Thoughts on Steve Coll’s Directorate S

I recently finished reading Steve Coll’s newest book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Directorate S is Coll’s sequel to his excellent 2004 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of The Cia, Afghanistan And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Ghost Wars covered US support to the mujahideen groups who fought the Soviets, the rise of the Taliban, and CIA operations against al-Qaeda. It was also great fun to read. Coll writes extremely well, and he created a compelling narrative history of the key events leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

Directorate S continues Ghost Wars‘ focus on the CIA, but it also focuses heavily on the State Department and the military, which makes sense. After 9/11, Afghanistan was no longer a sideshow in US policy so the CIA was no longer the most important agency involved. Another change is that Directorate S focuses more on Pakistan than Ghost Wars did, precisely because the country has been so central to the Afghan conflict.

Directorate S was written in the same style as Ghost Wars, yet I found it a bit of an arduous read. It was less exciting and This might just represent personal changes: I was much less busy back when Ghost Wars came out, and I was newer to reading things in this area. However, I think this also reflects how much this area of intellectual inquiry has changed.

Back in the mid-2000s, Ghost Wars sat on my bookshelf alongside the few other comparable books at the time, such as Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. There seemed to be no other book at the time providing such a detailed account of the covert side of US policy in Afghanistan. Many of the events that it covered were not in the media headlines when they happened.

Today, there’s much more writing available on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and US military and foreign policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the events covered in this book were reported while they were happening, in the news media, academic outlets, and think-tank reports. Many were also covered by specialist blogs at the time, such as the now-inactive Ghosts of Alexander and Registan, or Foreign Policy‘s similarly inactive AfPak Channel, or the still-running Small Wars Journal and Long War Journal.

So Directorate S conveys less new and groundbreaking information than Ghost Wars did. Nonetheless, I recommend it. There is still a great deal of new information in the book (Ghost Wars set a high standard), and Coll ties it all together coherently and insightfully.

The book’s core argument is convincing. In short, it argues that the misalignment of interests between the US, Afghan and Pakistani governments led to the failure of the war the US launched in Afghanistan after 9/11. Most importantly, the way the US government saw the war differed greatly from how it was seen by Pakistan’s government, particularly by its powerful spy agency the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and by its subsection Directorate S.

As you might imagine from the title, the ISI’s subsection Directorate S is the book’s key focus. Through Directorate S, the Pakistani state supported (but never controlled) the Afghan Taliban movement’s war against the US and Afghan governments. At the same time, Pakistan was itself at war with the Pakistani Taliban movement and al-Qaeda. These are the sorts of contradictions that the book navigates us through.

Coll does not ignore the many potential reasons for America’s failure in Afghanistan, such as the diversion of resources to the Iraq War, the resiliency and local embeddedness of the Taliban, military misconduct, or the hubris of attempting to build on a strong centralised state in a society where that had not been the norm. But he suggests that Pakistani government support for the Taliban, via Directorate S, was likely the core reason behind the failure. As mentioned, I find this argument compelling. However, I would want to read a lot more on the topic before judging whether I find it fully convincing.

It isn’t the book’s overarching argument that makes me recommend it though. Instead, I found the book’s greatest value lay in all the smaller stories that make up its detailed narrative of how the conflict played out from 2001-2016.

The book shows how US leaders and officials constantly wrestled with conflicting policy aims, and how US operatives on the ground tried to achieve policy-makers’ often amorphous goals. The book also looks into how Afghan and Pakistani officials tried to make sense of (and respond to) US actions, but to a much lesser extent as it mainly focuses on the US.

Through this narrative, the lack of coherence in US policy comes out clearly. The story contains example after example of divisions between government agencies, within government agencies, and between individuals with strong personalities (such as Richard Holbrooke) who operated across multiple agencies. Coll shows in great detail how individuals within the US government manoeuvred against other individuals, and how this shaped the resulting policy efforts and impacted people at other levels of government, officials of other governments, and many Afghan and Pakistani civilians.

This dramatic and people-focused narrative approach is a strength of Coll’s decades of work as a journalist, which is an approach often lacking in academic books I read. What I most valued was how well it conveyed the unrelenting uncertainty faced by everyone involved.

For every important fact that US policy-makers needed to know, the information was always unclear. Understanding the intentions of their nominal partner, the Afghan government, was never easy as the relationship was frayed by distrust. America’s intelligence services routinely intercepted Afghan government communications, but Afghan officials often assumed this was happening and spoke with their American audience in mind.

These officials were themselves were deeply divided, so the Karzai government itself didn’t necessarily have coherent intentions (just like the Pakistani and US governments). Karzai himself was prone to changing his mind, and CIA analysts devoted resources to trying to understand his mental state. Any illusions US agencies might have had that either their Afghan or Pakistani counterparts could be easily manipulated would not have lasted long.

Similarly, when the White House tried to find answers to pressing questions, such as how many provinces the Taliban controlled or what explained the surge in insider attacks (when Afghan soldiers turned on their international trainers), it never turned out to be simple. Different government agencies held different data, gathered it in different ways, and disagreed over how to interpret it. Outside analysts (such as Marc Sageman) were sometimes brought in to disentangle the competing claims, but their reports often become another weapon in the intra-bureaucratic battles.

