What drives young second and third generation men living in relatively comfortable surrounds to involve themselves in an overseas conflict whose nuances they have little or no understanding of? Certainly the AFP, NSW and Victorian Police and the NSW Crime Commission have been asking these questions during the seven months of their investigation into a possible attack on an Australian army barracks.

The front page story in The Australian today provides some answers but also too many unanswered questions. According to Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland, publication by The Oz posed “an unacceptable risk to the operation and an unacceptable risk to my staff”.

It’s a serious allegation to make against a paper whose editorial line so frequently flexes its cultural warrior and national security muscles. On the other hand, it’s unclear what dangers newspaper reporting could pose to 400 heavily-armed investigators who cordoned off entire streets.

Some reporting and analysis showed a laughable ignorance of Somali and/or Muslim cultures. Cameron Stewart writes of the group of Melbourne taxi drivers and construction workers “having little understanding of Somali politics or theology”. Probably the same could be said for all those involved in the final version of Mr Stewart’s story that went to print.

The reports place enormous emphasis on terms like “Islam” and “Muslims” and “wahhabi”. But Somali politics is just as much (if not more) about clan as it is religion. There’s no evidence al-Shabaab (the group linked to the alleged proposed attack) or any other of the warring factions in Somalia have risen above the clan-based loyalties that have divided this nation for decades. Still, there’s no doubt that non-Somali Muslims and Somali kids with little understanding of clan undercurrents could be attracted by the lure of pan-Islamic rhetoric.

What really made me almost fall off my chair was this sentence describing the al-Shebaab group:

“Its followers shun alcohol, cigarettes, music and videos, choosing an austere, violent interpretation of Islam”.

Most Muslims I know (including myself) shun alcohol (though I’m just a teetotaller, not a teetotalitarian) and cigarettes. Avoiding music and naughty videos also isn’t uncommon among Muslims, though largely for similar reasons as conservative Christians.

This kind of pedestrian theological speculation really isn’t helpful, especially when it involves the kind of simplistic analysis you’d expect from tabloids. I guess Andrew Bolt and his buddies will have lots of fun speculating on how having the wrong ethnicity and/or religion turns you into a terrorist.