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The response to radicalised Parramatta shooter Farhad Jabar shows what is needed to combat terrorism in Australia. By Mike Seccombe.

Farhad Jabar shooting sees a change in the failed language of terror

We can only guess how Tony Abbott would have responded had he, rather than Malcolm Turnbull, been prime minister this past week.

Pretty certainly, though, his response to the murder of a police employee by a radicalised young Muslim in Parramatta would have involved a coterie of human props in uniform, a plethora of Australian flags and numerous references to the “death cult” and the threat it posed to “team Australia”.

Would he have reminded us again, as he did in the aftermath of deadly attacks in France and Tunisia in June, that “they’re coming after us”? Would he have claimed, as he did in his national security statement in February, that “a new Dark Age” is upon us, necessitating further restrictions on civil liberties and new punitive measures?

Perhaps he might have called on Muslim leaders to more often declare Islam a religion of peace, and “mean it”, as he also did in that statement.

Or Abbott might have again suggested Islamist terrorists are worse than Nazis. As he said in an October 3 radio interview: “The Nazis did terrible evil but they had sufficient sense of shame to try to hide it. These people [Daesh] boast about their evil.”

In September last year, when Numan Haider stabbed two police officers before being shot dead in Melbourne, Abbott was en route to a meeting at the United Nations. He still made time to record a video message during a layover in Hawaii, telling us he had been briefed on the “fierce attack” and reminding us once more that there were extremists among us.

Nothing could stop his relentless politicking on the subject, not even regard for due judicial process. Thus in February, after two men were arrested in a major police raid, he regaled parliament with the untested allegations against them.

“Kneeling before the death cult flag with a knife in his hand and a machete before him, one of those arrested said this: ‘I swear to almighty Allah we will carry out the first operation for the soldiers of the caliphate in Australia,’ ” Abbott recounted, in part.

“I don’t think it would be possible to witness uglier fanaticism than this – more monstrous fanaticism and extremism than this – and I regret to say it is now present in our country.”

Respecters of the rule of law were appalled. Robert Richter, QC, said the comments amounted to a potentially prejudicial and “calculated political gambit” intended to influence the judicial process.

Turnbull’s comments after last Friday’s shooting could not have been more different: “The Australian Muslim community will be especially appalled and shocked by this. As [New South Wales Police] Commissioner Andrew Scipione and the Premier [Mike Baird] have noted, we must not vilify or blame the entire Muslim community with the actions of what is, in truth, a very, very small percentage of violent extremist individuals.”

Jabar didn't act alone

Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar was just 15 and in year 10. His social media use showed a string of deeply ordinary interests: The Voice, The Simpsons and basketball. He was apparently devout, attending the Parramatta mosque and Friday prayer group meetings at his school, and quiet and friendly. There was nothing at all to indicate to law enforcement authorities that he held any extremist beliefs.

Yet last Friday afternoon this apparently unremarkable boy, having earlier gone to the mosque, wearing black robes and armed with an old revolver, walked up behind accountant Curtis Cheng, 58, as he left Parramatta police headquarters and shot him in the back of the head.

After killing Cheng, Jabar was himself killed in an exchange of gunfire with police.

In the week since, we have seen a great deal of activity, but learnt little.

Police now do not believe the boy acted alone. On Tuesday morning they arrested a 16-year-old student outside Arthur Phillip High School, over threatening social media posts and alleged intimidation of officers.

On Wednesday, 200 police carried out raids in the suburbs of Guildford, Wentworthville, Merrylands and Marsfield, and arrested four young men – ages 16 to 22 – on suspicion that they were connected to the attack. Three of them had been among 15 people detained during Australia’s largest-ever counterterrorism operation, in September last year, which resulted in just one being charged with a terrorism offence.

The speculation is that Jabar was groomed by others to carry out the attack because they were under such heavy surveillance they could not do it themselves, and that the gun used was obtained through a “Middle Eastern crime gang”.

Anti-terror instruments failed

Of course, the questions of how it happened are important, as it is important to bring to justice those who planned it. But the bigger question is why it happened. And how to stop it happening again.

This much is clear: all the punitive and draconian legislation introduced by the Abbott government could not have stopped it, and the billion-odd extra dollars committed to law enforcement in the past year produced no intelligence relevant to the case.

As NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said: “The 15 year-old deceased has not been a target of ours and is not somebody we would have assessed as a threat.” 

But there were clues. Only after the tragedy did police learn from other worshippers at the mosque that Jabar had recently begun keeping bad company, sitting with a group of men known for their rudeness and considered to hold dangerous views.

More importantly, we now learn that others had held concerns about the boy’s deteriorating mental health.

On Thursday Guardian Australia published a piece by Michael Safi, an Arabic-speaking reporter who has spent the past year or so building connections in the Islamic community. It was an interview with another worshipper at the Parramatta mosque, a man identified only as Isaac, who had attempted to engage with the obviously troubled boy over the previous two or three months.

Jabar, he said, was withdrawn, spoke of being bullied at school, said he didn’t want to go there anymore. Isaac conveyed his concerns to psychologists and other professionals. “And the feedback was, these were depressive symptoms, these were symptoms of trauma, of anxiety.”

He offered to put the boy in touch with professional help. But the last time Isaac saw Jabar, the boy was sitting with a group of four strange men, and gave him the “cold shoulder”.

