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While terrorism is impossible to predict, a correlation may exist between those with domestically abusive pasts and those who hope to commit acts against the state. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Terrorism and domestic violence

A 2009 file image of Lindt cafe siege gunman Man Haron Monis.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / SERGIO DIONISIO

The largest counterterrorism operation in Australia was codenamed Pendennis, and resulted in the arrest of 22 self-styled mujahideen in 2005. Of the 22, 18 would be convicted on a string of terror-related charges. Beginning in 2004, various law enforcement and intelligence agencies fixed upon two cells, one in Melbourne and one in Sydney, which operated independently but were aware of the other’s existence. Both cells were breached by authorities, through bugs, intercepted phone calls and an undercover agent known only as SIO 39. Their notoriety would be pinned to an alleged desire to bomb the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the 2005 AFL grand final, but the only evidence for the plot came from the mouth of an accomplice turned Crown witness who was described by the judge as a “liar, cheat and fraudster of significant accomplishment”. 

The Victorian trial publicly yielded almost 500 covertly recorded conversations of the men – the transcripts ran to some 4000 pages – which were of intense interest to terrorism scholars who work in a field light on primary sources. “It was a privilege to review them,” Associate Professor Peter Lentini, the director of Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre, tells me. 

These transcripts revealed bumbling, part-time jihadists who congratulated themselves for their superior piety. They were a group in serial disagreement with Islamic leaders, and their conversations revealed a mix of malice and comic ineptitude. Light on theological understanding, they relied on each other to rationalise and reinforce their dreams of murder. “There was a great amount of love in that cell,” Lentini says. “There was a great deal of trust. They fought, they squabbled. Many of them were naive. But they remained loyal to each other.”

The group lacked discipline, but would occasionally organise weekends away in the country – a sort of amateur terrorist boot camp. On one trip to Kinglake, Victoria, in December 2004, they arrived at their campsite and began hollering so indiscreetly that locals called the police. When officers arrived, the men told them they had just wanted to find a quiet place to pray. Their weekend of arms training was over. On a separate trip a few months later, this time to Louth, in regional New South Wales, the group wore commando pants, rendering them memorable to locals, before arriving at their rented property and noisily relieving their guns of ammunition. At the end of the weekend, they accidentally left behind “a curious device consisting of a battery connected to a number of spark plugs … Expert evidence demonstrated that this device could not have been used in any nefarious way, but the jury [was] invited to infer that it was an attempt, albeit a totally ineffective attempt, to construct some sort of explosive.” 

Struggling to finance their operation, the group kept – like a school’s chess club might – a kitty box into which members would occasionally slip donations. But violent jihad couldn’t be funded by personal donations alone. The group bought credit card numbers from corrupt taxi drivers, and retouched stolen cars for sale. That theft was financing their holy mission caused angst among some members. “What’s stupid?” asks one member. “You doing it in Allah’s cause, is that stupid?”

“Man, not stealing. Come on, man.”

“It’s what we have to do, man … You’ll point a gun at a kuffar’s head and shoot him, but you won’t put a stolen car here.”

The group were agreed upon the righteousness of mass murder, but contested fiercely the appropriateness of theft to realise it. 

“This is the selective literalism that occurs with extremist groups,” Lentini says. “But religion did have an inhibiting effect on their plans.”

There was another thing apparently more morally troubling than murder: libido. The group’s religious leader advises one young member to stop looking at pornography. “He was telling him that it would bring bad luck to the group,” Lentini says. “That Allah would look disfavourably on them if he continued to view pornography.”

