So-called lone wolf attacks make policing terrorism ever more fraught, but recent heroism on a multicultural suburban street shows the community standing together. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

‘Lone wolf’ terrorists and community policing

Police arrest Ihsas Khan in the south-western Sydney suburb of Minto last Saturday.
Police arrest Ihsas Khan in the south-western Sydney suburb of Minto last Saturday.

Ihsas Khan was seven when United 175 ploughed into the second tower. He was seven when, three minutes earlier, a passenger named Brian Sweeney used the hijacked plane’s phone to leave a message for his wife on their home’s answering machine. “If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just I want you to know I absolutely love you.” Sweeney’s wife would watch her husband’s death replayed on television before she saw the flashing light of her answering machine.

Uncomprehending then, the attacks later assumed a stimulating significance for Khan, and this week he chose the eve of their 15th anniversary to stage his own act of terror in a Sydney suburb. The previous week, Daesh had released the first edition of their magazine Rumiyah, which, in a hagiographic tribute to slain Australian jihadist Ezzit Raad, implored the slaughter of Australians in “Brunswick, Broadmeadows, Bankstown, and Bondi. Kill them at the MCG, the SCG, the Opera House, and even in their backyards.”

Khan allegedly attempted to oblige. In Sydney’s south-west last Saturday, he approached 59-year-old Wayne Greenhalgh in a suburban park. Greenhalgh was walking his dog when he was slashed repeatedly with a large knife, severing fingers. Shocked and bleeding heavily, Greenhalgh stumbled to a nearby house. Remarkably, what followed was captured on three CCTV cameras installed on the private property.

Greenhalgh taps on the glass sliding door of Duyen Phen’s hair salon, attached to her house. She lets Greenhalgh in, trailing blood, and locks the door. Moments later, Khan appears attempting entry. He was allegedly screaming, “Someone’s going to die today.” 

NSW police have said that Greenhalgh was targeted for “embodying” Australian values. It would be fascinating to know what bitter and fevered vision of Australia Khan had in mind. In this suburban street, a Samoan neighbour bravely repelled Khan while his bleeding victim sought refuge in the hair salon of an East Asian immigrant.

Let’s pause upon that heroism. The neighbour is Sivei Ah Chong. He is joined by his wife and son on the lawn. The moment is captured, silent, on tape: Chong jousting a blood-spattered Khan with a thin and weathered piece of wood. The inadequacy of Chong’s weapon is clear when he swings it into the advancing head of Khan and two-thirds of it snaps off. Chong is left with a splintered piece of timber not much longer than his aggressor’s knife. Suddenly, the distance he can assert between himself and Khan is lost. But he stands his ground. And when Khan chooses breaching the locked hair salon over attacking Chong, the neighbour does not retreat. He acquires another weapon from the front lawn – a rock – and stands threateningly before the self-styled terrorist. “Mate, you do that to me,” Chong says to Khan, referring to Greenhalgh’s wounds, “and I’ll kill you.” Khan responds, reportedly: “Oh, do that. I’m here to die.” 

When police arrive, Khan sprints over to their divisional van waving his knife. He is later tasered and arrested. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would later note: “This attack yesterday occurred on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

“Let me say something, too, about 9/11 and its links to what happened yesterday in Minto. At one level they seem very different, 15 years apart, very different events. But connecting them both is a violent Islamist ideology which perverts the religion of Islam and seeks to destroy and threaten our way of life. What also is consistent or common between them is heroism… You know in Minto yesterday there was an owner of some premises who sheltered the 59-year-old man who was assaulted. There was a bystander who confronted this assailant with his knife and managed to keep him at bay until the police arrived. Then there were the police who defended public safety courageously, brought the assailant under control and placed him under arrest.”

This week, Wayne Greenhalgh was released from hospital. 