Some of the most interesting chapters are the ones about the Obama Administration’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and they similarly show the constant uncertainty government officials faced. The negotiation efforts were slowed by the difficulty the White House faced simply when trying to figure out who actually represented the Taliban, and how to know whether their interlocutors were genuinely acting on behalf of the Taliban’s leadership.

These negotiation attempts persisted awkwardly for years. Miscommunication was a constant risk in each interaction. One supposed Taliban representative turned out to be a fraud. The Afghan and Pakistani governments often heard about these plans and, seeing themselves as the rightful brokers, objected to being left out.

One major initiative ended up being derailed when a planned opening of Taliban political offices in Qatar collapsed, because the Taliban’s representatives used a different flag to the one agreed on. Qatari officials had trouble believing that the US, as a superpower, did not have control of the minor details. But the book helps show why these sorts of problems are are an unavoidable part of the process.

So while I enjoyed Directorate S less than Ghost Wars, it’s definitely worth reading.

Coll’s overall argument, that the failure to find a solution to the misalignment of Afghan, Pakistani and US governments’ interests doomed the war effort, is compelling. The book shows how the inability to prevent Pakistan’s support for the Taliban lies behind much of the war’s ultimate failure. The smaller stories that woven into the narrative are both interesting and informative, and also help to convey the human tragedy.

The book won’t leave readers feeling very optimistic. The final chapter outlines potential lessons, much as the final chapter of Ghost Wars did. However, the stronger take-away might be the complexity of the conflict, the futility of ambitious goals, and the inherent dangers of trying to shape events in unfamiliar societies and dealing with political actors who don’t conform to outside views of what their interests should be.

 

More writing and other updates

Having not posted for a while, here is an update on some recent writings by myself, by some colleagues, by people in related research areas, and news on some Australian terrorism cases recently resolved in the courts.

I have published a new AVERT post, Captured Australian Islamic State members: whose problem? The post discusses the dilemmas involved in dealing with the 40-ish (so far) Australians captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in north-east Syria. I arguing that more should be done to repatriate these Australians in order to prosecute the adults and protect the children. My aim is to convey how genuinely difficult the situation is, while nonetheless showing the practical and moral failings of Australia’s current approach.

For a detailed look at this international problem, see Brian Jenkins’ new CTC Sentinel article: Options for Dealing with Islamic State Foreign Fighters Currently Detained in Syria.

In other publication news, a report I co-authored with Michele Grossman, Susan Carland and Hussein Tahiri back in 2016-2017 has now been published: The roles of women in supporting and opposing violent extremism: understanding gender and terrorism in contemporary Australia.

Also, Judith Betts and Mehal Krayem have published a journal article about the demonisation of Lebanese-Australians, focusing on Peter Dutton’s 2016 characterisation of Australia’s intake of Lebanese migration during the late 1970s as a “mistake” (and the subsequent debates). One part of the article, which I greatly appreciate, addresses how the terrorist threat was used as proof of this “mistake” and how some of my own writing was used by commentators to support this flawed argument.

However, there’s a lot more to the article than that. Betts and Krayem also go back through the original Cabinet documents from the 1970s which are commonly cited to support the “mistake” argument and show how the documents have been been misrepresented. Betts and Krayem also show how misleading many of the talking points were. For example, Julie Bishop claimed that Dutton was being misrepresented and that he was merely decrying Australia’s inadequate settlement services for Lebanese people fleeing the civil war. If Dutton’s argument was indeed just that the Fraser government should have done a better job of providing settlement support, then I would  agree with him (as would Fraser, who said in 2009 that “If there was a failure of government in those early months it was in resettlement programs and planning”). However, Betts and Krayem diligently trawl through Dutton’s actual words and show that “[d]espite her assertion, we were unable to find any public acknowledgement on Dutton’s part of the lack of settlement assistance provided to Lebanese in the mid‐70s”.

Their main article is behind a paywall, but Judith Betts summarises its key arguments in this post on Pearls and Irritations. Betts also wrote a follow-up article in Inside Story, delving deeper into the Cabinet documents from 1976 to understand the decision-making process at the time, which resulted in the poorly-implemented settlement process, exacerbating social and economic disadvantage. Her Inside Story article also covers how Canada did a better job of facilitating Lebanese migration during same period, to help people flee the horrific civil war, and that those ” who went to Canada haven’t had to suffer the indignity of being labelled a mistake by their immigration minister.”

Meanwhile, there’s been a bunch of other new posts on the AVERT blog, mostly discussing the Christchurch terrorist attack. Debra Smith discusses some of her research (with Mario Peucker and Muhammad Iqbal) on Victoria’s extreme-right, and what insights it can provide in light of the attack. Michele Grossman answers some questions on what the attack tells us about social divisions. Jay Marlowe reflects on some problems with the “this is not us” response to the attack. And Matteo Vergani suggests that the media needs a new code of ethics for reporting on terrorism.

The University of Western Australia has published a radicalisation blog series, based on a recent symposium. There’s an introductory post by Shamit Saggar and Samina Yasmeen, followed by contributions from Shamit Saggar, Hass Dellal, Leila Ben McharekMichele Grossman, Raafia Raees Khan, and Rizwana Abdul Azeez.

