Over the past few weeks we've been hearing a new term in interviews and statements from government ministers and the heads of national security agencies - "lone wolf terrorism". I've been trying for a little while to come to terms with this concept and what it means.
I think it's helpful to think about the deliberate killing of human beings as taking place along a continuum, as shown below.
I'm not suggesting this is a moral continuum. All these forms of killing are awful. The continuum is related to the public or political nature of the act.
Murder is essentially a private act. When Brett Cowan killed Daniel Morcombe he was indulging his own twisted enjoyment of seeing someone else suffer. When Carl Williams killed or arranged the killing of various members and associates of the Moran family he was protecting and extending his family's control of Melbourne's illicit drug trade. When Adam Lanza shot 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut in December 2012, he seems to have been acting out his disturbed obsession with mass killings and violent video games.
Although quite different, each of these are very much private crimes, committed for personal reasons. Intense public interest notwithstanding, they really only closely concern the perpetrators and their victims.
What, though, are we to make of Anders Breivik? In July 2011 Breivik shot 77 people in Oslo, Norway, most of them attendees at a Labour Party youth camp. Breivik was a member of the right-wing Progress Party and published a detailed political manifesto outlining the reasons for his actions. However, neither the Progress Party nor any other right wing group appears to have approved of his actions, never mind collaborated in them. Breivik, like Lanza or Williams, was killing for his own twisted personal reasons. It matters little whether the trigger is a political ideology, a personal business interest or an addiction to violent video games, these are personal, private actions.
At the other end of the continuum, war is very much a public act. Men and women participate in organised killing and violence at the behest of their governments, in pursuit of political objectives. It is conducted within a well understood framework of international relations and international law (even if this is often honoured in the breach) which governs things like protection of civilians and treatment of prisoners of war. Individual soldiers may or may not be passionate about the cause in which they are fighting - they may even disagree with it - and they rarely know the soldiers they are fighting against, much less hate them personally. They are fighting because it's their job.
In between these two is a lot of murky ground, and some of it is what we loosely refer to as "terrorism". Terrorism is a highly contested term. The expression "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" was apparently coined by British novelist Gerald Seymour in a 1970s book set during the Irish troubles. It provides us with a way of framing the question: is "terrorism" an act of war, or is it simply murder?
The usual context for terrorism is civil war. Whereas war between nations is fought between officially sanctioned armies, raised and controlled by governments which are generally recognised to have some legitimacy, civil war involves a conflict within a country, between different ethnic, religious or political groupings who have not been able to reach a working agreement on the governance of their nation. Most often one of these parties (for instance, the English and the Irish loyalists) represents the official government of the country while the other (the IRA) represents or purports to represent the disaffected or oppressed grouping within the nation. This dynamic of conflict means it takes place in much more murky legal territory, in which each party will refer to the other as murderers or terrorists.
Such conflicts are generally very uneven. One side is able to mobilise the resources of government - a trained and well-equipped army, control of official information channels and so forth. The other has to operate underground with limited resources and firepower even if it enjoys widespread and even majority support within the population.
This means they will rarely try to meet their opponents in open battle. Instead they engage in guerrilla warfare, using small forces to launch surprise attacks on key infrastructure or undefended installations. Their aim is not to achieve an immediate military victory, it is to disrupt and weaken their opponents and undermine public confidence in them. They are there for the long haul, hoping that either the government will eventually collapse under the pressure of war and the unpopular measures they are forced to take in the name of security, or else be forced to negotiate a compromise.
These guerrilla fighters may or may not be scrupulous about who they target. Some stick to military installations, or more broadly to government infrastructure. Others are more willing to target civilians, particularly those aligned with their opponents. Irrespective of how they behave in this regard, they are likely to be labelled terrorists and their will be some justification for this because creating fear is one of their aims. Official governments can at times be equally unscrupulous, as we have seen in the most recent Israel-Gaza conflict.
This continues to be the overwhelming driver of the type of activity we think of as terrorism. The Tamil Tigers (inventors of modern suicide bombing) wanted to establish a separate Tamil state independent of Sri Lanka. Hamas want to overthrow the Israeli rulers of their homeland and replace them with a Palestinian Islamic government. Islamic State wants to establish an Islamist regime in Iraq and Syria.
