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After three people were stabbed, one fatally, in the centre of Melbourne, terror experts, authorities and politicians are at odds on how to stop ‘lone wolf’ attackers. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

After Bourke Street: no easy answer

Last Friday, at 4.20pm, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali’s four-wheel-drive ute mounted the footpath in central Melbourne. Shire Ali ignited his vehicle, filled with gas tanks, in the hope of creating an explosion. While the car went up in flames, happily the improvised bombs remained inert. Shire Ali then began stabbing random pedestrians in busy Bourke Street.

Two transit police officers were there almost immediately. Shire Ali was also surrounded by civilians who sought to distract or disarm him: one with a traffic cone, one with a cafe chair, another with a shopping trolley. Within two minutes, specialist police teams arrived. For the first time, Melbourne city’s emergency alarm system was activated.

While the police response was rapid, Shire Ali had stabbed three people. Tasmanian man Rod Patterson was stabbed in the head; security guard Shadi (who does not want his surname publicised) was stabbed in the neck. Both are recovering well – physically, at least. But a third man, the beloved restaurateur Sisto Malaspina, co-owner of the Bourke Street fixture Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, was fatally stabbed. He was 74 and had rushed over to render aid.

After a confrontation on Bourke Street, Shire Ali was shot by one of the two initial responders – a young constable, just months out of the police academy. Taken to hospital under guard, Shire Ali would die on the operating table. Having shot the attacker, the constable turned his attention to the bleeding security guard, staunching his wound with a towel.

“There was a terrible feeling of, ‘Oh no, not again,’ ” Associate Professor Peter Lentini told me. Lentini is the founding director of the Global Terrorism Research Unit at Monash University. “It was another situation of a tragic but unskilled attack. The manner in which he was swiping at police, it looked like he might’ve been on something – something wasn’t right. It had the feel of something without any major strategic objective other than seeing if he could kill people. He saw an opportunity.”

Hassan Khalif Shire Ali was born in Somalia in the 1980s and immigrated to Australia as a child. Friends and family spoke this week of his drug abuse, periodic domestic estrangement and increasingly “erratic” behaviour. He was also one of some 400 people on a federal terror watchlist and had had his passport revoked in 2015 after federal intelligence authorities believed he was at risk of travelling to Syria to join Daesh. However, at the time of the attack he was not being actively monitored because he was not thought to be an imminent threat. Both state and federal police this week confirmed Shire Ali had been inspired by Daesh propaganda. The terror group was typically quick in claiming responsibility.

Daesh’s military defeats – in Raqqa and Mosul, most prominently – and its subsequent fragmentation, have not necessarily quelled the number of remote individuals who are inspired by them. In fact, Lentini suggests, the opposite may be true. “Suicide attacks, for instance – there was an increase in them when groups were losing,” he says. “It was a way to re-establish morale and demonstrate relevance. I tend to think you can see the same thing with lone wolf attacks – calls go out for them when groups lose territory or are in jeopardy. It’s probably not much of a stretch that when ISIL [Daesh] made their calls it coincided with when a number of different coalitions started dropping bombs on them in Syria. Some argue that when you see campaigns like this, it’s when they’re in their death throes. They use things like this to demonstrate that there’s some life in their organisation.”

The attack will be extensively investigated. Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said, “Where you’ve got someone who picks up a kitchen knife and grabs a couple of gas bottles and drives into the CBD, these are very difficult circumstances to stop. The police and ASIO have been very clear about this for a long time.”

They have. And politicians must straddle the line between reassuring the public and not exaggerating the state’s efficacy. A police officer told me this week that these low-tech attacks merely require intent – “the weapons are literally in every kitchen in Australia – car keys and a knife”.

 

The Bourke Street attack saw the death of one Melbourne icon and the creation of another. Bystanders filmed Michael Rogers sharking oddly around two police officers, trying to ram Shire Ali with a shopping trolley. From the footage, Shire Ali seemed little concerned with the trolley – his attention was fixed upon the two police officers, who were desperately skipping around the wild arcs of his knife.

Still, it was extraordinary: is there another example, anywhere, of a civilian battling a terrorist with a shopping cart? Naturally, the footage went viral. That Rogers was homeless and had spent a good part of his adult life behind bars accentuated the idea of a people’s hero. “I’m not a hero, but I feel I’ve probably saved some lives maybe,” Rogers told the Seven Network. “Trolley Man” was enshrined in folklore. 

However, the strong feeling among police this week was that Rogers’ actions were reckless, unnecessary and of dubious value, though they delayed that criticism when Trolley Man was hoisted upon the public’s shoulders. Police saw it like this: two armed officers were almost immediately on the scene and special response teams would arrive in two minutes. This could hardly be improved. The situation was volatile – and one responsibility of an officer is to tame volatility as much as possible. But Rogers added another level of uncertainty, randomness. He wasn’t helping their odds. “He can’t control it,” an experienced officer told me. “He falls over. The trolley tips over. Is he blocking a shot? There are enough things going on – [gas] cylinders in the car – without this bloke swinging a fucking trolley around. He was a distraction. That’s how I saw it.”