Finally, several terrorism prosecutions came to an end recently:

  • Khaled Khayat has been found guilty for his role in the Islamic State plot to bomb an Etihad flight and then attack members of the public with a chemical weapon. The jury could not come to a verdict on his brother, Mahmoud Khayat, and he will be retried later this year.
  • Musa Cerantonio and five others have been sentenced for their attempt to join insurgents in the Philipines.
  • Ihsas Khan was sentenced for his Islamic State-inspired stabbing in Sydney.
  • Momena Shoma was sentenced for her Islamic State-inspired stabbing in Melbourne.
  • And NSW man Haisem Zahab was sentenced for trying to develop missile-detection and missile-guidance systems for Islamic State. This was an unusual case, and the sentencing document is extremely detailed and interesting.

Proven and alleged terrorist plots in Australia since September 2014

This table presents proven and alleged terrorist plots in Australia from September 2014 onwards.

An earlier version was published in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2019. However, this version functions as a living document so that I can regularly update it to include new events, and it contains all the sources. Thomas Hegghammer, among many others, has called for terrorism scholars to share their (open) sources better and I strongly agree. Part of my motivation for making this post is to share all the sources behind the ASPI version of the table and these two AVERT posts:

The table is divided into three sections: violent incidents (where a violent attack was carried out, though there are debates over whether all of these should be characterised as terrorism), terrorist plots proven in court, and alleged terrorist plots currently before the courts. The listings are based on Australia’s official legal definition of terrorism and the outcomes of court cases, but underneath the table I note some of the ambiguities this causes.

Also, rather than regularly detailing each update I make, like I was doing for this post, this time I just note the date on which I last updated it. If you find this table helpful for your research, please cite this post.

