The youngest of six, Bilardi was bright and intellectually curious. He wasn’t an outlier: an older brother excitedly discussed history and politics with him, and Bilardi began to irritably contemplate the inhibiting banality of the suburbs. School was no better. Bilardi boasted an articulacy and intellect above his peers and found the classroom stupefying. The curriculum was either shallow or malicious, a hypodermic for self-glorifying Western narrative. But he was grateful for one thing: a government program that provided high school students with laptops. It gifted him an intellectual passport. In class he would ignore the drone of the teacher and read online about Los Angeles gangs, US machinations in South America, and Mexican drug cartels. He called it his “investigation” and became obsessed with stories of violent struggle, which he appeared to glorify. He also began reading about September 11 and al-Qaeda. In a manifesto published online early this year – and since removed – Bilardi wrote: “Being just five-years-old at the time of the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, my knowledge of the operation was basically non-existent. Despite this, I was immediately drawn to the topics of al-Qaeda and ‘Islamic terrorism’ based on the little information my brother had provided me with.” 

But Bilardi’s intelligence transfigured into smugness and misanthropy, common among politicised killers. The “very comfortable” childhood that had so patiently nurtured his intellect and obliged his curiosity was now shunned. The culture around him was suspect. Poisonous. “The Western world throws celebrities and false reality into the spotlight,” Bilardi wrote on his blog, “to distract the people from what is really going on in the world, hence the widespread political ignorance among Westerners.”

Many bright teenagers possess a self-congratulatory contempt for popular culture. But it was virulent in Bilardi. In his hatred were the seeds of politicised slaughter: the self-appointed purifier. While most teens cheer their superior taste, Bilardi decided that the philistines should be murdered. Later, Bilardi thought himself sufficiently enlightened to contribute to IS’s goal of purification. He – a mere teenager – was convinced of the nobility and courage of their quest to expunge the infidels and establish the caliphate. Aside from the narcissism of this confidence, his long essay could not address how a proud “secular atheist” quickly transformed into a devout and conservative Muslim. As Bilardi memorably put it, it seemed as likely as “earth colliding with Pluto”. Bilardi’s long essay is a treatise on historical calamity, as he sees it, and the emphasis is upon his political allegiance to the terror group. But his adoption of their faith strikes one as an afterthought. An obligation. But then, he was only 19.

The tranquil predictability of the suburbs became unbearable to Dahman and Bilardi, as it often is for teenagers. But rather than exercise their egotistical rebellion by scrawling on walls or necking liquor in parks, they sought to blow it all up. They had politicised their anomie and unfinished frontal lobes – or perhaps it was the other way around. The cafes and groceries were no longer symbols of boredom, but a reminder of the West’s indifference and – in their opposition to it – of the boys’ recondite significance. The peacefulness of Melbourne didn’t properly reflect or flatter their alienation – it was the wild and merciless ambition of IS that did. So they planned their Hijrah, their holy migration. “I made contact with a brother online who promised to bring me across the border,” Bilardi wrote. “It was a risky decision to trust someone online but I was desperate to leave and was confident the brother was genuine.”

In July last year, Adam Dahman strapped himself with an explosives belt and walked into a Baghdadi marketplace. He killed himself, and five others. In March this year, Jake Bilardi carried out his own “martyrdom operation” driving a bomb-stacked SUV towards a post of the Iraqi army. He killed only himself. 

1 . Different motivations

We can be too quick, or confident, in understanding these men. There remains an opacity to their motivation. And both young men were distinct from the other. They possessed different personalities and IQs. One was from a Muslim background, the other a white atheist. One was gregarious, the other taciturn. Dahman’s radicalisation did not occur in isolation, but was inspired, encouraged or accelerated by older men. Bilardi had no such personal network – his inner life seemed self-contained and propagating. 

“I warn against performing these sorts of character autopsies,” John Coyne, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former intelligence executive with the Australian Federal Police, tells me. “You can come to conclusions that aren’t right. Hindsight is a part of this. I mean, retrospectively you can make stuff make sense. Before the event, though, the intelligence officer is asked to understand what a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle might look like with just 20 pieces. But then after the fact it all seems so obvious.” 