On Monday, four days after the attack, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Graham Ashton spoke with Neil Mitchell on 3AW. Police had delayed their criticism of Rogers but not forsaken it, and Ashton found a delicate way to offer it. “I don’t like to criticise people in that situation,” Ashton said. “He’s acting instinctively about what he’s looking at in front of him. But if a trolley had hit a police member and knocked him over and then this offender got on top of him, we could have had a tragic consequence. I think he was trying to support the police in his own way, so I haven’t been jumping on him over the weekend.”

By the time the chief commissioner was speaking, Donna Zen, the director of the National Homeless Collective, had started a public fundraising campaign for Rogers. At time of writing, it had exceeded $143,000. “As promised, 100 per cent of the funds raised for Michael will go to him,” the fundraising web page confirmed. “They will be held in a trust account with our accountants at One Ledger, who have very generously offered to oversee the handling of the funds and make sure Michael is well taken care of and guided financially as he moves forward.”

Late on Thursday, it emerged that police wanted to speak to Rogers – who “for a number of reasons chose to be homeless”, The Age had reported – about a series of burglaries in St Kilda and the Melbourne city centre, and a breach of bail conditions.

 

The attack coincided with the Victorian election campaign and the trial of James Gargasoulas, who murdered six people with his car on the same busy street less than two years ago. It didn’t help Gargasoulas that he took the stand himself, with the intention of reading a 25-page statement, but which the judge limited to two. It was a short trial, with a shorter deliberation. Inside an hour, he was found guilty of all charges. The attack was not terror-related.

Also this week, reporting restrictions were lifted on the trial of three Melbourne men who had plotted a 2016 Christmas attack. One man had already pleaded guilty, while the other three were convicted a fortnight ago of conspiring to plan a terrorist attack. The men were arrested on December 22, 2016, only days before they had planned to attack the four iconic corners of one of Melbourne’s busiest intersections with machetes and improvised bombs. Like Operation Pendennis, the largest counterterror operation in Australian history, which yielded 18 convictions, the trial revealed the plotters’ mix of mendacity and ineptitude. One man, seemingly oblivious to the suspicion he would raise, purchased 700 nail-gun cartridges, packed with gunpowder, from a Bunnings hardware store. He bought nothing else. Staff followed him to the car park to note his car’s licence plate, which they reported to police. As it was, intelligence agencies already had him under surveillance. Ibrahim Abbas, the group’s leader, told police that he had encouraged the men, saying: “It’s not hard to kill a person with a machete – it just takes one slice to the neck.” 

In a state election campaign already bitterly contested on law and order, Shire Ali’s Bourke Street attack became an obvious focal point. When Pellegrini’s reopened on Tuesday, bouquets of flowers stretching deep into the laneway it corners, state opposition leader Matthew Guy and Prime Minister Scott Morrison were there to offer condolences – and to campaign. “It’s very humbling to be here, just listening to the stories of Sisto,” Morrison said. “There are so many people here, celebrating a life well lived regardless of how violently and terribly it was taken.”

Later, a little further up the street, Guy planted himself for a media conference. “We’ll make sure those who commit crime are appropriately punished, that first responders, who are protecting us, have every method at their disposal to keep us safe.”

The next day, Guy pledged, if elected, that he would legislate terrorism restriction orders – effectively parole conditions for those who have not committed a crime but are suspected of having been violently radicalised. The orders could compel an individual to wear an electronic bracelet and report to authorities, restrict their phone and internet access, prohibit their presence in certain locations, have them undergo de-radicalisation programs and be treated for alcohol or drug dependency.

Such orders were effectively recommended by a 2017 review undertaken by former Victoria Police chief commissioner Ken Lay and the former Victorian Court of Appeal justice David Harper. The review referred to it as a “support and engagement” order, and while resonating with Guy’s pledge, the report’s authors expressed reservations about declaring the order’s punishments in legislation because it could counterproductively emphasise the punitive over the rehabilitative aspects of it.

The Harper/Lay review made 26 recommendations, to which Daniel Andrews’ Labor government gave in-principle support late last year. On the hustings this week, the premier said: “There was no Counter Terrorism Command when I was sworn in as premier. It is now a very significant part of Victoria Police’s work, and it needs to be. I’ve been criticised for some of the law reform that we’ve made, which has been described by some as going a bit too far. I take a view that the civil liberties of a very small number of people do not outweigh the need to keep the broader community safe.”