Proven and alleged terrorist plots in Australia since September 2014 (last updated 3 July 2019)
Violent incidents
Month of incident Incident
September 2014 Melbourne-based teenager Numan Haider was inspired by Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani’s global call to arms and stabbed two Victorian Joint Counter-Terrorism Team (JCTT) officers before being fatally shot.
Sources:
Finding – Inquest into the Death of Ahmad Numan Haider, 31 July 2017.
December 2014 Harun Man Monis used a shotgun to take hostages in the Lindt Café in Sydney shortly after pledging allegiance online to Islamic State. The 12-hour siege ended with the deaths of two hostages and Monis.
Sources:
Martin Place Siege: Joint Commonwealth – New South Wales Review, 22 February 2015;
Inquest into the deaths arising from the Lindt Café siege, May 2017.
October 2015 Fifteen-year old Farhad Jabar, who belonged to a group of Sydney-based Islamic State supporters, used a handgun to murder NSW police employee Curtis Cheng at Parramatta Police Station before being fatally shot. One accomplice, Raban Alou, pleaded guilty to a terrorism offence for conspiring in the murder. In March 2018, he was sentenced to 44 years’ imprisonment. Another accomplice, Talal Alameddine, pleaded guilty to supplying the handgun and was sentenced in May 2018 to 7 years’ and 2 months’ imprisonment. Milad Atai, who also pleaded guilty to a role in the murder, was sentenced in November 2018 to 38 years’ imprisonment. Mustafa Durani has also been found guilty of being involved, but has not yet been sentenced.
Sources:
Two men arrested in relation to Curtis Cheng murder, 15 October 2015;
Two charged in Operation Peqin, 22 March 2016;
Man charged with firearm offence and breach of bail, 21 December 2016;
Four men charged with plotting Curtis Cheng terror attack, 27 April 2017;
Plan of Attack: the making of a teenage terrorist, 23 November 2015;
R v Alou (No. 4) [2018] NSWSC 221 (1 March 2018);
R v Atai (No. 2) [2018] NSWSC 1797 (23 November 2018);
R v Alameddine (No. 3) [2018] NSWSC 681 (18 May 2018).
September 2016 Ihsas Khan, believed to be inspired by Islamic State, stabbed a member of the public in the Sydney suburb of Minto. He acknowledged that he committed the stabbing but pleaded not guilty to terrorism offences on mental health grounds. On 2 May 2019 he was found guilty, and on 5 June 2019 he was sentenced to 36 years’ imprisonment.
Sources:
Man charged with committing a terrorist act and attempted murder – Joint Counter Terrorism Team, 11 September 2016;
Ihsas Khan found guilty of stabbing his neighbour in Sydney terror attack, 2 May 2019;
R v Khan (No 11) [2019] NSWSC 594 (5 June 2019).
December 2016 In a somewhat anomalous incident, Islamic State supporters Abdullah Chaarani, Ahmed Mohamed and Hatim Moukhaiber, carried out an arson attack against a Shia mosque (the Imam Ali Islamic Centre) in Melbourne on 11 December 2016. They were charged with terrorism offences (possibly under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Kastelhom) and were found guilty in May 2019. Abdullah Chaarani and Ahmed Mohamed were also found guilty of a failed attempt to firebomb the Shia mosque sixteen days before their successful attempt, and they had earlier been found guilty of involvement in the December 2016 Christmas Day bombing plot (mentioned below). However, this whole indicident does not appear to be included in the official figure of “seven attacks” in Australia since September 2014, possibly because politically-motivated arson attacks do not normally result in terrorism charges.
Sources:
Three men to be charged with committing a terrorist act, 20 August 2017;
‘IS-inspired’ trio face terror charges over arson at Melbourne Shiite centre, 20 August 2017;
Fawkner mosque arsonists were also behind Melbourne Christmas terror plot, 9 May 2019.
June 2017 Yaqcub Khayre used a shotgun to murder a hotel clerk in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, before taking a hostage and seeking media and police attention. After the police arrived, he fired at them and was shot dead. He had claimed that the action was in the name of both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Sources:
Understanding Australia’s Brighton siege terror attack, 14 July 2017.
February 2018 Inspired by Islamic State, Bangladeshi student Momena Shoma stabbed a man in Melbourne’s Mill Park. She has pleaded guilty to a terrorism offence, and on 5 June 2019 she was sentenced to 42 years’ imprisonment.
Sources:
Woman charged following terrorism-related stabbing in Mill Park, 10 February 2018;
Accused IS-inspired stabber Momena Shoma appears in court, 3 May 2018;
Bangladeshi student’s lone wolf terror attack in Melbourne left daughter with flashbacks, victim says, 30 January 2019;
The Queen v Shoma [2019] VSC 367 (5 June 2019).
November 2018 Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, believed to be inspired by Islamic State, drove a vehicle laden with gas canisters into Melbourne’s Bourke Street, set it on fire, and stabbed multiple members of the public. He murdered one person and injured two others before being fatally shot by police.
Sources:
Revealed: Bourke Street attacker’s plan and why it failed, 10 November 2018;
Bourke Street attacker Hassan Khalif Shire Ali was radicalised and inspired by IS, police say, 12 November 2018.
Proven plots
Month of key arrests Incident
September 2014 A Brisbane-based man, Agim Kruezi, plotted to carry out an attack using firearms and Molotov cocktails while in contact with Islamic State supporters in Sydney. Kruezi was arrested under the Queensland JCTT’s Operation Bolton, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17 years’ and 4 months’ imprisonment.
Sources:
Further charges laid in counter-terrorism operation, 17 October 2014;
The Queen v Agim Kruezi [2018] QSC 806/955 (31 July 2018).
September 2014 Omarjan Azari was part of plot in Sydney to murder random members of the public. Under instructions from Syria-based Australian Islamic State member Mohamed Ali Baryalei, the plan was for the victims to be killed with a blade and for videos of the murders to be sent to Islamic State’s media agency. Azari was arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Appleby, found guilty by a jury, and sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment.
Sources:
UPDATE: Major Sydney counter terrorism investigation; two charged, 18 September 2014;
The order to kill that triggered Operation Appleby, 19 September 2014;
Sydney man Omarjan Azari spoke of plan to kill seven random Australians a month, terrorism trial told, 24 April 2017;
R v Azari (No 12) [2019] NSWSC 314 (29 March 2019).
December 2014 to May 2016 Six Islamic State supporters in Sydney were involved in a plot to attack government buildings, and were arrested over many months in a series of raids which were again part of the NSW JCTT’s Operation Appleby. All six pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison terms that ranged from 8 years to 22 years.
Sources:
Man in court after Operation Appleby arrest, 10 January 2015;
Two Men charged in Operation Appleby investigation, 10 December 2015;
Update on additional charges in Operation Appleby investigation, 10 December 2015; Appleby terror cell a tough nut to crack, says top cop, 25 March 2016;
Operation Appleby investigators arrest Bankstown man, 26 May 2016;
R v Ghazzawy [2017] NSWSC 474 (8 May 2017);
R v Sulayman Khalid; R v Jibryl Almaouie; R v IM; R v Mohamed Rashad Al Maouie; R v Farhad Said [2017] NSWSC 1365.
February 2015 Two Sydney-based men, Omar al-Kutobi and Mohammad Kiad, plotted an attack while in communication with an Islamic State member in Syria (who turned out to be passing information about the plot to an informant). The plot involved firebombing a Shia institution and then attacking one or more people with a blade. Al-Kutobi and Kiad were arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Castrum, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Sources:
Two arrested at Fairfield on terrorism offences, 11 February 2015;
The monsters in the granny flat, 9 September 2017;
R v Al-Kutobi; R v Kiad [2016] NSWSC 1760 (9 December 2016).
April 2015 Sevdet Besim plotted to kill police officers in Melbourne on Anzac Day (25 April). He was in communication with two Syria-based Australian Islamic State members and a 14-year-old UK child pretending to be a significant Islamic State member. Besim was arrested in the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Rising, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, later changed on appeal to 14 years.
Sources:
Media Release: Counter terrorism operation update, 21 April 2016;
Anzac Day terror plot: Blackburn boy sentenced to life, 2 October 2015;
The boy who wanted to spread blood and terror in the Anzac Day parade, 2 October 2015;
The Queen v Besim [2016] VSC 537 (5 September 2016);
DPP (Cth) v Besim [2017] VSCA 158 (23 June 2017).
