How does Australian law define a terrorist attack?

Sydney's two stabbings this week have raised a central question: how does Australian law define a terrorist attack?
How does Australian law define a terrorist act?

Over the last week, Sydney has been rocked by two separate stabbing attacks. It has prompted the question: How does Australian law define a terrorist attack?

While authorities ruled out terrorism as a motive for the Bondi Junction attack, they quickly declared the Wakeley church stabbing an ‘act of terror’.

So how do Australian authorities determine what’s considered a terror attack?

Here’s what you need to know.

Terror defined

Under the Criminal Code, an incident can be declared a terrorist act if it was conducted with the intention to:

  1. Advance a political, religious, or ideological cause.
  2. Coerce or intimidate the government or the public.

The act then needs to have caused death or serious harm to other people, serious damage to a property, created a risk to public health or safety, or interfered with critical infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications).

Church stabbing

On Tuesday, NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb declared the Wakeley church stabbing a ‘terrorist incident’.

Webb said this classification was made because the attack was the result of “religiously motivated extremism,” and caused “the intimidation of the public through that person’s acts.”

In NSW, once an incident is classified as terrorism, police have the power to search people and properties without a warrant. This needs to occur within a certain area and number of days.

NSW Police’s classification was supported by the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess. He was asked about the difference between the two stabbings.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Burgess said: “To call it a terrorist act you need… information or evidence that suggest [the perpetrator] was religiously motivated or ideologically motivated.”

He added: “Saturday, that was not the case. In this case, the information [ASIO] and the police have before us would indicate strongly that is the case and that’s why it was called an act of terrorism.”

Bondi Junction

On Saturday, a 40-year-old man killed five women and one man in Bondi Junction. Several others were injured, mostly women.

Following the incident, NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb said it was “obvious” the attacker targeted women. However, this incident was not categorised as a terrorist attack.

It has also raised questions about how Australian law defines a terrorist attack.

Macquarie University terrorism studies lecturer Dr Mariam Farida told TDA investigations would be difficult because the perpetrator is dead, but said the incident could be re-classified later.

“If it was a deliberate targeting [of women] then there needs to be a re-examination of that labelling.”

Terror level

Australia’s terror level hasn’t changed from “possible” after the events of this week.

From most to least serious, the threat levels are:

  • Certain
  • Expected
  • Probable
  • Possible
  • Not expected

Burgess said under the “possible” threat level, the most likely attack “is an individual that goes to violence with little or no warning with a knife, car or gun”.

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