Opinion: Yacqub Khayre – terrorist or deluded criminal?

Naming common criminals as terrorists implies the extremist calls to arms have succeeded. Image from an magazine available online. 16june2017
Naming common criminals as terrorists implies the extremist calls to arms have succeeded. Image from an magazine available online. 16june2017

Two days after the attack on London Bridge, Australia had its own brush with terrorism. Or did it?
Kathy Marks argues that the terrorism link has been egregiously overstated.

On the afternoon of June 6, Yacqub Khayre checked into a serviced apartment in beachside Brighton, in Melbourne’s southern suburbs. The Somali-born 29-year-old shot dead a receptionist, took a sex worker hostage and – after invoking both al-Qaeda and Islamic State – died in a shoot-out with police.

Within hours, authorities were calling the incident “an act of terrorism”. The media swiftly followed suit, bracketing it with the London atrocity in which eight people, including two Australians, were killed. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, demanded to know why someone “with connections, at least in the past, with violent extremism” had been granted parole.

Media reports made much of the fact Khayre had been charged with plotting to attack the Holsworthy army barracks, in Sydney’s south-west in 2009. But while three people were convicted for that plot, he and another man were acquitted. So not guilty.

What were his other “connections … with violent extremism”?

Khayre, who came to Australia as a seven-year-old refugee, had attended a notorious Melbourne mosque where the Holsworthy plot was hatched, the prosecution said. He had also made a trip back to Somalia where, police reports say, he trained with the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab.

According to others, though, he twice ran away from an al-Shabaab training camp. The Daily Telegraph reported one Somali militant describing him, scathingly, as “empty-headed … wandering around”. Not quite the image of a committed jihadist foot soldier.

More revealing are police and court records. Khayre had a long criminal history, a propensity for violence and an addiction to methamphetamine – “ice”. Racking up convictions for assault, armed robbery and drug and firearm offences, he had been jailed multiple times, most recently for a burglary during which he bashed a young woman.

So, was it really “an act of terrorism” when he killed Kai Ho, a newly-wed father who was manning the desk at the Buckingham Serviced Apartments on June 6? When he hired a woman from an escort agency and then held her at gunpoint? When he burst out of the apartment block, shooting at police and injuring three officers?

Or was it deluded, attention-seeking behaviour by a violent criminal, possibly under the influence of drugs?

We should not glorify common criminality

Cool judgement suggests the latter. Khayre may have associated with Islamist extremists, and even flirted with extremism himself. However, he cared little, it seems, about the warped ideology behind it – as little, perhaps, as Monis, who at the time of the Lindt cafe siege was facing trial for a string of sexual and violent offences, including organising his ex-wife’s murder.

Some may question why it matters whether Khayre is classified as a terrorist, a matter of probably marginal importance to Kai Ho’s family, or to the traumatised sex worker or the three wounded officers.

It matters because terrorism implies an agenda – political, religious or ideological. It matters because to some who support that agenda or could be swayed to support it, terrorists are warriors with a just cause (as implied by the propaganda image shown).

When we label common criminals as terrorists, we risk glorifying them and making martyrs of them – which was doubtless Khayre’s aim when he bizarrely invoked Islamic State and al-Qaeda, groups that hate each other’s guts.

When we characterise Brighton as “Australia’s latest Islamist-inspired terrorist attack”, as some media reports did, we risk provoking copycat actions, and we risk further scapegoating the country’s mostly peaceful, law-abiding Muslems.

We also risk encouraging misplaced policy responses. By all means, review the parole system to ensure public safety is not compromised when parole decisions are made. But let’s not rush through new counter-terrorism measures on the basis of one incident that was almost certainly not terrorism-related. (The fact Islamic State claimed responsibility is next to meaningless.)

Australia is fortunate not to have suffered a terrorist attack on the scale of those witnessed in Europe in recent times. Yes, Islamist terrorism poses a threat here, but the threat is relatively small; Australia is simply not a prime target. As a transplanted Brit with an anxious eye on events back home, I sometimes wonder if Australians find that fact slightly disappointing – not because they wish death or injury on anyone, but because it reflects their country’s relatively minor role in world affairs.

There is a drama, too, about such attacks, and drama, however grim, is seductive. When Britain or France or Belgium is targeted, that country becomes the focus of global attention: something Australia rarely experiences. Rather than feeling overlooked, though, we should welcome the absence of drama and limelight – and avoid playing into the hands of criminals trying to hitch a ride on the terrorism bandwagon.

Kathy Marks teaches feature writing and international reporting in the Macleay College Journalism Faculty.