May 2015 An unnamed 17-year-old male (“MHK”) plotted an attack in Melbourne involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) under instructions from Syria-based British Islamic State member Junaid Hussain. Targets are unclear, but there was discussion of a police station or train station. He was arrested under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Amberd, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment, later changed on appeal to 11 years.
Sources:
Joint Operation Amberd, 9 May 2015;
Melbourne teen partially made explosive device similar to Boston bombings in terror plot, court told, 5 September 2016;
Teenager pleads guilty to planning Mother’s Day terrorist attack in Melbourne, 14 December 2015;
The Queen v M H K [2016] VSC 742 (7 December 2016);
DPP (Cth) v M H K (a Pseudonym) [2017] VSCA 157 (23 June 2017).
February 2016 An Islamic State supporting couple, Alo-Bridget Namoa and Sameh Bayda, planned a knife attack in Sydney. The two were arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Chillon, and one was convicted and sentenced for refusing to answer questions. Both then faced trial on terrorism charges and were found guilty by a jury. Sameh Bayda was sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment while Alo-Bridget Namoa was sentenced to 3 years’ and 9 months’ imprisonment.
Sources:
Man charged after Joint Counter Terrorism Team operation, 26 January 2016;
NSW JCTT charges Auburn woman, 6 February 2016;
JCTT charges 18-year-old woman as part of terrorism investigation, 23 February 2016;
‘Jihadi Bonnie and Clyde’ teens charged with planning Sydney terrorist attack, 8 February 2017;
R v Bayda; R v Namoa (No 8) [2019] NSWSC 24 (31 January 2019).
April 2016 An unnamed Sydney-based teenager (“AH”), inspired by Islamic State, plotted to carry out a shooting attack against people attending a memorial service for Anzac Day. He was arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Vianden, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment.
Sources:
Teenager charged with a terrorism offence, 25 April 2016;
Western Sydney teenager pleads guilty to planning Anzac Day terror attack, 24 March 2017;
R v AH [2018] NSWSC 973 (22 June 2018).
May 2016 A Sydney-based man inspired by Islamic State, Tamim Khaja, plotted to attack targets such as Parramatta Court or an Army or Navy base. He was charged under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Sanandres, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment.
Sources:
Teenager arrested for terrorism offences, 17 May 2016;
Tamim Khaja, 18, charged with planning terrorist attack over seven-day period, 19 May 2016;
Tamim Khaja pleads guilty to planning Sydney ‘mass murder’ terror attack, 31 October 2017;
R v Khaja (No 5) [2018] NSWSC 238 (2 March 2018).
September 2016 NSW prisoner Bourhan Hraichie pleaded guilty to plotting a terrorist attack targeting police in Bankstown, but the details are extremely unclear. In a separate incident (which did not result in terrorism charges) he attacked his cellmate, carving “e4e” (eye for an eye) into his forehead, and sent the Corrective Services Commissioner a letter declaring that he was inspired by Islamic State. He was charged under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Broughton and pleaded guilty to four offences.
Sources:
Man charged by NSW JCTT, 14 September 2016;
Man in Goulburn prison allegedly caught planning terrorist act from behind bars, 14 September 2016;
R v Hraichie (No. 1) [2019] NSWSC 319 (25 March 2019);
Inmate boasted of turning cellmate’s forehead into ‘Islamic State sketch pad’, court hears, 26 March 2019.
October 2016 Two unnamed Sydney-based teenagers, inspired by Islamic State, were accused of plotting to carry out a beheading attack in Sydney. They were charged under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Restormal in September 2016. One was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment, while the other is facing a retrial.
Sources: Two arrested in Sydney, 12 October 2016;
Sydney teens charged with terrorism offences – Joint Counter Terrorism Team, 13 October 2016;
Bankstown terror arrest: Teens were about to make ‘final prayers’, police believe, 13 October 2016;
R v HG [2018] NSWSC 1849 (11 December 2018).
December 2016 Four men, Ibrahim Abbas, Hamza Abbas, Abdullah Chaarani and Ahmed Mohamed, plotted to detonate IEDs at popular locations in Melbourne’s central business district. They were charged under the Victorian JCCT’s Operation Kastelhom. Ibrahim Abbas pleaded guilty in February 2018 and was sentenced to 24 years’ imprisonment. The other three were found guilty by a jury on 2 November 2018 but have not yet been sentenced.
Sources:
Seven people arrested in counter terrorism operation in Melbourne, 23 December 2016;
Three Charged Following Joint Counter Terrorism Operation, 23 December 2016;
Melbourne terrorist plot: What do we know about the alleged foiled Christmas attack?, 23 December 2016;
Second Abbas brother in court over Christmas terror raids, 24 December 2016;
Melbourne trio to stand trial over allegedly planning Christmas Day terrorist attack, 2 August 2017;
The Queen v Abbas [2018] VSC 553 (20 September 2018);
Trio guilty of Melbourne Christmas terror plot, 14 November 2018.
August 2017 Two Sydney men were accused of plotting to bomb a plane and then to build a chemical dispersal advice under instructions from Islamic State. They were charged with terrorism offences under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Silves and one of them was found guilty by a jury on 1 May 2019. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other accused man, and he is facing a retrial.
Sources:
Four arrested in major counter terrorism operation, 29 July 2017;
UPDATE: Sydney counter-terrorism operation, 30 July 2017;
UPDATE: Sydney counter-terrorism operation – 50-year-old man released, 2 August 2017;
Two Sydney men charged over planned terrorist acts, 3 August 2017;
UPDATE: Sydney counter-terrorism operation – final man released, 6 August 2017;
AFP and NSWP discuss the Two sydney men charged over alleged terrorist acts (video of press conference), 3 August 2017;
New developments in the Islamic State’s external operations: the 2017 Sydney plane plot, 18 October 2017;
Suspected Sydney plane bomb plot ringleader and Australian IS terrorist captured in Iraq, 18 April 2018;
Brothers plead not guilty to Sydney airport meat grinder bomb plot, 4 May 2018;
November 2017 Ali Khalif Shire Ali (brother of the Bourke Street terrorist mentioned above) plotted a shooting attack at Federation Square in Melbourne on New Year’s Eve. He was arrested under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation San Jose and pleaded guilty on 15 May 2019.
Sources:
Man arrested in counter terrorism operation in Melbourne, 28 November 2017;
UPDATE: Man arrested in Melbourne counter terrorism operation charged, 28 November 2017;
Arrested Australian terror suspect had British contacts, 28 November 2017;
Further warrants following counter terrorism arrest in Melbourne, 29 November 2017;
‘I thought I was in 007’: Terror plot accused said he was approached by ASIO, 29 November 2017;
Man admits to Federation Square terror plot, 15 May 2019.
Alleged plots
Month of key arrests Incident
August 2016 A far-right extremist in Melbourne is alleged to have plotted a bomb attack against left-wing activists. He was charged under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Fortaleza and is facing trial.
Sources:
Victorian man arrested in JCTT operation, 8 August 2016;
How Reclaim Australia hid a ‘terrorist, 13-19 August 2016;
‘Patriot’ accused of bomb plans, rewriting terror guide, assures magistrate of sanity, 31 October 2016;
Victorian extremist Phillip Galea planned to bomb leftwing premises, police say, 31 October 2016;
November 2018 Three men in Melbourne are alleged to have plotted a mass shooting attack against a public gathering. The suspects were arrested under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Donabate and are facing trial.
Sources:
Three men charged following counter terrorism operation, 20 November 2018;
Melbourne terror attack plot suspects arrested in police raids over mass shooting fears, 21 November 2018.
July 2019 Alleged plot by an Islamic State supporter, reportedly in contact with individuals overseas, to bomb locations in Sydney. Potential targets included churches and police stations. Three people were arrested in a NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team operation, one of whom was charged with preparing an attack and being an Islamic State member (another was also charged with being an Islamic State member, while a third was charged with non-terrorism offences).
Sources:
Three men charged in NSW JCTT operation, 3 July 2019;
‘Wannabe ISIS warrior at heart of church, consulate bomb plot’, 3 July 2019;
NSW Police charge two men after Sydney terror raids, alleged mastermind still being interviewed, 3 July 2019;
Sydney counter-terror raids: third man charged over alleged Islamic State-inspired terror plot, 3 July 2019.

