The inquest into the shooting of radicalised teenager Numan Haider reveals ASIO phone taps not shared with police, which might have saved him and officers from being put in harm’s way. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Numan Haider inquest reveals policing oversights
In this story
Numan Haider’s phone was tapped, and surveillance teams had been following him closely on the last day of his life. In fact, they’d been tracking him for months. Haider hadn’t realised this, but then the authorities that were shadowing him – at least the police officers who comprised the Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCCT) – didn’t realise a few things themselves. They were privy to Haider’s movements and phone calls, but not to the murderous calculations in his head.
On September 23, 2014, police officers from the JCCT had many conversations with the teenager who they believed was being radicalised. But Haider hadn’t committed any crime, and police had no grounds for arrest. So they fashioned what they called a “softly softly” approach, gently intervening in Haider’s life in an attempt to discourage him from the path on which he appeared to be treading. This week, during the coronial inquest into Haider’s death, police officers used the word “rapport” multiple times. They sought the co-operation of Haider’s parents – which they received – and ultimately the trust of their increasingly volatile son.
About 5pm on September 23, counterterrorism officers, informed by their surveillance team that Haider was not at home, visited his parents’ house in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne. They discussed their concerns with Haider’s parents – that he was a potential threat to political figures – and asked permission to search the young man’s room. It was granted. They found nothing of interest, and returned to the local police station. The officers believed that conscripting the parents’ co-operation would defuse things – what they hadn’t anticipated is that it would be inflammatory. Haider returned home to discover the search. In a phone call to a friend, Haider referred to police as “dogs” and said, “My stupid parents let them [search my room]. I can’t trust them now.”
Four officers from the JCTT – from the Australian Federal Police, or seconded from Victoria Police – discussed tactics in the station’s muster room. They had been careful to ask Haider’s parents for his mobile phone number, which they had already secretly acquired, to provide themselves with cover. At 6.15pm, one officer, identified only as Officer A, made a call. Haider’s manner was “abrupt” but was open to meeting. The teenager said he would call back.
Not long after, Haider returned the call. He wanted to meet at a nearby Hungry Jack’s. “That wouldn’t be appropriate,” he was told by Officer A. In reality, it wasn’t decorum that was the concern – it was the officers’ safety. ASIO’s briefings to the officers, as well as their own investigations, suggested a young man who was a low-risk to police. But their standard operating procedure demanded a location they could control. That ruled out a fast-food restaurant. Haider hung up.
In the muster room, a delicate strategic balance was sought by the JCTT members – between securing rapport and personal protection. He was young, not “physically imposing”. In ASIO’s briefings, “nothing suggested he was disaffected with police”. But in fact there was plenty to suggest just that.
At 7.27pm Officer A received another call from Haider. He said he was willing to meet them at the police station, but only outside. The officers agreed, planning on “meeting and greeting him” in the car park, before suggesting they go inside. The team had decided upon a “soft” interviewing room for their discussion – that is, a room devoted to the questioning of witnesses, rather than suspects. They also knew he would be 15 or 20 minutes away, and they planned on establishing a tactical advantage by being there first.
But Haider wrong-footed them, arriving in just five minutes. “I was surprised,” an officer said this week. They all were. A phone call to the surveillance team, to get Haider’s location and estimated time of arrival, went unanswered. Haider arrived in the car park before they did. One team member – an AFP constable, and named as Officer C – offered to go with Officers A and B to the car park. He was told to wait inside, from where he watched on closed-circuit television. He saw his two colleagues enter the lobby, then leave the station. Just a few minutes later, he watched on the monitor as Officer B returned to the lobby in distress, “holding his head and walking up and down”.
“Is that [Officer B]?” he asked his colleague.
He ran to the lobby, where he found B clutching a large gash on the side of his head. Blood was running down the officer’s face and onto the lobby’s floor. Officer C told a “female citizen” waiting by reception to call an ambulance. At that point, C hadn’t realised there were other stab wounds to B’s torso – B had also sustained liver damage in the attack. “He’s been shot,” B told C. Other officers arrived, and C left the station into the semi-lit car park. “Where are you, [A]?” he said.
C followed the direction of his colleague’s voice. And there they were. A’s service weapon was drawn, pointed at a prone Haider, lit by his torchlight. C could see a “large trauma wound” to Haider’s head and knew he was dead. But A’s arm, bloodied and trembling, was still training the Glock on him. “The crook stabbed me,” he said.
Haider’s murderous intent figures at the centre of this – his agency is not diminished by procedural bungling. But preceding the car park meeting was a series of assumptions, accidents and oversights: a chain of events that seems, in hindsight at least, to have led inexorably to bloodshed.
Numan Haider was 18 years old the night he died. He was born in Afghanistan, a country his family fled when he was seven. Persecuted by the Taliban, the Haiders were granted refugee status in Australia. His parents were gentle, educated people. His mother had been a lawyer in their country of birth; his father an engineer. But a decade later, and a world away, their son began fantasising about the very barbarism they had escaped.