2 . Melbourne raids

This week’s raid in Melbourne’s south-east happened in the early morning, as they almost always do. While suspects are sleeping, it’s hoped, and their prospectively violent instincts are dulled. About 200 Victoria Police and AFP officers swooped upon at least five homes, each occupied by a teenage terror suspect. Friends with Numan Haider, the young man shot dead after attacking two police officers with a knife last year, at least three of the young men were alleged to have been plotting to murder a police officer on Anzac Day, then commit a mass shooting with the service weapon. It is believed the alleged plot was designed to avenge Haider’s death, and that they had been in contact with Australian Neil Prakash, a fighter and recruiter for IS. Three charges have been laid. “This is evil,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said at a press conference. 

There were counter-allegations of police brutality and racism, and one formal complaint of misconduct. Eathan Cruse alleges that police “flogged” him, while his supporters have said the police operation was heavy-handed. “Yesterday more than 200 law enforcement officers were required to arrest 5 unarmed teenagers,” Khader Souied, a sheik at the Hume Islamic Youth Centre, which was attended by Jake Bilardi, wrote on his Facebook page this week. “The repeated theatrics and heavy-handed approach employed against Muslims is disproportionate to the threat posed by our kids. They terrorise our community, spread fear on the streets and prey on our youth to fulfil a politically motivated agenda.”

Meanwhile, the Al-Furqan Islamic Centre in Springvale, near the locations of the raids – and long suspected as a factory of radicalism – issued this statement after it was revealed the alleged plotters had close ties with it: “As with previous raids, reports of police brutality, heavy-handedness and general mistreatment have already surfaced. Australian Muslims are hardly surprised by such accusations anymore as they have become customary of police interactions with many Muslims … Finally, we wish to clarify that there was no connection between Al-Furqan centre and these raids, and that claims to the contrary are unfounded and misleading.” 

But Neil Prakash, Numan Haider and some of the men charged this week had all attended the centre. A pattern was established. On Thursday, the group suddenly announced the closure of the shop, effective immediately. On their website they posted: “This decision has not been taken lightly. We believe that given the constant harassment, pressure and false accusations levelled against the centre – particularly by media and politicians – this is the best course of action for the protection of the local community, its members, and the broader Muslim community that is often implicated in these insidious campaigns.”

3 . Opening up conversation

There is a common liberal obstinacy that refuses to see this as a problem, or conceives of it only as an alibi for Western racism. That it is a problem is now beyond question. Before 2013, there were no known Australian suicide bombers. Ever. There are now three. Two of them have come in the past year. Both were Melburnian teenagers and both destroyed themselves – and murdered others – for IS. To me, this seems an extraordinary fact. Two teenagers, same city, conscripted as suicide bombers. That it is a problem is established – how much a problem and what the effective and proportionate responses might be, are the questions. But these inquiries are undermined by liberal myopia, media hysteria, organised bigotry such as Reclaim, and the specific Islamic institutions associated with these men who reflexively dismiss demands for accountability as racism. The whole conversation is stunned by bad faith. 

“That we need to readjust the conversation is obvious,” Phil Gregory tells me. Gregory teaches intelligence and terrorism at Monash University, and is a former intelligence officer himself. “We can’t demonise certain questions. I also think we’re far behind the eight ball in understanding the radicalisation program. Understanding precisely how people become like this. It’s complex, and it varies. There are intelligence aspects – how we collect and interpret data – as there are questions of community policing and understanding social isolation. We have to ask ourselves: What are the first principles? What kind of society do we want?”

The size of this week’s police raids was criticised. For many, there is something jarring or brutally incongruous between anti-terror squads and teenage suspects. But as has been explained to me, this is a public relations consideration – not one of best practice. A potentially armed terror suspect is a potentially armed terror suspect, regardless of age or religion. It is impossible that police might bet against their own safety in unpredictable situations. The scale of raids against bikie compounds aren’t much larger, but in police preparation knowing the site contains weapons or merely thinking it a possibility is the same thing. They prepare for the worst contingency. “It is easier to de-escalate than escalate,” John Coyne tells me. 

But the raids themselves must come under scrutiny. We have seen repeated over the past year large parties of armed police swarm homes only to see precious few charges laid. In addition to criticisms of aggression, ones of efficiency and illiberal intrusion are made also. But there is a knotty dilemma at the centre of counterterrorism operations. It is unlike most police work in that it seeks to disrupt something, rather than working retrospectively to arrest a suspect. Police must patiently assemble intelligence and evidence, but may need to thwart their own case if they believe an atrocity is imminent. 