“[We] need to understand the religious and cultural implications that mental health has,” Isaac said. “A young Muslim person battling depression isn’t going to go out and talk about it. It’s seen as something, within the context of the community, it doesn’t feed into the notion of being a man, of being resilient.”

Isaac is helping to organise a conference on mental health in the Islamic context, work that, as Safi noted, “has now taken on a new significance”.

Deradicalisation strategies needed

The obvious point here is that Farhad Jabar was no hardcore terrorist, at least not until the very end. He was a kid going through the same agonies of identity that many do at the same age. And no doubt feeling particularly isolated, coming from a community disinclined to recognise his problems, within a larger community in which his customs, beliefs and even attire marked him as a suspected outsider.

Had he received the right help, the horror of last Friday might not have happened. The broader point is that while billions have been spent on enforcement, not much has been done about engagement. Sure, the government has talked about “deradicalisation” strategies, but it has done little more than that.

Consider the joint announcement made by then-prime minister Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis of the new “Countering Violent Extremism” strategy last August.

“As Team Australia, we need to support community efforts to prevent young Australians being radicalised …” it began. Of the $630 million in extra funds announced for counterterrorism measures, just $13.4 million was earmarked “to strengthen community engagement programs in Australia with an emphasis on preventing young Australians from becoming involved with extremist groups”.

The numbers serve to emphasise the point made by associate professor Anne Aly of Curtin University, who specialises in public policy responses to terrorism.

“To date, Australia has focused very much on the punitive. We’ve invested a billion on security, but very little on prevention,” she says.

The relatively tiny amount devoted to engagement and prevention is a good start, “but we’re well behind the eight ball” here.

“People who are 15 and 16 now are two years ahead of us in their process towards radicalisation while we’re still thinking the only thing we can do is intervene, rather than prevent,” Aly says.

“The government wants NGOs to do a lot of the work. But to do the work the government wants will cost them a lot of money. You have to be willing to hire and fund professionals.

“Community engagement requires more than just engaging with community leaders, those who are willing to engage with you, but doing the hard yards to seek out people who are unwilling to engage with you.”

Politics of terror and security

Which brings us back to Tony Abbott, whose attitudes and comments on the subject only served to make the process of engagement harder.

And it was not just him. The fuelling of community division in this area has been a hardy perennial of conservative politicking for 14 years.

Back in mid-2001 prime minister John Howard looked gone. At the end of July, opposition leader Kim Beazley was seen as the superior leader on most measures. Newspoll had Beazley leading Howard on understanding the major issues, 69-63; on vision, 70-69; on trustworthiness, 58-51; and on decisiveness and strength, 62-61.

Then the MV Tampa sailed over the horizon, with its cargo of asylum seekers. And on September 11, Howard was in Washington when Islamists attacked America.

Almost immediately all the indicators turned around. Two months later it was Howard in front 81-74 on understanding the big issues; 77-70 on vision; 62-60 on trustworthiness. On the key indicator, strength and decisiveness, he led 76-57.

Ever since, the two issues of border security and terrorism have been conflated and exploited.

No doubt it was good politics, as evidenced by the fact that even as people had lost faith in Abbott in most areas, polls showed he was still held to be strong on issues of security. And the Labor opposition was little better. In its determination not to be outflanked, it waved through draconian government policies, even if it refrained from the kind of rhetoric used by the prime minister.

Good politics but divisive and counterproductive governance.

Says Aly: “The tone of political discourse has a huge impact on how government programs are perceived. Any efforts by the government to combat radicalisation are going to be less effective if they are perceived as politics.”

And there is little doubt Australia’s Muslims perceived the Abbott regime as playing politics. Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, attests to that.

“During the past year or so many communities were alarmed at the ‘Team Australia’ rhetoric used by the government. It begged the question of who was on the team and who wasn’t. It left the impression the government believed there was an ‘us’ and ‘them’, with Muslim Australians cast as ‘them’.

“Another source of disquiet was a comment suggesting Muslims needed to say Islam was a religion of peace ‘and mean it’. Those sentiments were regarded as a deep affront to Muslim Australians who are good, decent and law-abiding citizens.”

Hope for change under Turnbull

But quite suddenly, things have changed. In part, no doubt, that’s down to the circumstances of the Parramatta event, which showed so comprehensively the inadequacy of current counterterrorism policy.

But mostly it’s due to the change of prime minister.

Malcolm Turnbull’s response to the tragedy of Parramatta contained no references to “Team Australia” or to the “death cult”. There was no frightening hyperbole. Rather there was reassurance. His language was echoed by relevant ministers and the Shorten opposition.

Instead, Turnbull and Premier Mike Baird convened a phone conference with Islamic leaders, to discuss their mutual response. Just words, perhaps, but they matter. There is also the message from Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, assistant minister for multicultural affairs, who indicated on Tuesday that the government had now realised they need to stop vilifying and start engaging.

“It is very clear that we now need to review what we are doing, reset the agenda and work much more closely with communities,” she said. 

She noted that most of the good work now being done was happening mostly “without government assistance”.

The clear implication was that more government assistance would be forthcoming, although details were scant.

Turnbull is considering, not provoking. Journalists seeking comment from his office are being politely told he does not want to play politics with the issue. It’s a stark difference.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Changing the failed language of terror". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.