By Andrew Clark
Nov 16 2018
When Sisto Malaspina, a man who represented the soul of Melbourne, lay dying from a terrorist's stab wounds in the heart of the city, his final breaths were witnessed by people in China watching WeChat on iPhones.
The feeds originated from Chinese students attending nearby RMIT. They filmed the shocking attack late on Friday afternoon, November 9, as 30-year-old Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, an Islamist terrorist, set fire to his four-wheel-drive in Bourke Street, then stabbed three men, including the universally respected 74-year-old restaurateur, Malaspina, who died at the scene.
Minutes later Shire Ali was shot in the chest by police and later died in hospital.
As the incident unfolded staff at the RMIT's Fact Check Unit just a few blocks away started getting Twitter feeds – words and video. "Within minutes you knew exactly what was happening," says Caitlyn Batterham, an intern with the Fact Check Unit. She drew on the SnapMap facility on SnapChat, a place "where you find where your friends are and hot-spots of activity".
"There was a massive red dot where this was happening – a lot of people Snap Chatting videos and shots from the area." Social media revolutionised the public's real time, direct and visual witnessing of the shocking terrorist attack on Bourke Street. "You can't censor things; it's just what people were seeing," says Batterham.
The terrorist attack also transformed the Melbourne CBD. Heavily armed police wearing military apparel manned busy intersections. Sirens wailed, loud public address systems swung into action, buildings were locked down, people were told to remain indoors. The world's "most liveable city" morphed into one under terrorist siege like Paris and Brussels.
Mouthed the Same Lines
Less clear is how much the spectre of Islamist terrorism on our streets is changing Australia. Like a well-rehearsed play, various groups have mouthed the same lines on the matter.
However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison departed from the more accommodating approach of his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, when he pointed out that Ali, a "violent, extremist Islamic terrorist," was "radicalised" in Australia. "We would be kidding ourselves if we did not call out the fact that the greatest threat of religious extremism in this country is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam," Morrison said.
Sheik Mohammed Omran, whose Hume Islamic Youth Centre was attended by Shire Ali for prayer meetings, claimed "the bloody Prime Minister" was blaming the entire Muslim community for the attack. Labor MP Anne Aly, a counter-terrorism expert, accused Morrison of "dividing the community" by singling out religious groups and exploiting the terrorist attack for his own political gain.
Aly also compared terrorism to domestic violence, saying violence perpetrated by jihadists "pales in comparison", although she later backtracked from this point.
Isaac Kfir, director of the National Security Program and head of the Counter-Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, adopts a cautious, evidence-based, approach. He says there are "too many unknown factors" to "lead to logical conclusions". However, his "understanding" was that Omron was a "well-respected imam" and there was no "concern that particular mosque" was "an incubator" of a "radical form of Islam".
According to Kfir, radicalisation "is a prolonged process. We don't know which element came into the equation. We don't know what access he had to online information. It's a bit challenging to paint a picture of who this individual was. It's also challenging to say if he had been more closely monitored this horrific attack would have been avoided."
"I don't think so," Kfir says.
Levi West, director of terrorism studies at Charles Sturt University in Wagga, says the concept that the Islamic faith somehow encourages, facilitates, legitimises and allows terrorism to grow is "ludicrous". He points out that in the US in the 1990s it was "the far right" that was the main target of the FBI's anti-terrorism activities. He also equates the violent anti-Arab actions of some Israeli settlers on the occupied West Bank and hard-line Buddhists' attempts to "eradicate" the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar with terrorism.
"Of the 1.7 billion Muslims very, very few of them, maybe in their thousands of people, are terrorists." Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world and a functioning democracy, has a "relatively small, manageable terrorism problem. It is certainly not as bad as what happened during the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland (from 1969 to the Good Friday Accords negotiated by UK Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998).
Australia is a target for terrorism because of its support for the US military actions in Middle East countries like Iraq and Syria, West asserts. "We live in the world" and "terrorism has been around for 2000-plus years. Guerrilla warfare and terrorism – that's what you do if you are weak and you don't like the status quo."
According to Michael Clarke, an associate professor at the National Security College at the ANU, extremism exists among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Jews. At the same time, Salafist Jihadism, which acts as sort of perverted legitimisation of anti-Western terrorism, is a "very marginalised view" within Islam.
"It pays to be quite specific," Clarke says. "We're not suggesting that the entire Muslim community in Australia is a national threat to security. The question is, are they a little bit gun shy [as a result of] being identified with the actions of fringe elements in the wider Muslim community. But we can't just talk about Australia in isolation. Australia is very much linked to broader trends in global and regional terrorism."
The most recent iteration of this local-global terrorist issue has been the controversy over the Morrison government's consideration of shifting the Australian embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which was floated in the lead-up to the October 20 Wentworth by-election. It has led to a delay in the signing of the Australia-Indonesia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and in the past few days Indonesian politicians have warned "radicals" could target Australians in terror attacks in response to the possible embassy shift.
Veteran Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has also said the possible embassy shift could increase the risk of terrorism. His comment led to deputy Liberal Party leader and Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, accusing Mahathir of having "form", having made a "number of derogatory remarks in the past about Jews". Frydenberg's comments in turn led to former Labour government foreign minister Bob Carr criticising Frydenberg for "assailing" the leader of a country which was friendly to Australia.
None of the experts' remarks or the disagreements about the putative – and, in reality, unlikely – shift of Australia's embassy in Israel really address a more everyday view about the nature of Islamist terrorism in Australia. It is that, as former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard put it when announcing the royal commission into institutional sexual abuse, members of those institutions (and in the terrorism case so-called "moderate" Muslims) "avert their eyes" when they witness evil acts being planned, or even perpetrated.
It is also true that in the past four years terrorism in Australia has been perpetrated by people who have done so in the name of Islam. These include the Endeavour Hills stabbings in Melbourne, the Sydney Lindt Cafe hostage crisis, the shooting outside the Parramatta Police headquarters in western Sydney, the Minto stabbing, the Queanbeyan stabbing, the Brighton siege in Melbourne, the Mill Park stabbing in Melbourne, and the November 9 stabbings in Bourke Street.
On top of that the police have foiled numerous plots for violent jihadist acts in Australia which have been aimed at killing innocent Australians. These include plans to down planes and blow up Melbourne's Federation Square – evil acts which, if they had taken place, could have resulted in the deaths and maiming of hundreds or thousands of Australians.
And that terrible image of Sisto Malaspina being randomly murdered by an Islamist terrorist in Bourke Street persists.