“The whole question hinges on intervention versus sitting back and waiting,” Phil Gregory says. “We’re at the stage now where governments have the information that these things [terror plots] are happening regularly. The balance is okay, I think. But we do need to rethink preventative measures too – community engagement and policing.”

Coyne also recognises the difficulties in policing terror. “You have two conflicting issues,” he says. “The very fabric of our legal system is about the principle of beyond reasonable doubt. The law is inherently opposed to the idea of imprisoning an innocent person. On the other hand, in preventing terrorism, you’re looking at people who are just talking about terrorism. Now, they’re very different contexts and that’s lost on a lot of people. Sometimes there’s the urgency of disrupting what you know to be a planned act.”

In other words, they’re policing what are thought crimes for the time being – merely the intent to wreak havoc. A delicate balance must be struck between compiling a prosecutable brief, and disrupting plots. When large raids appear to have achieved nothing – few charges or convictions – it may be that that’s necessarily the case. The pressure on intelligence agencies is that early intervention will be criticised as illiberal intrusion – but a failure to respond is incompetence or worse. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t. 

4 . Reconsidering methods

It is common parlance to refer to the growing diffusion of terrorism, the advent of the “lone wolf” who becomes “self-radicalised” before a computer. And, certainly, modern technologies have created international contagions of radicalism, as they have global networks of recruitment. Coyne believes this is a trend, one that places tremendous strain upon intelligence agencies who are forced to detect smaller and smaller footprints. “In the early days after September 11, you had networked cells, larger threats that were more easily trackable,” he tells me. “The lone wolves now, though, have the potential to light their fuse, to bang, in a short period of time. Identifying these people and potential is very hard. Traditional enforcement methods become increasingly difficult to apply successfully. So what we need to do is get in early. Make careful interventions with kids at risk. We need to rethink strategy, as the threat has changed shape. Look at the heroin problem here in the ’90s. We weathered that well. And we did it because we didn’t go to war on drugs. What we did was draw together a range of subject experts. We looked at decreasing both supply and demand. That was a successful model.” 

Gregory agrees that traditional enforcement methods must be reconsidered, but is sceptical of the de rigueur analysis of the lone wolf and increasing diffusion of the terrorist threat. For him, the term “lone wolf” is a cliché, a shortcut to thinking. The term becomes so fashionable that it fossilises thought. “I think you say ‘lone wolf’ when you’re not really sure what’s going on,” he says. “And there are many times when it’s applied inadequately. Like [Norwegian far-right terrorist] Anders Breivik was described as a lone wolf, and that he signified a shift in these kinds of things. And yes, he acted alone. But he was plugged into a milieu. He was political. He was interested in the defence league, stuff like that. He had earlier attended meetings. He was a nut-job, but also intelligent. [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh is similar. But when you use clichés, you stop altering paradigms. You don’t shift your thinking.”

Gregory also points out that the concept of the “lone wolf” may include individuals of wildly varying backgrounds and dispositions, so that the catch-all phrase harms methodology and threatens specific examinations of individuals. 

The traditional anxieties of intelligence – transforming large swatches of data into actionable knowledge – is as intense as ever. “There’s too much data,” Gregory tells me. “Confronting that is shocking. It’s a terrible responsibility. It’s a very serious issue, to detect asymmetric threats – the odds are very large. The question is always: I have all of this data, but how do I slice through it in a way that reveals patterns?”

Both Gregory and Coyne agree that data interpretation isn’t the magic key. That the answer lies in a multidisciplinary approach, touched by good faith and community engagement. But having the conversation can be difficult. “Is there a clear strategy between hard and soft policies?” Coyne asks. “There’s probably a better balance now, but the problem remains one of measuring the efficiency of soft power. For example, with police seizures you can state you have X tonnes of heroin, and the public are heartened by these hard facts. But it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s emotionally charged. So we need to talk about soft power. What we can do. And understanding that there is no one ‘Muslim community’. There’s multiple voices and opinions, and they should be sought.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 25, 2015 as "Suburban extremists".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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