Haider had grown increasingly contemptuous and volatile. In 2014 he was unemployed and not studying, and had painfully broken off his engagement to his fiancée, Jinali Surendar. She testified last week, saying: “Something had obviously gone wrong in the two months since we broke up… I’m so confused, it’s a total waste of life.”
Haider began praying twice daily at the Al-Furqan mosque, an act that alarmed his parents. “Only extremists pray there,” they told him.
Haider’s radicalisation appears to have been swift. He told friends that he wanted to travel to Afghanistan to find a wife, but ASIO firmly suspected he wanted to fight with Daesh. Like increasing numbers of teens, Haider was likely dreaming of “making Hijrah” – the migration to Syria and Iraq to join extremists. What appeared romantically urgent to Haider was the effect of propaganda, and also immaturity. Professor Greg Barton, chair of global studies at Deakin University, testified last week and mentioned the similarity between terrorist recruiters and the grooming methods of paedophiles.
One can see the striking banality – and fixation on youth – in blog posts from Paladin of Jihad, a site that offers advice to Western Muslims undertaking Hijrah. “Make sure you have a phone with you,” one entry says. “Please don’t attempt to make Hijrah if your parents confiscate your phone.”
Another reads: “Travel light! You will regret bringing that big photo album, or your Xbox. You can learn to play some other kind of Call of Duty here, trust me.”
Haider would have no such luck. The day before he met police, the foreign affairs department, on the advice of ASIO, suspended his passport. Haider was incensed. Just two days before this, the spokesman for Daesh, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, issued a call to arms to Western Muslims: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State – then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”
On the September 18, 2014, Haider unfurled a shahada flag – one bearing the Islamic creed of faith in the one God – at a shopping mall in the south-eastern suburb of Dandenong. When police approached him, Haider told the officers, “I’m not going to blow up the shopping mall today.” He was “belligerent but compliant” and agreed to have his photo taken and ID checked. Then he was asked to move on.
That night he made a phone call to a friend, which was intercepted by ASIO. He venomously denounced police, telling his friend that if he had “had a knife, I would have stabbed them”. Incredibly, this information was never passed on to the Joint Counter Terrorism Team prior to its meeting Haider. In fact, multiple officers this week testified that they were only aware of this intelligence a fortnight ago – some 18 months after the shooting. It ran contrary to their briefings from ASIO – “was in stark contrast”, said one officer – and all agreed that if they had had that information it would have completely changed their risk assessment. In other words, that meeting would never have taken place, or at least not in those circumstances. It was a remarkable admission in this week’s hearings.
There were other oversights. While police developed an erroneous profile of a young man “with no disaffection towards police” he was very openly expressing that disaffection online. Days before the car park meeting, Haider had changed his Facebook profile picture to one of him wearing a balaclava, wearing military fatigues, and holding a shahada flag. He wrote that the Australian government had declared war upon Islam, and posted specific threats to “dog” police.
None of the four men involved in meeting with Haider knew of these posts. They were not included in ASIO briefings, nor had they discovered the posts themselves. Again, all officers said this week that this information would have significantly changed their approach. So we are left with another startling contradiction: a sophisticated surveillance operation was in effect against Haider – his phone tapped, his movements monitored – yet somehow police remained unaware of the pertinent and very public threats made on social media.
During the coronial inquest this week, another oversight was revealed. Absent a crime, police officers stressed that they wanted to build “rapport” with Haider. That was their focus. But when counsel for the family asked officers this week a series of questions about Haider’s life, the officers revealed that they knew very little about it. The information was easily obtainable: his country of birth, his employment status, the fact his family had escaped the Taliban, the occupations of his parents, the breakdown of his romantic relationship. None of this was known to officers who were at pains, they testified, to develop Haider’s trust. “Haider hadn’t committed a crime,” Officer E said this week, “so we had to engender a spirit of co-operation. It’s hard to do that if you’re harsh.”
It might be argued that it’s also hard to do that if you know little about the person whose co-operation you seek.
A great complaint of police is the criticism of strangers who make their assessments with the benefit of hindsight and a distance from danger. Officers A and B approached Haider in good faith, and were viciously attacked. In addition to liver damage, Officer B carries deep facial scarring and required reconstructive surgery to his shoulder. There is also the psychic damage, both of being attacked and being compelled to fatally shoot a teenager. Neither officer will be the same again, and perhaps A’s trauma of taking a life might be balanced by B’s testimony this week that in shooting Haider, his colleague had saved his own.
Despite the oversights, Haider possessed a violent determination. It might be argued that a fatal confrontation was inevitable – that will be for the coroner to decide when the inquest is completed – but a young man was shot dead, and it must be considered if the situation might have been avoided despite that determination. As counsel assisting the coroner, Rachel Ellyard, said repeatedly this week, hindsight is a glorious thing and makes experts of us all. For traumatised officers, the application of this hindsight might grate. The truth is, they deserve our sympathy and examination. Because however pompously hindsight might be employed, this week’s coronial hearings revealed some glaring oversights, not least from the country’s chief spy agency.
The realities of such missteps are stark for police on the ground. “I’m sure that Haider was going to cut my head off,” Officer B told the hearing. “He was going to cut my throat and cut my head off.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "Police rapport".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial