The Inquest into the death of Ahmed Numan Haider
On 31 July 2017, the Coroners Court of Victoria handed down its finding in the Inquest into the death of Ahmed Numan Haider.
Mr Haider was 18 years old when on 23 September 2014 he was shot and killed while attempting to slay 2 police officers in a first of its kind (certainly in Australia), 'lone-actor' act of terror. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) were closely involved in the incident and both instructed AGS and represented the Commonwealth's interest before the Inquest.
The circumstances of Mr Haider's death
Mr Haider came to ASIO's attention in May 2014 as an Australian citizen with an expressed intention of travelling to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ASIO began to investigate him and, when Mr Haider applied for a passport, his application was placed on hold and ultimately refused.
Mr Haider's focus began to shift towards committing a domestic act of politically motivated violence. ASIO alerted the police through the Melbourne Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT), consisting of the AFP, Victoria Police and ASIO. It was agreed that JCTT would speak to Mr Haider to further assess and manage the risk he posed to public safety.
On 23 September 2014, the JCTT arranged to meet Mr Haider outside of a police station. Mr Haider met with Officer A (a Victoria Police member) and Officer B (an AFP member). He shook their hands. Then, unexpectedly, he produced a knife and began to attack Officer A, wounding him. When Officer A lost his footing, Mr Haider began to attack Officer B. As Officer A recovered his footing, he could see that Mr Haider was stabbing Officer B in the chest area. Officer A shot and killed Mr Haider in an act of self-defence.
The broader context in which the attack occurred
The circumstances of Mr Haider's death were remarkable in their own right. However, their significance and the profile of the Inquest were compounded given the wider context and timing of Mr Haider's attack on the police.
In the immediate period leading to Mr Haider's death, the terror threat faced by Australia and the rest of the world was evolving rapidly due to the events in Syria and Iraq. Increasing numbers of people were being radicalised through sophisticated online propaganda of terrorist organisations such as ISIS.
By early 2014, ASIO was investigating many young men like Mr Haider suspected of intending to travel to the Middle East to fight for insurgent groups such as ISIS.
Recruitment rates increased sharply after ISIS declared the caliphate in June 2014 and formed the so-called Islamic State (IS). However many, like Mr Haider, were prevented from traveling through passport cancellation or refusal.
On 12 September 2014, the Australian Government, on advice from ASIO, raised the national terrorism threat level from 'medium' to 'high' (meaning a terrorist act was assessed as likely). This reflected the worsening threat environment and was the first time the threat level had changed since 2001.
The days surrounding this announcement also saw the AFP executing significant counter-terrorism warrants. On 10 September 2014, through JCTT Brisbane, the AFP disrupted a network allegedly engaged in the recruitment and financing of foreign fighters to Syria. Further, on 19 September 2014, the AFP (through JCTT Sydney) executed 28 warrants as part of a criminal investigation into the planning of a terrorist attack on Australian soil (a plot to behead a random civilian in a public place).
On 20 September 2014, 3 days before Mr Haider attacked the police, IS issued a fatwa (specifically referring to Australia amongst other countries such as the USA and France) calling upon its supporters to carry out lone-actor attacks in their own countries and, in particular, against military and police targets.
In discharging its function, the Court looked closely at the knowledge and conduct of several State and Federal agencies (including ASIO and the AFP) to assess whether Mr Haider's death was preventable.
In doing so, the Coroner is not bound by the rules of evidence and can determine their own procedure. Further, their findings of fact and recommendations are not reviewable 'on the merits', but only for jurisdictional error or an error of law in making findings or recommendations.
Given this legal context, and the controversial nature of any police-shooting inquest, the coronial inquests for government agencies such as AFP and ASIO, for the most part, can involve risks rather than opportunities.
This Inquest was no different. AGS and Counsel (Dr Stephen Donaghue QC and James Forsaith) worked tirelessly with AFP Legal and ASIO to put forward strong evidence and submissions on behalf of the Commonwealth to protect the agencies and their officers from adverse findings and recommendations that the Commonwealth considered unjustified, and reputational damage in the circumstances of the Inquest that attracted significant media attention.
We were successful. The Coroner made no adverse findings against any officer or the AFP, ASIO or the Victoria Police. To the contrary, his Honour commented: 'My investigation has revealed that the men and women who work in this increasingly complex field of counter-terrorism are committed, courageous and worthy of our upmost respect, and their commitment to preserving our national security is exemplary.'
AGS echoes the Coroner's comments. Dejan Lukic, the AGS lawyer who acted for the Commonwealth, in particular said:
'This was the most challenging, but certainly the most rewarding matter that I have ever worked on. It gave me immense professional and personal satisfaction that the Coroner recognised the efforts of men and women who work for AFP, ASIO and Victoria Police (many of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with during the matter) that have devoted (and risk) their lives in protecting the public from harm. I also particularly enjoyed working with representatives for AFP and ASIO who always acted with utmost professionalism and care in providing instructions that achieved such an outstanding result for the Commonwealth.'