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Monday, September 12, 2016

Minto stabbing: How Islamic State's message turns troubled souls into terrorists

The German term "amok laufer" or "someone who runs amok" describes a person who, following a long period of brooding, snaps and goes on a mass murder rampage.

After a 17-year-old Afghan refugee attacked several train passengers with a knife and axe in Wurzburg, Germany in July, the country's interior minister Thomas de Maiziere described the assault as "perhaps half-way between running amok and terror".

It's that vague half-way point that is the new challenge for authorities to identify in advance so they can stop such people before they attack. It may require a new algorithm for prioritising terrorism cases for monitoring.

Lindt Café gunman Man Haron Monis and Orlando gunman Omar Mateen were classic cases. When you added up all the worrying signs, the threat they posed seemed obvious in retrospect, yet they remained below the threshold on each individual metric.

Each case is different, but early indications are we've seen it again in the Minto attack this weekend. Ihsas Khan, the young man accused of a frenzied stabbing attack on a 59-year-old Wayne Greenhalgh, reportedly has mental health issues. He was known to authorities for being a religious zealot but was not considered prone to terrorist violence and was not connected with known extremist networks. He had had a few run-ins with the law for things like destroying flags and spitting on people.

If we are to prevent these types of attacks, authorities need somehow to find a way to knit the strands together so that these cases tick the necessary boxes of the matrix to become priorities. Nobody's suggesting that will be easy.

In the wake of the Nice attack, Malcolm Turnbull asked his counter-terrorism co-ordinator Greg Moriarty to look at how agencies can better share information to identify these types of cases. With Moriarty moving to Turnbull's office as a senior adviser, the work is being continued by his successor, Tony Sheehan.

It is unquestionably a good thing that Turnbull took the initiative after Nice of having his people delve into the question, meaning that any policy development is being done in an unhurried fashion rather than in a panic as a response to an attack in Australia.

But the Minto attack will given added impetus to that work.

The difficulty will be how to give practical effect to the review. Might information need to be shared across arms of government in ways that that would raise privacy concerns or fears that people are being profiled? Quite possibly. And it would very likely require more resources.

Many people have a slow-burning anger towards the world. In the age of social media, Islamic State's far-reaching millennial message is proving a catalyst for some of them to erupt. Finding out the mechanism behind this, and why it seizes some people but not others, is an urgent task.

By David Wroe

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