1 . Harder for police

Once more, Minto shows the difficulty of policing terrorism. In the days afterwards, a police officer with experience in counterterrorism, and who has also worked with Muslim communities, spoke to me about the stabbing. “Although these incidents are all too common these days,” he said, “I still felt anger that a young man has thrown his life away for radicalised Islam. That police had to turn up to another incident following a member of the community getting seriously injured. It also seems that mental health plays a role in a lot of these attacks, [the Sydney siege’s] Man Haron Monis and [Orlando nightclub gunman] Omar Mateen both suffered from mental illnesses. 

“Mr Khan does follow [a] familiar profile. If this ‘lone wolf’ trend of terrorists continues, I believe it will be harder and harder for police and other agencies to protect the community. Which is hard on the front line; that’s why you do the job, to protect people and lock up bad guys.”

The officer also stressed to me the importance of working with Islamic leaders. “Community policing is the front line of policing and thus can provide vital intelligence to counterterrorism operations [but] some of the Muslim community could be very sheltered and reluctant to assist in building a meaningful relationship.”

It’s also vital because, as the American terror expert Professor Philip Bobbitt has argued, youth aren’t being radicalised solely in their bedrooms. “The vast majority of radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to becoming indoctrinated online,” Bobbitt wrote in June. “The internet does not, in fact, radicalise in isolation of other factors, and it is not operating on isolated individuals when these people take up violence. Search engines rarely provide links to content that supports Islamist indoctrination. The internet’s role is less about initiating the radicalisation process than acting as a facilitator for educating and indoctrinating people who have already been recruited.” 

2 . Mental health or ideology?

It’s difficult – impossible from a distance – to parse an individual’s politics and psychiatry. Khan is reportedly deeply unstable, which must exist to many as a glaring axiom given his alleged crimes. Mental health or ideology? Clinicians excluded, our interpretation will most often be the one that flatters our politics. The crimes of white supremacist Jack van Tongeren, for instance, may be interpreted as the most dangerous and organised expression of a nationally heavy racism, or as the disturbed product of pathologies assumed in the Vietnam War. It can also be both. 

When Ihsas Khan asked to be killed, did he want release from psychic pain or heavenly elevation to martyrdom? It can be both. Or neither. 

As it is, Khan is now subject to the earthly processes of criminal indictment. Charged with attempted murder, he has been refused bail and will next appear in court in November. 

Khan has been described as a lone wolf, a designation now so familiar that we might question it. How many lone wolves does it take to assume a pattern? We take comfort in separating Daesh attacks from Daesh-inspired atrocities. The latter suggests lone and aberrant malcontents, the former a worrying sense of organisation. Daesh, we must accept, has successfully created a global membership scheme. 

Daesh is both army and contagion; they are both real and imagined. They are rapacious crooks who have seized land with extravagant violence; they have also sought to colonise the minds of the distantly susceptible. In addition to their rapes and executions, Daesh have offered to losers and psychopaths an international framework of belonging. It seems obtuse or wishful to ignore their schemes of recruitment. They are simultaneously killers and shills. 

They also reflect their time. As Professor Bobbitt pre-empted in his 2008 book Terror and Consent: “So it was that princely states co-existed with fanatically religious mercenaries, kingly states flourished in the golden age of piracy, territorial states vied with the private armies of commercial consortia for overseas revenues and investments, imperial state nations struggled with international anarchists, and nation states attempted to suppress national liberation movements. 

“And so it will be when the market state finds it has generated a terrorism that negates the very individual choice that the State exalts, and puts in service of that negation the networked, decentralised, outsourcing global methods characteristic of the market state itself.”

And so it has come to pass. But for the police officer with whom I spoke, it’s not all bad. “I think he [Greenhalgh] was targeted as an embodiment of our culture and that his neighbour bravely risked his life to save him also embodies what makes our county great – that multiculturalism on the whole in this country has worked,” he told me. “I agree [Khan] has seen what he wants to see in the community. Being a police officer, I get to see the very worst in people but on the flip side you see the very best in the community and how often they readily want to assist you and other members of the community.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2016 as "Wolf at the door".

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

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