WRITING in the New Statesman last month, Mehdi Hasan re­ported that two young British men, who pleaded guilty to terrorism offences, had purchasedIslam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies before embarking for Syria to fight for the so-called ­Islamic State.

These publications are part of a series aimed at ­explaining the basics of certain ­religions.

The implication is clear: namely, that at least some of the young men and women who leave Western nations to fight for the Islamist cause in the Middle East know little about Islam.

On reflection, there is reason to provide copies of such publications to some Australian journalists who comment on the Islamic State and related movements.

Last Sunday on the ABC’s InsidersThe Saturday Paper’s Mike Seccombe commented on a young Gold Coast woman named Amira Karroum who was killed in Syria while fighting for the al-­Qa’ida-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra. This is a Sunni Islamist group that is involved in an internal conflict with the rival Sunni Islamist group Islamic State. According to reports, Karroum was shot and her body butchered.

When asked to opine on the case, Seccombe declared: “Interestingly enough, considering she was fighting for Islam allegedly, she was actually killed by one ­terrorist group that wasn’t the one that she belonged to because there’s fighting going on over there between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Seccombe’s analysis demonstrated scant knowledge of Islam. It’s true that Karroum apparently believed that she was fighting for Islam. But she was a Sunni. And the civil war in Syria is essentially a battle between Sunni Islamists who oppose the Bashar al-Assad regime and Shia Muslims, with the support of other groups, who support al-Assad’s dictatorship. Al-Assad is an Alawite, a faith that is related to Shia Islam.

In the Syrian civil war, which has seen atrocities on both sides, it is estimated that 200,000 have been killed. The overwhelming majority of the victims are Muslims of Sunni or Shia disposition. Those taking part in the conflict are attempting to advance their interpretation of Islam against a rival interpretation. It is part of an ongoing dispute between the majority of Sunni and the minority of Shia that goes back centuries.

ABC reporter Peter Lloyd also got into confusion when interviewing former bookshop owner Wissam Haddad, a supporter of the Islamic State. After a brief discussion about the Syrian civil war, Lloyd asked Haddad whether he thought “Australia becoming involved in this western front against the Islamic State makes Aus­tralia … a potential enemy of yours”. Lloyd said nothing when Haddad replied: “Anyone getting involved in killing any Muslims anywhere is going to be a potential enemy or is an enemy to Islam ­itself and every single Muslim.”

Clearly, Haddad’s response was mere propaganda. He knows that in Syria and Iraq the Islamic State has been busy killing Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis alike. Yet Lloyd let Haddad get away with creating the impression that he opposes the killing of all Muslims. The fact is that adherents of groups such as al-Qa’ida, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State regard all others as kafir — those atheists or non-believers who are said to be ungrateful to God — and deserving of death. The list includes Christians, Hindus, Jews and Shia Muslims.

Seccombe’s comment that Karroum was “fighting for Islam” and Lloyd’s apparent disinclination to put it to Haddad that the Islamic State advocated “killing Muslims” contributes to an ill-informed view of contemporary Islam. It’s much the same with those commentators who fail to accept that Islamism provides a real and present danger to contemporary democracy and who maintain that, at best, national security is a waste of time and, at worst, an assault on democratic freedom. This view can be found among the libertarian Right in the Institute of Public Affairs as well as among the libertarian Left.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane is in the latter group. Keane is clever and well-informed. However, at times, he is profoundly silly when it comes to matters of national security. In Crikey on September 4, Keane wrote an article titled “The Real Threat of Terrorism to Australians, By the Numbers”.

Keane’s position is that terrorism is not comparable to common threats to the lives of Australians such as that emanating from murder, car accidents and suicide. He then went on to find “some specific threats to life that are comparable to terrorism”. Keane referred to “230 people died falling off ladders” in the financial year 2012-13. He implied that this could be equated with the number of Australian deaths due to terrorist ­attacks in Bali and elsewhere in recent years. Any accidental death is a tragedy. However, there is no comparison between death from an accidental fall and death, say, from being beheaded in a public place. The latter was the appalling fate of British soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of British Islamists in the London suburb of Woolwich in May last year.

Public terrorist attacks, such as the murder of Rigby or the alleged conspiracy to murder in Sydney, this week are designed to strike fear into democratic societies by disrupting the way of life of individuals, organisations and governments alike. No one spends much time worrying that they may be killed as a result of falling from a ladder. Such a scenario does not stop individuals going about their lives, nor does it interrupt normal business.

A lone-wolf attack, however, is enough to close down a city. This was the case with last year’s Boston Marathon bombings engaged by the Tsarnaev brothers, which effectively closed down a major American city for days. If a terrorist were able to obtain access to a dirty nuclear device, they could close down a city for a long time.

Perhaps there is reason to write such a publication as Terrorist ­Attacks for Dummies and send a copy to Crikey.