Terrorism is a famously contested term. The table is based based on Australia’s legal definition of terrorism, and on prosecutorial outcomes since September 2014. The legal definition requires, among other things, that the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

(b)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause;

And also prove that:

(c)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:

(i)  coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or

(ii)  intimidating the public or a section of the public.

As such, the table leaves out many other incidents relevant for understanding violent extremism and counter-terrorism in  Australia.

For example, it leaves out:

Cases of terrorist-like tactics carried out for ambiguous purposes.
This includes two high-profile vehicle attacks against pedestrians in Melbourne. James Gargasoulas drove into pedestrians in Bourke Street, killing six people and injuring several more, in January 2017. Saeed Noori killed one person, and injured many others, by driving into pedestrians at Flinders Street in December 2017. These attacks echoed methods used by Islamic State supporters in France, Germany and Sweden, but did not result in terrorism charges. Similarly, in December 2016 Jaden Duong tried to kill himself by driving gas-canister-filled van into the Canberra offices of the Australian Christian Lobby. The tactic resembled terrorism, but the motivation was regarded as too unclear for terrorism charges. That the perpetrators, like anybody, had political and religious views (Duong was a gay rights activist, Noori believed ASIO was persecuting Muslims, Gargasoulas claimed to be the “second coming of Christ“) does not mean that their actions were necessarily attempts to intimidate a wider audience to further those beliefs. Therefore, they did not neatly fit under Australia’s legal definition of terrorism.

Cases of extremist individuals carrying out acts of family violence.
For example, an Islamic State supporter in Melbourne (associated with a terrorist cell disrupted in Melbourne in 2005) murdered his wife in June 2016 in front of their children. Also in 2016, Aryan Nations members in Perth murdered one of their spouses to steal his house and life insurance.

