Inside the terror of the suburbs
In this story
Abdul Numan Haider’s last night alive was a pleasantly warm one. It was T-shirt weather in Melbourne, even just before 8pm when Haider drove to Endeavour Hills police station to meet with officers. The meeting was voluntary, the result of a series of calls between the young man and joint counter terrorism members from Federal and Victoria Police. Times and locations were negotiated, and Haider was assured he would not be arrested. They just needed to chat.
The officers wouldn’t say so explicitly to Haider, but they preferred a safe venue – their station, or near it. They also wanted to create an informal situation, to better secure Haider’s co-operation. On Haider’s end, allegedly his contempt for authority had metastasised murderously, and he knew that a meeting in the police station itself would thwart his plans.
A car-park rendezvous was agreed to.
Three months before, Haider attracted authority’s attention with a series of indiscreet and venomous denunciations of ASIO and police on Facebook. There were also alarming signs of his sympathy for the Islamic State terror group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) – a photo of him in a balaclava, proudly unfurling their black flag. A more recent post read: “The main message I’m sending with these statuses and photos is to the dogs AFP and ASIO who are declaring war on Islam and Muslims, go fist each other up the ass.”
The IS has demonstrated a deftness and zeal for social media, which far eclipses that of al-Qaeda. Social media serves as both recruitment tool and a broadcaster of terror. Authorities have told me they would prefer social media sites to retain extremist clientele as it allows them to better monitor group strategy and to study metadata – ISPs, dates, etc. Haider’s indiscretion quickly tipped off analysts, but seems more the work of callow impetuosity than strategic calculation.
Weeks before the meeting, Haider was seen walking through a local shopping mall, his thin frame defiantly draped in the IS flag. For reasons still unclear, the teenager’s quest for identity ended in praise for serial killers – and he had begun plotting emulation. A week before the meeting with police officers, Haider’s passport was rescinded. He was considered at risk of flying to Syria to join the IS.
Victoria Police has a policy to raid properties sparingly in terror investigations – a high threshold exists, demanding a sense of imminent danger before raids are conducted. Otherwise, they are considered by some to be improper or inflammatory. Despite monitoring Haider for months, and suspending his passport, authorities didn’t consider Haider a major threat. There were no plans to search his property, and in the 24 hours before the fateful meeting, police had visited his home and left a note for him to call them. Through background discussions, I sensed police viewed him principally as a troubled young man and at little risk of committing a mass atrocity.
Numan Haider had attended Lyndale Secondary College in Melbourne’s south-east. He graduated last year. Friends say he was always devout but his religious intensity was a recent development. In a widely published photo taken from Facebook, Haider stands beside two friends in what looks like a bathroom. They’re well dressed, with Haider bearing a cultivated looseness: white, tight-fit business shirt hanging untucked over jeans, a skinny black tie loosened at the knot. He’s a handsome kid, both face and scalp closely shaven, and he stands with his head slightly tilted back in a posture of swagger. But inside that head was an intensifying fever dream of violence.
About 7.30pm on Tuesday, Haider left his home and drove to the police station. He allegedly brought with him two knives and an IS flag. Only days before the meeting, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released a statement imploring international sympathisers to visit their own horror on “disbelievers”.
“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,” he said.
“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”
The statement is so absurdly extreme that it might have been dismissed as vaudeville villainy had their reputation for extreme violence not been so firmly established. A recent piece of IS propaganda is a slickly shot snuff film, documenting their campaign of rape and murder in high definition. Police are currently investigating whether Haider had read the IS’s statement and was stirred to act upon it.
Haider parked his car near the station, in front of a childcare centre called Little Stars, then approached the two officers. As one of the men extended his arm to shake Haider’s hand, the teenager allegedly removed one of his two knives and attacked them. The AFP officer was stabbed in the head, neck and stomach; the leading senior constable was slashed on the arm, but not so severely that he couldn’t discharge one shot from his Glock .45 and fatally wound their attacker. It was all over in seconds. Little Stars would be closed the next day; friends of Haider’s would believe he was now joining the firmament.
At a midnight press conference, Assistant Commissioner Police Luke Cornelius fronted cameras. He provided an unusual amount of information, and cited Aristotle to commend his candour. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” he said. “It’s very much my judgement call that in these circumstances we should be fulsome in the information that we provide to you so that that absence of information isn’t filled by speculation and doesn’t lead to the sorts of concerns that might arise in a community where there’s an absence of information.”
The chief commissioner of Victoria Police, Ken Lay, was similarly candid at a press conference the next day. It brought about the question, asked by one reporter, of whether the amount of detail he was providing amounted to him improperly pre-empting the coronial inquest – automatically created for every police shooting in Victoria. Lay accepted that he was speaking in more detail than was usual, but was doing so because of the “heightened public interest” in the case. “I sent a note to the coroner this morning, letting him know of my intentions,” he said.
The Islamic Council of Victoria was aggrieved by Cornelius’s press conference, believing the detail of it to be presumptuous and damaging to a sense of fairness. “I think it was a little bit pre-emptive,” the council’s secretary, Ghaith Krayem, said. “The police have come out very clearly and almost have said it was the young man’s fault, and I don’t know, in the fall of time that may prove to be the case, but I think within a couple of hours I was disappointed.” Somewhat redundantly, he called for an investigation.
Melbourne sheikh Khoder Soueid was even more sceptical, writing: “Today Muslims are mourning the loss of our young brother Numan Haider, who was shot dead by police last night. The circumstances surrounding his death appear suspicious and will never be known. I hope Tony Abbott and the Australian government are pleased with the outcome of their fear-mongering.”
Haider’s friends took to Facebook to express shock and sadness. One wrote: “May Allah SWT grant you the highest place in Jannah our beloved brother I met you at the masjid [mosque] a few times and wallahi you were a beautiful brother with great eman and a gentleman and may we meet in again in Jannah, In Sha Allah.”
The late Numan Haider now hangs mysteriously between the global world of wickedly complicated geopolitics and the local, of suburban anomie and teenage despair. Assistant Commissioner Cornelius didn’t, and couldn’t, fill the vacuum for us, as much as he wanted to, because it’s much larger than what happened on Tuesday night. But the vacuum will be filled. For some, the government’s Churchillian warnings of the “existential threat” of the IS will now be confirmed by Haider’s plot. Here was a sombre reminder that the IS’s extremism is unchained by borders – their ambition had found a host in a young man in Melbourne. And this is all true, but it’s incomplete.
Friends of Haider’s, as well as Muslim organisations, are fixing upon the local, a scenario where the IS is almost irrelevant. Rather than treating Haider as a freelancing agent of the group, Haider is a sorrowful representative of minority youth, ghosting suburbs of low expectations. Here is a culturally estranged young man on a desperate search for identity, blazing with immaturity and a sense of injustice.
Both can be true at the same time. But the political division is so stark right now that both sides are fortified in their opposition – they’re locked in a mutual incomprehension. And the politics of terror will be of little comfort to Haider’s family, nor the officers who treated him gently until that fatal night.
If we are to accept the importance of the IS in our domestic security conversations, then we may need to widen our lens a little. For the sake of cohesion and persuasion, the past weeks’ flurry of news – an increased threat alert, massive raids in Queensland and New South Wales, the departure of Australian troops to help repulse the IS – has been fixed within a frame of a sudden and intolerable threat. It has become ahistorical and disproportionate.
Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie this week tried to widen that lens, but his provocative statements were hopelessly subsumed by other news. Wilkie was responding to a long, televised interview John Howard had given the weekend before. On the IS, Howard said: “So much of the Islamic State operation comes out of what is occurring in Syria, and to suggest that it’s purely or predominantly a result of what happened in Iraq in 2003 is false reading of history.”
Wilkie, an intelligence analyst turned whistleblower in 2003, disagreed. On Monday morning, the day before Haider drove to the police station, Wilkie appeared before the cameras. “We helped create the circumstances. I’m immovable on this point. Eleven and a half years ago we went to war based on lies, and we’ve created a security vacuum which has allowed ISIS to emerge.”
And he’s right. Howard was neatly framing the issue around the IS’s conception, but the more relevant issue is how easily the IS has occupied parts of Iraq, enabled by the brittleness of the Iraqi military – and civic institutions generally. Wilkie is talking about an Iraqi prime minister (now a vice-president), Nouri al-Maliki, who had little interest in transcending the bloodiness of sectarianism, and the agonising vulnerability of Christians, Kurds and Yazidis to the IS because of the sustained chaos resulting from the 2003 war. Here was a different kind of vacuum, and the IS has begun filling it.
Because the Greens oppose our military involvement, and our prime minister cannot renounce his mentor’s decision to follow the US in 2003, and Labor has largely acquiesced, the question of a moral obligation to vulnerable Iraqi populations hasn’t been asked. The circumlocutions of political rhetoric bear the traces of the past.
But where is Haider in all this? A wicked agent conscripted by darkness? An aggrieved observer of these waves of history, who had become ashamed of his own passivity? Or a dimwitted suburbanite whose inchoate frustrations found lucidity in murderous plots? There will always be an impulse to deny explanation, because we think it threatens cherished notions of personal agency and responsibility. Explanation, we think, can swiftly lead to exculpation or victimology. But as Cornelius knows, we’ll end up filling the vacuum with speculation or prejudice in lieu of the facts. Perhaps the coronial inquest will provide the latter.
Largely absent from our political speeches on national security is proportionality. Unquestionably there is a threat, and in background discussions I am convinced that the threat has increased in the past year – largely attributable to the rapid, visible ascendancy of the IS. The threat of radicalised youth is neither imagined nor dwindling. But how much of a threat is it? And why is it so rarely contextualised? The spectre of terrorism is rhetorically offered to us as if it were nuclear fallout – ubiquitous, ineradicable and ruinous. The truth remains, and it is relayed to me by senior police officers, that the threat is overstated. There is an infinitesimal chance of dying in a terror attack.
Repeatedly, public statements are attended by calls for calm. On Tuesday, Victorian Premier Denis Napthine told citizens: “We shouldn’t allow a single incident of an alleged misbehaviour of an individual to stop us going about our business, stop us enjoying a great spring, enjoying the footy grand final, the Melbourne Show and other great things.”
The same day, federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan added to the pleas for calm. But these calls are increasingly appearing as platitudinous footnotes, tacked to the bottom of statements that encourage the opposite. Here was Prime Minister Abbott in parliament this week: “Last week, an Australian ISIL operative instructed his followers to pluck people from the street to demonstrate that they could, in his words, ‘kill kafirs’. All that would be needed to conduct such an attack is a knife, a camera-phone and a victim.”
In the same speech, Abbott implores that “Australians should always live normally because terrorists’ goal is to scare us out of being ourselves.”
Abbott hasn’t invented this threat, and he has a responsibility to discuss it with the public. But it’s also difficult to reconcile requests for our calm with the blanket, near-hysterical attention given to national security. It’s simply not balanced, as if we have forgotten about everything else.
A good example is the National Terrorism Public Alert System, about which senior authorities have privately expressed scepticism. Currently, it’s on the second-highest ranking of “high”. Introduced in 2003 in the wake of the Bali bombings, the US and Britain have similar systems. The increase in the level two weeks ago coincide with calls for equanimity. “Normal life can and must go on,” Abbott said. This sentiment was repeated by leaders across the country.
But it’s difficult to reconcile the two – the raising of the alert and the insistence that daily life remain unaffected. The sharing of information between intelligence agencies is not predicated upon an increase in the alert. There are entirely independent, private procedures for this sharing – in other words, the level is irrelevant to the official monitoring of terror threats.
If we are asked to behave the same, what is the practical value of the alerts? Possibly it increases the number of public calls to hotlines pointing out suspicious behaviour – but authorities have told me practical intelligence is as likely to be swamped with vexatious or paranoid calls. Increasing the alert increases fear – so where is the practical benefit to offset this? Authorities could not tell me.
It is easy to conceive of the threat level as a prop of political theatre. When Paddy’s Irish Pub and the Sari Club were destroyed in Kuta in 2002, many Australians wanted a visible sign – however useless – of the government’s diligence in combating terrorism. And that sign – a stand-in for the real, secretive work that couldn’t be publicised – was provided. The public’s fear had to be reflected, and a sense of action provided. The threat system. But we must question the worth of something that changes our behaviour and yet is introduced with the wish that it doesn’t.
A former Labor operative told me this week that “the Liberals are going to burn the public out way too quickly with this stuff”. Abbott must balance candour with proportion; he cannot deny the existence of a problem, but he can’t create fresh problems by overstating it. That requires delicacy, and so far it hasn’t existed. There’s an implication in the repeated requests for us to “go about our usual business”: it’s that as citizens we can’t really do anything about this. Not positively, anyway. But with increased fear, it’s still in our hands to assist in the radicalisation of more youths. The government will need to cool this down.
Perhaps the coronial inquest will help us resolve the question: is the IS more dangerous than teenage disaffection? For the Peshmerga people in Kurdistan, the IS remains an existential threat – but for us, we’re still far more likely to perish in a car. And while the group are gibbering, blood-soaked fascists, their significance to Australian suburbs is far more subtle. There may be more clues to Haider’s madness in the shopping malls of Narre Warren than there are on the battlefields of the Middle East.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Inside the terror of the suburbs".
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