Siege in Sydney: An Act of Terrorism?

On December 15 2014 an Iranian-born Australian citizen, Man Haron Monis, took twenty hostages in a well-known Sydney café. Approximately seventeen hours later Monis was shot dead by police, but not before he killed two of the hostages and wounded several others. Subsequently there has been considerable discussion, debate, and confusion, about whether Monis was a ‘bona fide’ terrorist, or whether he was ‘merely’ a radically disaffected individual who sought, for reasons that will never be entirely clear, to represent himself as having links to terrorist groups. It makes a difference which of these interpretations is correct, or closer to the truth. If the former is correct, then more such attacks of a similar kind may be in the offing, and more needs to be done to prevent them. If the latter, then the episode is an isolated occurrence, albeit an exceedingly tragic one, and in this sense it has the character of a random event, one that cannot be planned for or anticipated.

A fair amount is known about Monis’ background, in fact the police know a good deal about him. He was on bail on a charge of being an accomplice to a murder and he had been charged with sexual assault a staggering forty times. He also had a criminal record in Iran, which suggests that his being granted Australian citizenship was a mistake. Terrorists may be criminals, but they are a special kind of criminal and none of these facts about Monis suggests that he was anything more than a ‘common’ criminal. However, during the siege he forced his victims to hold up a black flag with writing on it in Arabic. This was thought to be the IS flag, implying that he was acting with or for IS, but it turned out to be a different flag. Also, Monis had styled himself as a sheik but no Australian authoritative (Shia) Muslim body recognised him as such. IS is Sunni, and so it may seem that Monis could not, as a Shia Muslim, have been associated with IS, however, he claimed in early December to have converted to the Sunni sect. These additional facts about Monis suggest that he wanted to portray himself as having links with radical Islam whereas it seems that he had no such association. Is it therefore correct to say that he was merely a common criminal and not a terrorist? This depends on what a terrorist actually is, and my main purpose here is to try to clarify that question.


A good deal has been written about this matter, by philosophers and other specialists. My intention here is not to go into too many technical details but simply to try to identify some fairly obvious criteria. In the first place, then, if a terrorist harms certain persons, then from the terrorist’s perspective the particular or specific identity of the people is irrelevant: the violence committed by a terrorist is random violence. There is however a qualification: the identity of the victims is not completely irrelevant. IS, for instance, wants a Sunni Caliphate and claims to act on behalf of Sunnis. IS will kill Shia Muslims, so the identity of their victims is relevant to that extent, but which Shias it kills is irrelevant. Certain other Islamic terrorist organisations will kill any non-Muslims, or any Christians, or any British soldier. The criterion could then be formulated along the following lines: within the determined enemy grouping, the identity of the victims is irrelevant. And this has the status of a necessary condition.


[Quick note on terminology. I am using “criterion” in the following sense: a criterion, or set of criteria, specify conditions that need to satisfied for something to be correctly said to be of a certain kind. So if x satisfies the criteria for being an X, then it will normally be correct to say that x is an X. Criteria are thus different from both definitions and necessary and sufficient conditions, though the can have the status of the latter. On the whole, criteria are therefore less formal and precise than definitions, and as such they are easier to formulate and debate, and could be thought of as working definitions.]


What distinguishes a terrorist act from a ‘simple’ act of random violence is that the former is not an end in itself but part of a process that is ongoing. It does not follow that more acts of violence will follow, nor even that the act in question is one of a series of violent acts – one may be enough – but it does follow that the violence has some wider purpose. And this will almost certainly be political – I think it is possible that there could be terrorist action that is not political in nature, but these will be very rare. The random violence of the terrorist is thus a means to a political end, and that end can itself have different underlying motivations. For instance, the political aims of IS, all about establishing a state, appear to be motivated ultimately by religious ends, whereas the Stern Gang in Israel simply wanted an end to British rule in that country and as such the ends were themselves political.


So these are two criteria for an act of terrorism. One would deny that Monis was a terrorist if his action did not conform to the second criterion, and it would not do so if it was not part of an ongoing political process. But that may be hard to decide. Even if Monis was not acknowledged as part of any political organisation, if his act did not further some such cause, then does it count as an act of terrorism? Indeed, being branded as a terrorist by the government may itself be enough to suggest he succeeded. One of the main purposes of the terrorist is to get governments to institute measures, using ‘special powers’, which restrict the normal rights and freedoms of its citizens. If this takes place, then perhaps Monis has succeeded in being a terrorist. And it suggests another criterion: if a random act of violence is taken to be an act of terrorism in the context in which it takes place, for instance by the government of the day, then it is an act of terrorism. Perhaps this criterion has the status of a sufficient condition? It is not my intention here to decide for once and for all whether Monis was a terrorist, but to provide some basis on which to carry forward that discussion. 

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