Sydney Church Stabbing Deemed Terrorism, Bondi Tragedy Isn't

Just days after the deadly Westfield Bondi attacks, a second knife attack in Sydney has generated widespread shock and grief. This time, a 16-year-old entered an Assyrian church and rushed forward to stab the popular bishop presiding over a service, together with a priest who rushed to his defence. The shocking events were captured on the church's video stream, and the news quickly reached thousands of members of Sydney's large Assyrian community.


  • Greg Barton

    Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

While both priests were injured, thankfully the knife blows were not fatal. Parishioners immobilised the attacker, and police and paramedics swarmed the church. Police moved quickly to identify the assailant and analyse his apparent motivation before announcing they were treating the attack as a terrorist incident early this morning.

Public knife attacks are rare in Australia, and for Sydney to experience two in quick succession has rightfully alarmed many and, understandably, led to comparisons between the two. A lot of the discussion is around why the Bondi Junction shopping mall attack in which six were killed wasn't considered terrorism, but this shocking, but non-lethal, attack was.

So what do we know about the church attack, and what important distinctions can be made between it and the awful events at Bondi?

What happened at the church?

Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel has developed a large following, not just in Australia but in the Assyrian diaspora around the world, with his live-streamed sermons. Shortly after seven o'clock on Monday night, the video feed of the Christ The Good Shepherd Church in Sydney's outer west went dead, but not before it captured the shocking attack and parishioners rushing forward to help.

Almost immediately, crowds gathered outside the church. We don't yet know the motivations of the people who turned up, but it can be assumed they were there because they either saw or heard of what had happened and rushed over out of concern.

Tragically, at some point the dynamics of the fast-swelling crowd took a dark turn. Instead of letting the large police and ambulance presence continue to handle the situation, some emotional onlookers turned on the authorities. Multiple police officers and paramedics were injured and vehicles were heavily damaged.

It's likely the fact the attack was captured on video, and therefore able to be shared and watched over and over again, added to the combustibility of an already volatile situation. It would appear the attack was deliberately planned to provoke an angry response. But what exactly happened in the crowd is the subject of one police investigation.

Why is it considered a terrorist act?

The other investigation is an anti-terrorism one. This is because while the teenager acted alone, it's very likely they had received encouragement and backing from others. The Unabomber is one of the very few documented cases of someone committing violence for ideological reasons truly in isolation.

This lone actor attack in Sydney is reminiscent of the 2015 murder of police accountant Curtis Cheng. He was shot dead by a 15-year-old who had been radicalised by supporters of Islamic State. It later came out in court the attack had been planned by three other people, who also supplied him with the gun.

Police were quick to pronounce the knife attack on Monday to be an act of terrorism. Having identified the attacker, they would have been studying his social connections and examining his digital footprint.

The police assessment would have also given attention to the particulars of the church targeted. Assyrians (people from northwest Iraq, northeast Syria and southeast Turkey) are almost exclusively Christian, belonging to one of the old churches in existence, living in precisely that part of the world in which the Islamic State established its brutal caliphate.

It's telling that before the caliphate was established, Assyrians made up just 3% of the Iraqi population. But in the wake of Islamic State sweeping across northern Syria and Iraq, Assyrians soon made up 40% of Iraqi refugees. The trauma of those years is recent history, fresh in the minds of many.

The recent Islamic State claim of responsibility for the recent deadly attacks in Moscow, is a reminder the group remains a live and growing threat. For these reasons police will be looking for any evidence that Islamic State might have played a role in inspiring this attack.

Terrorism or not terrorism?

Events at the church have been under a bigger spotlight given the events of the days preceding it.

Despite early misinformation, police said that they believe the Bondi killer, Joel Cauchi, was not motivated by a larger political cause - that is, a terrorist motivation. Instead, they say he lashed out violently because of anger control issues related to mental ill-health.

But of the six people he killed, five were women. Women also make up the majority of those injured. The one man who lost his life, security guard Faraz Tahir, a Muslim refugee from Pakistan, was attacked because he bravely rushed towards danger in an attempt to try to stop Cauchi. NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb said Cauchi deliberately targeted women.

So if someone is targeting a specific group of people, isn't that terrorism? Why does it matter if they were killing based on gender or religion? Is misogyny not terrorism?

Put simply, the defining characteristic of terrorism is perpetuating violence in the name of a higher, broader cause. Terrorists have a belief in a collective goal, and see themselves as being backed by people who share that belief. Misogyny can be an element of their motivation and justification of hatred, but it's part of a larger political project.

Basically, it boils down to whether these violent actors think they're part of a political or religious movement that's going to change the system, or whether they are simply angry men projecting loathing and driven by personal demons. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

This is not to undermine the damage that angry men can, and do, inflict. Domestic violence is a bigger threat to Australians than terrorism. Calling something a terrorist act doesn't make it more or less serious than anything else, rather the categorisation is to provide conceptual clarity for the sake of the ensuing investigation.

Events at Westfield Bondi Junction and the Assyrian Christ The Good Shepherd Church are both awful, but while they share some similarities, they are different sorts of crimes with different drivers and enablers. As police investigations continue, we'll come to better understand the nature of both.

The Conversation

Greg Barton receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He is engaged in a range of projects funded by the Australian government that aim to understand and counter violent extremism in Australia and in Southeast Asia and Africa.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).