Sydney is reeling from two high-profile stabbing attacks – why was only one deemed a terror incident?

<span>A knife attack at the Assyrian Christ The Good Shepherd church in Sydney was quickly designated as a terror incident, while a similar attack at Bondi Junction two days earlier was not.</span><span>Photograph: Jaimi Joy/Reuters</span>
A knife attack at the Assyrian Christ The Good Shepherd church in Sydney was quickly designated as a terror incident, while a similar attack at Bondi Junction two days earlier was not.Photograph: Jaimi Joy/Reuters

Two high-profile knife attacks in three days have left many in Sydney and across the country in a state of shock and alarm. The two separate incidents, at a shopping centre in Bondi Junction and a church in Wakeley, have seen different responses from police and politicians.

So why are police treating the Wakeley incident as a terror attack, while the Bondi Junction attack – which killed six people – was quickly ruled out as such?

Related: Sydney church stabbing: how an alleged attack on a firebrand preacher reignited tensions

Why was the church event designated as terrorism?

New South Wales police on Tuesday declared the Wakeley stabbing, where Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel and several worshippers were injured at the Assyrian Christ the Good Shepherd church, as a terror incident. A joint counterterror investigation, Strike Force Petrina, was set up.

Saturday’s stabbing at Bondi Junction’s Westfield was ruled out as a terror incident. The federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, on Saturday night said agencies were “working together to make that assessment” but that at the time it was “too early” to make that call.

The federal attorney general’s department defines a terrorist act as an act which “intends to coerce or influence the public or any government by intimidation to advance a political, religious or ideological cause”; and also causes death, injury or danger to a person, damage to property, risk to public health, or interference with critical infrastructure.

While both Sydney stabbings may have caused fear, initial information from police suggests different goals, according to Prof Greg Barton, a terrorism expert.

“It’s about motivation and whether someone wants to change the system; a broad political view, rather than personal animus,” the Deakin University security academic said.

In video of the alleged perpetrator of the Wakeley stabbing, he can be heard saying: “If he [the bishop] didn’t get himself involved in my religion, if he hadn’t spoken about my prophet, I wouldn’t have come here.”

Lydia Khalil, a research fellow and counter-terror expert at the Lowy Institute, said classification as a terror incident “centres around motivation”.

“Since security agencies [allege they] have evidence of a motive, and it relates to an ideological or religious or political objective, based on the Australian legal definition, this is terrorism,” she said.

“It’s not only defined by how it impacts on the community as many types of crimes can scare or terrorise.”

The NSW premier, Chris Minns, on Wednesday said declaring the Wakeley stabbing a terrorist attack was “necessary” and not a “performative gesture”.

Does that mean the 16-year-old will be charged with terrorism offences?

The NSW police commissioner, Karen Webb, said declaring a terrorist incident and the potential for laying terrorism-related charges “shouldn’t be conflated”.

Webb said it would be “premature” to speculate on whether the alleged offender had been radicalised online.

“The investigation will delve into his history, his background and that will form part of what was on that individual’s mind,” she said.

Barton said the designation of a terror incident helped “unleash” certain policing and investigative resources, but didn’t necessarily obligate laying of terrorism charges.

“With a young person you might come to the conclusion that it was terrorism but it’s someone who was manipulated or fell into the wrong company, so maybe the best thing to do for their future is some other kind of sentencing,” he said, speaking generally.

What investigative powers does a terror designation unlock?

Minns said Webb deemed it necessary to declare the incident a terrorist attack in order to “unlock” special investigatory powers – a decision supported by federal authorities.

Kershaw said the counterterror investigation would include the AFP, NSW police and Asio, who would “investigate this incident from all angles.”

“Our job is also to look at individuals connected with the [alleged] attacker, to assure ourselves that there is no one else in the community with similar intent,” said Asio’s director general, Mike Burgess, adding there were currently “no indications of that”.

Related: Bondi Junction mass stabbing attack: who are the six victims?

Barton said the declaration could see the activation of specific powers, such as control or detention orders, or wider powers to stop and search suspects depending on the jurisdiction. In NSW, police powers laws around terror offences allow officers to stop and search a person, their possessions, vehicle or premises without a warrant.

“To get through someone’s social media postings, you might need a team of 10 working 50 hours a week. When the switch is flicked, you can have those resources.”

“If it’s just one person acting with animus, maybe the risk stops. But if it’s terror, there might be social networks, international networks, so you’re better off investing now to find it.”

Why wasn’t the Bondi Junction attack designated as terrorism?

Asked about the two stabbing incidents, Asio’s Burgess explained why authorities made different judgments.

“To call it a terrorist attack you need indications of information or evidence that suggests actually the motivation was religiously motivated or ideologically motivated,” he said.

“In the case of [Bondi Junction], that was not the case.”

Saturday’s stabbing attack, which left six dead and a dozen in hospital including a baby, caused obvious terror in the community – but based on what we know now, Khalil and Barton backed the decision to not classify it as terrorism.

“There’s the impression the attacker went after women. But this fact alone does not make it a terror attack,” Khalil said.

Khalil said it was unclear at this stage how or why Joel Cauchi selected his victims, but noted the man’s father described his son as “frustrated” that he could not get a girlfriend.

“However, misogyny or grievances motivate all sorts of violence against women. There is no evidence at this stage he was an ‘incel’ or had ideological views around the role of women,” she said. “Unless authorities unearth such evidence, we can’t label it as that [terror].”

Barton said indications were that Cauchi lived with mental health issues, while also noting his father’s comments.

“The fact he’s deceased makes it harder to know what he was thinking on the day. But they’ve found his identity, online posts, looked at any political motivations. Sometimes [a terror offender] will post a manifesto or brief statement – none of that was evident.”

What criticisms are being made about the decision to designate the church attack as a terrorism?

Dai Le, the local federal MP whose electorate includes Wakeley, warned the terrorism declaration could heighten tensions.

“It’s just going to add to it … I hope that the premier and the police commissioner know what they’re doing,” she told Today.

Rita Jabri Markwell, a spokesperson for the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (Aman), said labelling the church stabbing a terror incident had become an inflammatory decision in the Muslim community.

The Islamic Council of NSW “found it bewildering” Saturday’s attack at Bondi Junction was deemed to be “exclusively motivated by the mental health issues” but the church stabbing “was designated as a terrorist act within hours.”

“The signal this sends to the Australian community is that terrorism is solely reserved for Muslims.”

Khalil said she understood the concerns raised by some within the Muslim community about impacts on social cohesion, but backed the terror declaration.

“If something is motivated by Islamic ideology we’re very quick to deem it a terror attack in the media. In contrast, attacks by far-right actors have not been as quick to be label[ed] as such. There’s a understandable concern about stigmatisation from the community, but from a legal perspective, it’s pretty straightforward,” she said.

Barton concurred.

“Police recognise once you attach ‘terrorism’ to something, it comes with stigma and communities don’t like it … They’ve learned to not shoot from the hip, they won’t talk about Islamic extremism until [they’re] absolutely sure and necessary.”

- with reporting by Mostafa Rachwani