One man’s terrorist: Another man’s freedom fighter

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ASIO has identified a surprising new threat besides radical Islam: the threat of terrorism from anti-Islamic organisations, writes Dr Alison Broinowski.

IT IS UNFORTUNATE that so many terrorists die in the act.

Not because they become martyrs and go straight to paradise, nor because on earth they escape trial and long terms of imprisonment, but rather because they don’t live to explain why they did it.

This we need to know. Instead, we are left with the statements of the few terrorists who survive, the speculations of counter-terrorism experts (who now seem to outnumber them), and the assertions of intelligence officials and police. Such explanations don’t help our understanding much: for example, "they hate our freedoms" from a president who had no idea what the 9/11 terrorists hated.

Facts being hard to come by, fiction − particularly by non-Western writers − explores terrorists’ motives in ways that are more complicated and less predictable.

Three men in two novels serve as examples.

Stern, dedicated fundamentalism is not the motive (far from it) of the two perpetrators of separate bomb attacks in Delhi in Karan Mahajan‘s The Association of Small Bombs (2016). Instead, their groups operate shambolically, with incoherent reasoning, fumbling amateurism and lonely desperation. One terrorist is under-educated but vengeful, the other is a graduate and idealistic. Neither has much money, both are Muslims and they share resentment at being humiliated by Hindus. One survives to groom more young bombers; the other fails in an attempt to assassinate Narendra Modi, but bombs a market instead.

In Moshin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and Mira Nair’s 2012 film, the Pakistani protagonist Changez is a Princeton graduate with a promising career in Wall Street. But he then learns on a business visit to Chile about the pernicious workings of America’s economic empire. In 2001, he is "remarkably pleased" by the destruction of the twin towers and of the American global dominance which it represents. No longer performing well, he loses his job and returns to Lahore. There he teaches international finance and advocates non-violence to his admiring students. After one of them is arrested for planning an attack on a prominent visiting American, the story climaxes with Changez’s televised manifesto against U.S. militarism.

Of the three men in these novels, two have lived in the United States and do not hate its freedoms. Interestingly, all three of them have lost or never had girlfriends and all have lost contact with their parents.

Few "factual" accounts of terrorism in Western countries describe its randomness, or its psychological complexity, in this way.

However, Robert Pape’s continuing project at the University of Chicago on what motivates American terrorists (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005) empirically confirms the urge to seek vengeance for attacks on fellow-Muslims as a common motivator.

As the attacker at London’s Leytonstone station on 5 December 2015 was reportedly heard to say:

‘This is for Syria!’ 

Well before 2001, Chalmers Johnson (Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2000) showed that revenge for fellow Muslims was the motivation for terrorism. All the Western countries where recent attacks have occurred – the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, Russia, Denmark and France – are those seen by Muslims to have assaulted the faithful, their homelands or their Prophet.

France had been bombing Syria for two years before the 13 November 2015 attacks, which Islamic State (IS) itself explained:

‘If you bomb us we’ll attack you.’ 

Early this year, Abu Bakar Bashir reminded Indonesians that "terrorists" were trained in Aceh to defend Islam and Muslims in Indonesia and overseas, as

"... an obligation Muslims must fulfil because it is God’s order."

Let us not forget that Australians were targeted in Bali in 2002 soon after the Howard Government had sent troops into Afghanistan and was known to be preparing to invade Iraq. In 2014 and 2015, when the Abbott Government sent troops back into Iraq, Australians were attacked again in Melbourne and Sydney. Our intelligence agencies regard another terrorist event as "probable". 

It is significant that Spain withdrew from Iraq after the 2004 Milan bombing and Canada took its bombers out of Syria after Trudeau’s election — and neither has been attacked since. Turkey’s Kurdish areas and Istanbul’s tourist centre have been bombed by terrorists, apparently in response to activities in Iraq and Syria. When Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, in 2004, pointed out that Australia’s invasion of Iraq invited blowback, he was promptly silenced — yet the pattern continues.

Another result of our adventures in the Middle East is the exit of Australians to join some 40,000 "foreign fighters" there. About 5,000 are from Western Europe, 4,700 from Russia, and 400 from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Of 100 Australian fighters and some 170 supporters, about 60 have been killed.

The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan said that the number of foreign fighters investigated by Australia has doubled from 2014 to 2015, as has the number of passports cancelled in the same years. He speculates that identity is what turns Australian citizens into foreign fighters; these factors, national, tribal, religious, ethnic and familial, Dr Shanahan considers, will continue to influence people for years — and even if Islamic State is overthrown in Iraq, they will join other groups. But he doesn’t repeat Keelty’s inconvenient truth about the threat that Australia itself invites.

When troops go to war, nationals at home like those they are fighting are commonly perceived as enemies. Germans, Italians and Japanese in Australia were expelled or interned during World War II. Since then, migration from several Muslim countries to Australia has increased and now all these people – whether militant or not – are targeted. One Nation campaigned in July’s election, not against Asians, but against Muslims in Australia and won four seats.

So it was a surprise on 18 October when a different threat was identified by ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis to a Senate committee. He expressed concern not only about radical Islam but also about radical anti-Islamic organisations, particularly Reclaim Australia, which he said were prepared to resort to violent tactics against Muslims. In August, for the first time, Australian counter-terrorism laws were used to charge a man affiliated with Reclaim with allegedly collecting or making documents to prepare to commit terrorist acts. The threat to citizens from such groups – which may include the Q Society, Australian Defence League, Australia First, One Australia, Rise Up Australia, and Unite Australia – has been recognised by ASIO.  

Is it surprising that Duncan Lewis’ statement was so little reported in the mainstream media? 

Dr Alison Broinowski is vice-president of Australians for War Powers Reform and vice-president of Honest History.

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