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The reality of religiously-motivated terrorism in Australia

By Laurence Maher - posted Friday, 30 December 2016


On 8 May 2015 a young man, who for legal reasons can only be identified by the randomly chosen initials MHK, was arrested at his home in suburban Melbourne. The premises were searched over the next four days following which MHK was charged with doing an act in preparation for, or planning, a terrorist act contrary to s 101.6(1) of the Commonwealth Criminal Code. The maximum penalty for that preparatory terrorism offence is life imprisonment with a possible fine of the equivalent of $360,000.

The prosecution of MHK was instituted in the Children's Court because at the time he committed the criminal acts he was 17 years of age. It was transferred to the Supreme Court of Victoria where MHK pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Justice Lex Lasry on 7 December 2016.

In substance, s 100.1 of the Code defines "terrorist act" as meaning an action or threat of action "which is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause" and done or (made) with the intention of either, first, coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country, or, secondly, intimidating the public or a section of the public.

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The Commonwealth Parliament was reacting to the crystal clear reality that the scourge of contemporary terrorism involves mass murder of innocents around the globe by groups which openly proclaim and glorify their intention of advancing an integrated political, religious and ideological cause.

The three statutory adjectives are operatively distinct. In reality, they are invariably inter-linked because many, if not most, contemporary terrorist movements are linked by their desire to substitute theocracy for "loathsome" secular/western/democratic forms of government.

MHK was born in Australia in 1998. His parents had earlier fled Syria in the context of sectarian Shia/Sunni conflict. Because of his family background, MHK had a strong interest in what was happening in Syria. That led to a deeper involvement and strong commitment to his and his parents' religion and for a time the results were positive. He spent a lot of time on the internet seeking the teachings of religious scholars and came to think more about the events occurring in Syria and the suffering being inflicted on his co-religionists. He began absorbing Islamic State (IS) propaganda. As with other individuals, this led him to support IS and its campaign of violence. He contemplated travelling to Syria and joining the fight there, but this would have required his parents' approval to travel. After making contact with a person identified only as JH, he chose instead to support the IS jihad by launching a terrorist attack in Melbourne with a view to killing and injuring a significant number of people.

JH, who was 20 years of age at the time of his death (apparently in Syria) in August 2015 was an IS jihadist, propagandist and recruiter. He had been a party to a planned terrorist attack in London in 2013 using pipe bombs filled with nails.

By the end of 2014, MHK was watching films of sectarian atrocities being committed in Syria and had become completely absorbed in his religion. MHK was enrolled at high school until early 2015 at which time he developed an anxiety condition. In giving evidence at his sentencing hearing, MHK said that at that stage he regarded IS as defending his co-religionists from oppression globally and he considered IS as their saviour.

There is an alarming rapidity with which MHK embarked on his career as an Australian jihadist. His criminal acts occurred over a period of 11 days in April/May 2015. With the assistance of JH, MHK obtained and followed instructions for the construction of improvised explosive devices from materials freely available in the community and containing large amounts of shrapnel in the form of screws.

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Inspired by his regard for JH as a martyr in the religious cause of IS, MHK's intention was to increase the number of deaths and injuries by placing one or more camouflaged explosive devices in the Melbourne CBD or on a train or at a police station.

The bomb-making instructions followed by MHK were expressed in language of religious hatred and contempt. MHK had used Facebook to post a large number of messages expressing his hatred for infidels and apostates likening them, for example, to cockroaches. He had in his possession jihadist material referring to the attacks in Australia in 2014 by Man Haron Monis in Sydney and by Numan Haider in Melbourne.

Justice Lasry found that MHK's actions in acquiring the materials necessary to make a bomb including acquiring several of the necessary parts only two days before his arrest made his intentions clear enough.

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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