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Q&A: what we can learn from the Sydney siege, and what next

It is hard to police ‘soft targets’ for violent, lone wolf actors without becoming an overpoliced state. AAP/Dean Lewins

Sydney is slowly returning to normal after police brought an end to a 16-hour siege in a Martin Place cafe in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, and two hostages, Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson, were killed. Six were hospitalised; three with gunshot wounds.

The Conversation spoke with counter-terrorism expert Clarke Jones of the Australian National University to understand the right response for the media, politicians and law enforcement agencies.

The media was quick to report this as an “act of terror”. Do we need to be more careful about what we label as “terrorism”?

Without a doubt. If you look at the international attention this has received – not only at a political level with international leaders involved but also with the media’s interest and their ongoing, rolling coverage – and you were to take out the word “terrorism”, the word “Islamic”, the words “Islamic State”, and remove all the labels then you wonder whether this incident would receive the same sort of attention.

There are a number of siege and hostage-type scenarios that go on around the world on a weekly basis, and yet we see this type of incident attracting this incredible attention because of the hype around terrorism at the moment, particularly over the last 6-12 months with the rise of Islamic State (IS).

It’s the same with the recent incident in Canada. Yes, it’s a scary incident when someone storms parliament, but again we see these lone actors around the world on many occasions when it’s not terrorism-related – so there is a concern whether we’re taking this over the top.

I think widening the scope of these incidents by labelling them as “terrorism” encourages copy-cat type activity by way of increased coverage and attention. While this guy is unlikely to have had any association with IS – although he claims an association with IS like many vulnerable loners have done in the past – I think it helps to encourage rather than prevent that activity.

Even though the perpetrator appears to have had no formal links to IS, is there a risk it could still be used as propaganda?

I wouldn’t be surprised if IS was to monopolise this situation and use it as one of its propaganda tools to show that it can reach out to other countries – as it did with the recent act in Canada.

We really are, in a sense, encouraging and supporting IS – if I can use that way – by this crazy coverage. This is not just by the media, but by political leaders and political parties: Barack Obama was briefed on the situation, for example. It’s just crazy what we’re doing and how Islamic State could use all the rhetoric that has surrounded this for its own cause.

What do we know about lone wolf terrorism? How can we better protect ourselves from it?

It’s very hard. If you look at both the nature of the offender and also the type of “soft” targets where this sort of attack occurs, it’s very hard to have a police presence everywhere. We don’t want to live in an over-policed state with an abundance of police on the streets. And it’s very hard considering the perpetrator carried a shotgun in his bag – what do you do? Search every bag?

The perpetator has certainly come to police attention, but it’s still very hard to predict this sort of activity. If there are people who are slightly unhinged, it’s very hard for intelligence agencies to detect if they’re going to go off or not if they haven’t ever come to the attention of agencies previously.

The other side of this is the target. It’s very hard to police these soft targets, such as cafes, cinemas, shopping centres, even though we’ve seen acts of terrorism conducted in these places worldwide. We’ve already upped our police presence around Australia because of the heightened terrorist risk.

In terms of a response, I think we still need to do a lot of work in relation to sections of society or minority communities who have been marginalised. While the government has a number of positive engagement programs where police and security agencies establish better relations with certain communities, we need to develop the relationship past that of trying to get people to come in and tell us when someone comes to their attention or is of concern. That should be an ongoing job.

Is community engagement, not more anti-terror laws, the best way forward?

With the passage of the recent counter-terrorism legislation I think we’re starting to get towards a “police state”. If the government is going to develop this type of legislation it needs to be sold better. It needs to be sold that it’s not just focusing on the Muslim community. It needs to be sold better to say that it’s more across the board, rather than the focus on this one community.

I think the government rhetoric of “Team Australia” is very counter-productive. It’s along the President Bush line of “you’re either with us or against us”. We need to embrace diversity; we need to embrace that people don’t necessarily have to like Australia but they’re not going to do anything wrong. We’re entitled to have our views and we should be able to voice those views in a peaceful way.

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