 

Federally, the prime minister and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had plenty to say about the attack, too. On the Ten Network this week, Morrison said: “I think [mental illness is] an excuse. This bloke, radicalised here in Australia with extreme Islam, took a knife and cut down a fellow Australian in Bourke Street. I mean, I’m not going to make excuses for that. Of course, issues of mental health and all these other things are important ... He was a terrorist. He was a radical, extremist terrorist, who took a knife to another Australian because he’d been radicalised in this country. And we can’t give him excuses. These other issues are relevant, don’t get me wrong, but he was radicalised, and that’s why he took a knife to people.”

Morrison wasn’t wrong – while much is yet to be revealed, Shire Ali’s distant engagement with Daesh is established – but the prime minister was also reprising the messy, circular game of causation that arises after most atrocities, terror-related or not. Where we place the emphasis – mental health? social estrangement? religious extremism? – often reveals more about us than it does about the subject.

“You wonder what his trigger point was,” Peter Lentini says. “He was known through his affiliations with others, but he wasn’t ringing alarm bells. So, what was it that had him cross the line? I respect the prime minister indicating it wasn’t solely mental illness, but it’s incorrect to discount it all together. Every act of terrorism will have multiple causes. 

“This goes back to old terror studies. The psychologists who worked on the terror groups from the ’60s to the ’80s, their main contribution was demonstrating that those who were mentally ill weren’t suitable for terror groups. They challenged the pundits who were saying a terrorist is mentally unstable. If you can organise these things, it demonstrates some rationality.

“But if we fast-forward to the types of attacks, popularised in the 1990s by the extreme right, but also environmentalists and animal rights people, a sole attacker thing – and the Islamists came upon this after the book put out by a leading al-Qaeda theoretician after the invasion of Afghanistan – you’re going to have to go out there and do it yourself. Major breakthrough there. This whole stuff about terrorists can’t be mentally deficient would be a response to the ’60s to ’80s studies. But plenty of academics have demonstrated now that sole attackers do have a range of mental illness which precludes them from group activity. So, one can be a terrorist and suffer some type of mental illness.

“One thing that’s significant is that the Coalition is again trying to establish that it’s Islamist, not mental illness, so it seems short-sighted. We can’t look at any single cause.”

If debates about causation are predictable, so too is the scolding of Islamic communities in the wake of Islamist-inspired attacks. The prime minister asked them to be more “proactive” and said that “more needs to happen”. Peter Dutton said: “My plea is to people within particularly the Islamic community but across society, that if you have information, if you see behaviour of an individual or family member, someone in a workplace, that caused you concern, provide that information, because it may lead to somebody not going to Bourke Street mall or not committing an offence that results in loss of life.”

Most terrorism experts are agreed that the untempered lecturing of Muslim communities is counterproductive. It denies their history of co-operation and hints at some sinister recalcitrance. But it’s unlikely that these very public addresses are intended for Islamic leaders – they’re meant to reinforce a general impression of the government’s strength, even if it may perversely undermine it. 

I spoke with one federal police officer with extensive experience in community policing and liaison with mosques. “Generally, the relationship between police and the Muslim community is good,” they said. “Counterterrorist and intelligence agencies understand that we get a lot of our intelligence from within the Islamic community, so it is important to foster a strong and lasting relationship. Generally, there is a multicultural liaison officer in each city, [for example] the City of Dandenong, that works directly with all the different communities and their leaders. These liaison officers are often the first point of contact between the community leaders and police. Some of the mosques tend to not be as receptive and are sceptical of police, while others have integrated well and collaborate well with police, sharing information openly and freely.

“My concern from a policing perspective is to not demonise the Muslim community. They are our primary source of intelligence in relation to radicalised individuals. I don’t think the greater community appreciate that this is where we get our intelligence from – members within that community. They have to continue to feel comfortable in coming forward and co-operating with police.”

Peter Lentini reinforced this: “The record needs to be set straight: when these problems started... take an investigation like [Operation] Pendennis – they actually began with tips from Muslim communities themselves. So that myth is shattered. That’s extremely important. It demonstrates that Muslims follow the law. I’ve written extensively on this, as have others. Many of these people have come from circumstances that anyone in a uniform is someone who may harm them. So for them to come to police, it’s a big vote of confidence in the state.

“After the 7/7 [London bombing] attacks, you really saw the culture wars and whole Australian values debate. With respect to that, Muslims felt that we’re [co-operating] but we’re still suspect. That needs to be taken into consideration. They’re on the front line with a lot of this stuff, they’re trying to divert those from these paths. The imams of all stripes, especially in Victoria, are highly engaged with youths. I think it’s cynical and incorrect and self-serving to suggest otherwise.”

When the threshold for these unskilled, lone wolf attacks can be undetectably low, the political rhetoric can be confused. In the aftermath of such an attack, governments will sometimes admit to the impossibility of preventing every such event – but pre-emptively, especially during an election campaign, say, the rhetoric becomes pugnaciously optimistic. The experts will almost uniformly invoke a cliché on this matter: there’s no silver bullet. Just don’t expect to hear that too often on the Victorian hustings this month.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "After Bourke Street: no easy answer". Subscribe here.

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