Lower-level acts of extremist violence, such as arson and assaults.
There have been several such acts carried out with apparent extremist motivation but which did not result in terrorism charges. These include cases of far-right violent extremism in recent years, such as when neo-Nazi Ricky White burned down a Sydney church in 2016 (he was jailed on an arson charge but later subjected to an Extended Supervision Order under the NSW Terrorism (High Risk Offenders) Act 2017). There have similarly been some cases of intra-Muslim violence with ideological and sectarian undertones which usually do not result in terrorism charges, with the unusual exception one arson attack against a Shia mosque in Melbourne which was treated as terrorism (mentioned in the table above).

Cases of Australians supporting or perpetrating terrorist acts abroad.
Plenty of people in Australia have been charged for supporting armed groups in the Middle East. Most of these charges involve support for Islamic State, but some involve support for Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Kurdistan Workers Party. Several Australians travelled to join Islamic State and other groups, and sometimes carried out high-profile war crimes. Australians have also joined armed groups in Ukraine, including extreme-right groups. The most consequential case of an Australian carrying out a terrorist attack overseas was the Christchurch massacre, when an Australian white supremacist murdered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand on 15 March 2019.

Australians harmed or killed in terrorist acts abroad.
Most deaths of Australians in terrorist acts occur overseas. Two Australians were recently killed in the Sri Lankan church bombings which killed over 250 people. In 2017 four Australians were killed in terrorists attacks in Baghdad, Barcelona and London. Going back further, Australians were killed in terrorist acts in Paris in 2015, Mumbai in 2008, and many other attacks. The worst example is the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 88 Australians were among the 202 people murdered. Going back further still, in 1990 two Australian tourists in the Netherlands were killed by members of the Irish Republican Army who mistook them for off-duty British soldiers. And in 1985 two Australians were killed in a bombing at Frankfurt Airport and one Australians was killed in the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 648 (these two terror attacks were carried out by the largely-forgotten Abu Nidal Organisation).

So these five types of incidents listed above are left out of the table, as are any events before 2014. The table covers proven and alleged terrorist plots inside Australia since September 2014, based on Australia’s legal definition of terrorism and how it has been applied so far, which is just one part of a much bigger picture.

Ideology, armed conflict, and terrorism studies

I wanted to share a new journal article I’m excited about: Ideology and Armed Conflict by Jonathan Leader Maynard in the Journal of Peace Research.

I’ve mentioned the increasing crossover between civil war studies and terrorism studies a few times on this blog (the newly-released Oxford Handbook of Terrorism is another example). This new article, Ideology and Armed Conflict, sits within this trend but goes even further. It encompasses civil war studies, terrorism studies, and also international relations, by helping make sense of a concept that’s crucially important for all these fields.

Civil war studies has only relatively recently been interrogating the concept of ideology, something that terrorism studies has been grappling with for decades. However, this article does so with greater theoretical rigour than some approaches within terrorism studies (which sometimes either takes ideology as a given, or alternatively expresses excessive scepticism that ideology matters).

Maynard explicitly conceptualises four mechanisms (commitment, adoption, conformity and instrumentalisation) through which ideology can exert a strong influence on armed conflict even when the proportion of “true believers” is remarkably small. He also proposes ways to understand when and how ideological change does, and does not, occur.

The article covers a wide scope, using examples from the Cold War:

Groups may, for example, stick with existing ideologies out of fear of membership defection, loss of public legitimacy and credibility, or the withdrawal of patron support (Drevon, 2017; Gutiérrez Sanín & Wood, 2014: 220). Even as sincere faith in orthodox communist ideology declined among Soviet elites in the 1980s, for example, ‘hardliners’ feared that abandoning the ideological struggle against global capitalism would weaken the militarized party–state apparatus, and so bitterly opposed reforms (English, 2002: 72–78, 83–87).

From jihadist movements:

Similarly, Salafi-Jihadism has become an attractive ideological framework for armed groups in part because it allows them to call upon the support of powerful transnational networks of jihadist activists and sympathizers (Adamson, 2005; Bakke, 2014; Hegghammer, 2010/11; Owen, 2010: ch. 7; Walter, 2017).

Ideologies are not static features of individuals, groups, organizations or societies, but change before, during, and after conflict. The consequences of such change can be profound: Hegghammer (2010/11), for example, suggests that ideological changes within transnational Islamist networks are crucial in explaining the rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters from the 1980s onwards (see also Bakke, 2014)…

And from the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

Ideological effects often arise, therefore, from networked interdependencies of different sorts of actors guided by different mechanisms, with the largest scale effects emerging from mutually reinforcing internalized and structural dynamics. For example, neoconservative justifications of the Iraq War – as an exercise in rapid democracy-promotion which would positively transform Middle Eastern regional security – were, in many respects, dramatic breaks from previous US policy assumptions and appear puzzling and dangerous from conventional strategic perspectives (Flibbert, 2006: 310–311; Gilpin, 2005: 5–6, 17). These justifications proved so consequential, however, because they were simultaneously longstanding commitments for key members of the Bush administration, provided a plausible roadmap of action for broader sympathetic constituencies after 9/11, were successfully institutionalized within the administration (as critics of the war were sidelined) in ways that created strong pressure for officials to support an emerging ideological consensus, and were instrumentally effective in mobilizing public support and legitimating the administration’s priorities (Flibbert, 2006).