At least from our Western standpoint, the leaders of these movements are seen as criminals but there is no guarantee that this will always be so. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned as a terrorist and supported armed conflict by the ANC, but died the father of a nation. Menachem Begin was a leader of the Zionist terror group Irgun which carried out attacks on British military and civilian installations, but later became Israeli Prime Minister. I could go on. If your side wins, you are likely to be seen as a national hero. If it loses, you will die a villain.
One of the features of terrorism that has so worried us in the 21st century is its internationalisation. However, this is not a new development that has arrived out of the blue. It goes hand in hand with the internationalisation of a number of civil and local wars. Robert Pape's comprehensive study of suicide terrorism from 1980 onwards identifies that the key common factor in all of them was the bomber's understanding of their own country as occupied by foreign powers.
Hence Osama bin Laden was started on the path to radicalisation by his anger at the heavy US military presence in his native Saudi Arabia. It is hardly coincidental that Al Qaeda's signature terrorist act involved the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon near Washington DC. These attacks, although showing a geographic reach unprecedented in earlier incidents, still followed the basic guerrilla pattern. They were organised and carried out by trained, disciplined underground militia groups, operating under a covert but more or less clear command structure with a defined military objective. They were certainly crimes, but it is still arguable that they were war crimes.
"Lone wolf terrorism" represents a rather baffling and disturbing extension of this trend. It has been kicked along by an address from IS leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in late September in which he incited supporters in Western nations to acts of violence.
If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be, Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.
This rather chilling summons could be seen as an act of terrorism in itself, given the fear it has caused in various Western nations. As a statement it retains the elements of war that characterise other terrorist acts. However, it departs from any form of warfare in that it asks people to act on their own. In place of planned attacks like the World Trade Centre bombing or Irgun's attack on the King David Hotel, planned and authorised by a central command and carried out by people assigned to the task, it urges random acts of violence by unspecified supporters.
Adnani may in fact have been inspired to make this statement by the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby. In May 2013 two young men of Nigerian descent killed an off-duty Rigby on a London street near his barracks. While their motivation was a version of Islamic extremism and they had some links with Nigerian terror group Al Shabaab, it is not clear that they were acting under any kind of specific instruction, and their attack had no clear strategic motive. It seems they simply wanted to kill a British soldier.
The actions of Abdul Numan Haider may in turn have been inspired by Adnani's statement. Haider was under investigation by Victorian police as a result of his connections with Islamic extremism. At a pre-arranged interview with investigating officers on September 23, just a day or two after Adnani's statement became public, he drew a knife and stabbed one of the officers before being shot dead.
How are we to understand the connection between Adnani's statement and Haider's attempted murder? This is not a piece of guerilla warfare, even on the Al Qaeda model. Haider acted alone, with minimal planning, no training and little technical know-how. Indeed, Adnani's statement itself is the opposite of Al Qaeda's tactic. He explicitly tells his listeners not to conspire, not to take advice or seek approval, to simply go and do it. Adnani appears to know he doesn't have the infrastructure to launch an Al Qaeda style of attack, so instead he incites his listeners to murder.
In what sense is this different to Lanza's act, or Breivik's? A troubled young man, acting alone under the influence of an extreme and destructive world view, commits a violent crime against unsuspecting and innocent victims. Adnani has added another item to the list of influences that can push such young men into violence. Alongside death metal music, violent video games, right wing paranoia and lifelong bullying we now have extreme Islam.
Calling the resultant murders and attempted murders "acts of terrorism" dignifies them with a heroism they don't deserve. It holds out the possibility that at least in someone's eyes the perpetrators can be seen as heroes. It inflates the power of distant extremists by attributing to them the ability to pull strings which, in reality, are not connected to anything. Intensified surveillance, invasions of privacy, targeting of Muslims and political posturing will not help. Troubled young men have always done this, under the banner of one excuse or another. Instead we need to ask - why do we have so many troubled young men?