Terror: time to stop politicising and start getting practical
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Terror: time to stop politicising and start getting practical

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

As an analyst who has worked in the terrorism field for the better part of 15 years, I can describe to you with 99 per cent accuracy the reaction to a terrorism incident. The public feel shock and horror as well as sympathy for the victims. Politicians on both sides swat at the issue in an attempt to score points and virtue signal. Suspicions and aspersions are cast towards immigrants, refugees and all Muslims. The Muslim and immigrant communities express exasperation that they are collectively responsible for the actions of individuals. Police and counter-terrorism officials cop a mixed bag of gratitude for responding to the attack and criticism for supposedly not doing more to stop it.

Sure enough, that was the response in the wake of the Bourke Street attack.

But it’s time to stop this rote rhetorical cycle. It’s time to stop politicising and start getting practical when it comes to terrorism. Instead of vague talking points, let’s start asking, “What actually works?” “What does the research say about what drives radicalisation to violence?” “How can we apply that research to government policy and counter-terrorism efforts?”

Well, the research shows that process of radicalising to violence – the process by which someone’s radical beliefs cause them to commit an act of violence in the name of that ideology – is a highly idiosyncratic process.

While working on cases in the NYPD and Boston Police Department as well as reviewing cases in Australia, the evidence is frustratingly clear. Despite our best wishes and attempts to come up with it, there is no one terrorist profile. There is no definitive list of behavioural indicators that we can check off to indicate that this individual will commit an act of terrorism. Acts of modern-day jihadist terrorism, such as the Bourke Street attack, are often a toxic blend of belief in a radical ideology, mental-health issues, moral injury, and failures around group and self-identity. Each individual who commits an act of violence in the name of jihad is made up of their own bespoke blend.

Therefore, we can no longer issue broad, counterproductive calls for the Australian Muslim community to “do more” to call out jihadist inspired violence. We can no longer put the onus entirely on them to police their diverse and mostly unconnected community actors. Rather we must develop mechanisms to overcome the “bystander effect”. The bystander effect is when people are discouraged to intervene in an emergency situation, especially when there are many others present.

When you apply the bystander effect to terrorism, it means that friends, family members, neighbours and co-workers of an individual – the precise people who would suspect an individual could commit a violent act – don’t speak up or alert social services or authorities. They don’t want to intervene even though they, the people closest to an individual who could be radicalised to violence, are the ones best placed to make a call.

Often law enforcement is not the first entity that recognises that someone could become a threat. Unless we want to live in a police state, law enforcement cannot blanket-monitor everyone’s communications and actions.

Therefore, we need avenues for friends and family members to seek help for an individual they are concerned about without having to resort to dobbing in their friends and loved ones to the police in the first instance.

Just as importantly, we need to co-ordinate resources and mechanisms for the police to be informed in a timely manner when an individual does get beyond the reach of social and medical services and shows signs of becoming a danger to the community. We need to come up with ethical and legal mechanisms that break down information barriers between law enforcement, social, medical and educational services.

We also have to take a case-management approach to individuals who come across law enforcement’s radar. A case-management approach brings together a team of people from law enforcement, mental-health social services and an individual’s close associates to assess each individual case and come up with an individual course of treatment, monitoring and, when necessary, surveillance and prosecution. Individuals must be managed through a threat assessment process. The threat assessment process, pioneered by the US Secret Service but now used to assess the risk of individuals committing acts of mass violence more broadly, is a structured group process to evaluate the risk posed by an individual in response to a concerning behaviour.

In Victoria, there are already efforts along those lines. Victoria had already begun this process when it established the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre in response to the Lay/Harper Review of counter-terrorism laws. We need to highlight these efforts and find ways to better resource them. We need to make sure that these efforts are bolstered by the latest research on terrorism, radicalisation and violence prevention. We can and should look at successful efforts and best practices to counter other public safety threats like gang violence, domestic violence and mass shootings from around the world to inform this work.

In spite of politicians' calls for the Muslim community to do more and for better co-operation with law enforcement, there is already a lot of that going on behind the scenes. But all too often both the law-enforcement and civil-society actors in the Muslim and immigrant communities are reluctant to discuss the many ways in which they are co-operating for fear of blowback. Counter-radicalisation programs are kept under wraps by government officials. Having worked on programs like this in the US, I certainly understand the sensitivities and controversies involved, but it does a disservice to public safety and social cohesion efforts overall by not speaking candidly about these efforts. It all but guarantees that the politicised and unproductive discourse continues when the public is not well informed.

Areas of expertise: Terrorism and violent extremism; digital technology; disinformation; authoritarianism; national security; emergency management and countering violent extremism; crisis and natural disasters; radicalisation; counterterrorism; policy; Middle East; US national security