SYDNEY — A refugee from Afghanistan who plowed a car through a teeming intersection in the heart of Australia’s second-largest city made rambling references to God, the mistreatment of Muslims and Australia’s domestic security service after he was arrested, officials said Friday.
Nineteen people were injured in the incident Thursday, three of them critically. Police identified the driver as Saeed Noori, 32, an Afghan granted entry to Australia in 2004 as a refugee. He became an Australian citizen two years later.
Noori has a history of mental illness and a minor criminal record, but no known links to any extremist groups, and he was not on the intelligence agencies’ list of potential terrorist suspects, said Shane Patton, acting chief commissioner of the Victoria Police.
In his brief discussions with police at a hospital where he was taken after he was arrested Thursday, Noori also spoke about dreams and hearing voices, Patton said.
The motivation for the attack outside Melbourne’s main train station during the hectic pre-Christmas shopping period could have big implications for a country long nervous about refugees, especially from the Middle East.
“He has said that he attributes his actions to the perceived mistreatment of Muslims,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. “At this stage . . . apart from that statement, there are no known links to any political issues or any links to extremist groups.”
If police or intelligence officials conclude that Thursday’s vehicle attack was motivated by religious or political beliefs, as opposed to mental illness, the incident could trigger a backlash against Australia’s refugee program and strengthen conservatives in Turnbull’s center-right government.
“I don’t have an issue with saying this is an act of terrorism if we establish that it is,” Patton said. “It would be easier to come out and say that straight up. But that’s not the case at this stage. We don’t have sufficient [evidence] to justify that.”
A key unspoken sensitivity of the official response is the possibility of creating the perception that Noori was inspired by Islamist extremists, which could fuel hostility toward Australia’s Muslim minority.
“How many mentally ill Japanese run down pedestrians?” wrote a popular conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, on Friday.
Fears that some refugees from the Middle East could become terrorists have contributed to Australia’s decision to force more than 1,000 Iranians, Iraqis, Sri Lankans, Afghans and others seeking asylum to wait for years in isolation on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus, which is part of Papua New Guinea.
The tough policy has been condemned by international organizations, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but it has strong public support in Australia. The Melbourne attack, even if it is not declared terrorism, could buttress that support.
Turnbull, who is seen as a moderate in the ruling Liberal Party, emphasized the positive aspects of the incident in his public response: an off-duty police officer who arrested the driver and bystanders who helped the injured.
“We are a nation that looks after each other,” he said. “Mateship. Solidarity. That degree of mutual respect and love that we always show when times are tough was brought out in sharp relief in Melbourne.”
Some critics ridiculed his approach. “Love is not going to solve this problem,” a former leader of the opposition Labor Party, Mark Latham, tweeted. “Too many dangerous, Islam-fanatical, drugged-up criminals on our streets.”
Australia’s military contribution to the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has raised fears that the country has made itself a terrorist target. Coincidently, Australia’s defense minister said Friday that the government was withdrawing Australian combat aircraft from Iraq — six Super Hornet fighter-bombers — following Iraq’s declaration of victory over the extremist movement.
Security was already being enhanced in downtown Melbourne when Thursday’s incident took place, and the city’s mayor warned two weeks earlier that a lone-wolf-type attack would be hard to stop.
Noori lived in recent years in Melbourne’s poor northern suburbs, a long way from the heart of the city’s Afghan population in the outer southeast, The Age newspaper reported. He regularly walked to his home from the hospital where he received treatment for his mental illness, the paper said.
Police said Noori drove an SUV into pedestrians at a busy intersection in central Melbourne at 4:41 p.m. local time on Thursday.
Three of the 19 people injured remain in critical condition; the worst injured is a 83-year-old man from Melbourne, officials said. A 4-year-old boy was also hurt and is now in stable condition, they said. Nine of those injured were foreign nationals.
Noori is in police custody but has not been charged.