The men talked about women possessively. “Have you ever seen the pictures,” one member asked another, “of the American troops in Iraq doing things to our women and stuff?” They seemed to regard women as either saints or whores: dutiful aids or wicked temptresses. But as bumbling and ignorant as most of these men were, malice does not need sophistication to terrorise. In March this year, one man associated with the Melbourne cell – who cannot be named for legal reasons – faced a committal hearing on allegations he had stabbed and mutilated his wife in front of his young children, before dumping her body in nearby parkland. The prosecution alleged that for many months his family had lived in terror; the children were bashed and his wife kept prisoner. Police believe that the final, grotesque confrontation – the alleged details of the crime are too ghastly to report – occurred after the victim’s objection to her husband joining Daesh in Syria. 

 

Increasingly, it seems, attention is being drawn to the domestically abusive pasts of terrorists and apolitical mass killers. We now have a long list. Man Haron Monis had been charged with being an accessory to the brutal murder of his former wife. James Hodgkinson, the man who recently used an assault rifle to shoot at Republican congressmen playing baseball, gravely wounding one, had a long history of domestic violence. So did Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the man who drove his truck through crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice last year. The former wife of Omar Mateen, the gunman who a year ago killed 49 in an Orlando nightclub, told The Washington Post of being beaten by him and effectively enslaved when Mateen forced her to relinquish her salary and cut ties with her parents.

In a much-cited report, the United States gun control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, analysed FBI data and reported that in mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, 57 per cent of victims included either a partner, former partner or family member of the perpetrator, and that 16 per cent of mass shooters had previously been charged with domestic violence. 

But what do we make of this litany, and these numbers? They seem to ask more questions than they answer. How meaningful is the data? If it is meaningful, how do we parse it? Everytown’s figures are American, specific to shootings, and conflate political atrocities with the apolitical. What’s more, most articles I’ve seen that cite the numbers also sensibly admit to there being multiple factors to mass murder. Domestic violence does not predict terrorism. And is it surprising that some men who commit mass murder were previously domestically violent? Is 16 per cent a significant figure? In the US, where in some states a history of spousal abuse is not sufficient grounds to preclude you from purchasing machineguns, there’s an obvious, practical use to the data. But what of Australia, which enjoys sensible gun restrictions? If we interpret terrorism as some extreme transposition of misogyny – which seems absurd – are we not fitting an ultra-specific theory upon something that’s been spawned by multiple factors? 

“Study after study, particularly about neo-jihadists, show the difficulty of profiling [mass killers],” Lentini says. “But that’s not to say there aren’t trends. One thing that stands out over the past 12 to 15 years is the first and second wave Islamists, those that fought against the Soviets, they were on average highly educated. What we’ve seen from about 2004 onwards are fewer Islamists who are educated, and [they] have higher unemployment. This mirrors the demographics of the extreme right.

“These men – and it was true of the Pendennis cells – recast themselves in a narrative that they’re self-consciously creating. Not only are scholars identifying that radicalisation involves grievance, but also empowerment. Ten years ago, the research fixed more on grievance. But one thing that’s significant in the research now is the male trying to assume some transcendence through violence. They’re looking to reassert that male sense of empowerment – which, for some of the Melbourne cell, may have been emasculated through unemployment. They weren’t the home’s breadwinner. To a certain extent, there was some male chauvinism there. 

“If terrorism is political violence, acts that generate a climate of fear, well, women’s bodies have been sites of political contest for a long, long time. It’s not a stretch to suggest domestic violence is a form of terrorism – and the most frequently perpetrated form. The domestic abuse of terrorists is an important thing to point out, and should be pursued vigorously. But right now it remains coincidental because of a lack of data.” 

Finally, Lentini tells me that, while the cells were not necessarily comprising the brightest men, they were committed. “Australian security forces saved us from a disaster,” Lentini says. “[The Melbourne cell leader] wanted to keep the group together. In a way, his loyalty to the group may have been a reason why nothing happened, in that he didn’t take up people who could have done something. They were all human. I don’t say this to make our hearts bleed. But they had common flaws. They weren’t angels or devils – they didn’t reside in some supernatural state. It’s reassuring to know that they were so fallible that they could be interdicted.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "A history of violence". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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