It’s in the interests of Islamic State for Muslims in Australia to be attacked or for their mosques to be attacked, because doing so would help divide the Australian community. But we should be very clear: the only people who win if Australia is divided are the extremists.
The new allegations of a plot to kidnap and behead Australians as a way of supporting the Islamic State didn’t surprise me, because there was a similar plot in the UK about seven years ago. In that UK case, it was a plot to kidnap, torture and behead a British Muslim soldier, film it, and put it on the internet. Fortunately that never happened, because the men plotting that UK murder were caught.
I haven’t personally seen any signs of an anti-Muslim backlash in Australia in response to today’s raids and the allegations that have gone before the courts. But you could expect to see some kind of reaction if an attack took place in Australia. That’s certainly what happened in the UK after the so-called “7/7” London bombings.
I worked as a police officer with Scotland Yard for about 30 years, including as the head of international counter-terrorism intelligence at New Scotland Yard. Then I came to Australia in 2003 as the UK’s regional counter-terrorism liaison officer, and more recently joined Charles Sturt University. While I was at Scotland Yard, we had a unit that specifically dealt with Muslim community and worked on building that relationship.
But we found that the most effective form of good policing happened at an individual community level: having police officers on the ground, at local stations, involved with and knowing the Islamic community, and making sure that senior members of the community knew that should anything happen – such as an attack on a mosque – that the police would take that seriously.
It’s very important to remember, whether here in Australia or overseas – it’s only a tiny minority of the Muslim community that are ever involved in any kind of extreme action. The vast majority are decent, ordinary people, who shouldn’t be attacked, and who should feel as respected and protected as any other member of the community.
To non-Muslim Australians, I’d say that if they have a mosque or an Islamic centre in their area, they can help guard against potential backlash by keeping an eye out for their neighbours. If they see someone who looks like they might be doing the wrong thing [such as recent reports of anti-Muslim leaflets and pig bodies left at a Logan mosque, south of Brisbane], instead of ignoring it, they should get on the phone and tell the police.
And it’s really important for police to protect the Islamic community. If they don’t, there’s a risk that people will feel isolated and that’s not in Australia’s best interests.
As for Islamic State, if they or their sympathisers can arrange a situation where we see parts of the Australian community pitted against each other, then that’s exactly what they want. That’s the kind of situation that breeds more sympathy for their cause, so that disenchanted young people end up either going overseas or else taking actions in their own countries.