It’s unfortunately behind a paywall, but if you can access it and are interested in ideology and conflict in any way, I recommend it. And I highly recommend it if you follow terrorism studies but want to see how the concept of ideology is used in other fields.

More writing and other updates

Following on from last week’s post, this post provides some further updates on my writing and on Australian terrorism-related news.

Writing updates

I’ve had a new piece published on AVERT Commentary. Its the second part of a series tracing how Australia’s jihadist plots transformed after the rise of Islamic State:

If you combine the table presented in those posts with the table of proven and alleged plots from pages 16-17 of my ASPI Counterterrorism Yearbook chapter, you’ll get quite a detailed overview of Australian jihadist activity since September 2014.

I also want to correct an error I made in the ASPI chapter. For footnote 86 I wrote “Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Estimates, transcript, 23 October 2018, 62–66.” I should have written pages 99-100.

I also wrote in the chapter that “Eight Australian juveniles have now been charged with terrorism offences, and at least four have been convicted.” It turns out that at least five had been convicted. They are known only as: HG, AH, EB, IM, and MHK. I had not known about EB as the non-publication order on his conviction was only lifted on 5 February. There might also be others I am unaware of.

Australian terrorism-related updates

Last week’s post mentioned that “there are several terrorism trials currently underway in Sydney (according to the NSW Courts Registry app) which should be incredibly interesting, but I’ve seen absolutely no media reporting of them so I am guessing that there are loads of suppression orders.” These cases are now being reported on.

The first was the trial of Mustafa Dirani. On 14 March a jury found him guilty of being involved in the 2015 murder of NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng (he was the fourth person to be convicted over this terrorist attack). You also might remember Mustafa Dirani from the false “plastic sword” claim.

The other case was the trial of the two men charged over the alleged 2017 Sydney plane bombing plot, which began to be reported this week.

Meanwhile Amer Khayat, an Australian man facing the death penalty in a Lebanese court due to alleged involvement in the alleged plane plot, has had his case adjourned until 30 April while the court prepares to examine documents provided by the Australian government. At a press conference in August 2017 the Australian Federal Police indicated that they believed that he had been duped, stating that “[w]e will be alleging that the person who was to carry the IED (improvised explosive device) on the plane had no idea they were going to be carrying an IED”.

In other local terrorism news, a new sentencing date has been set for Omarjan Azari.He will be sentenced on 29 March for his role in the terrorist plot disrupted by the Operation Appleby raids in September 2014.

On 15 March the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held a public hearing on proposed new Temporary Exclusion Orders directed at foreign fighters. The transcript is now available.

A Turkish court has sentenced Neil Prakash, the most high-profile Australian member of Islamic State, to seven and half years in prison.

In Syria, a woman believed to be Australian Islamic State member Zehra Duman is attempting to return home.

Finally, the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attack against Muslims in Christchurch, perpetrated by an Australian white supremacist, has seen several potentially-related incidents occuring here (some linked, some possibly not). A Queensland man has been charged for allegedly ramming his car into a Mosque’s gates and screaming obscenities. An Adelaide man has been charged with weapons offences after reportedly posting online comments in support of the Christchurch massacre. And the NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team searched properties in Sydney to support New Zealand’s investigation into the attack.

Resources: some background to the Christchurch massacre

This is another quick post, to share some resources relevant to the Christchurch massacre.

The perpetrator, an Australian white supremacist, murdered 50 people (so far) at two mosques in New Zealand, which is more people than were killed in most terrorist attacks in Western Europe and North America in recent decades (with some major exceptions such as Oklahoma 1995, the 9/11 attacks, Madrid 2004, London 2005, Oslo 2011, and Paris 2015). This is the largest death toll from any terrorist attack, and mass shooting, inside either Australia or New Zealand for nearly a century (since the atrocities against the Indigenous populations). The attack has left dozens more people maimed and wounded. And as terrorism is intended to, the attack has also had impact on a far wider audience than the immediate victims, traumatising entire communities.

It’s long-term political impact, in New Zealand, Australia and eslewhere, isn’t yet clear. Whether it leads to a moment of political unification rather than further polarisation, and whether it will prompt various mainstream political and media figures to repudiate the far-right and stop stigmatising Muslims rather than react unreflectively, depends on the choices people make in the coming weeks, months and years.

There’s been a lot of valuable commentary on this tragedy, but it’s still early days and there’s a lot we don’t know. So here are a some pieces of excellent research published before the massacre, which help provide context:

Jacob Aasland Ravndal and Tore Bjørgo , “Investigating Terrorism from the Extreme Right: A Review of Past and Present Research“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume XII, Issue 6, 2018. For an introduction to academic research on modern far-right violent extremism, this is probably the best single article to start with (it introduces a Special Issue of the journal).

J.M. Berger, “The Alt-Right Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the Audience for Alt-Right Content on Twitter“, VOX-Pol, 15 October 2018. This is one of the few quantitative studies available on online alt-right activity.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, “A Neo-Nationalist Network: The English Defence League and Europe’s Counter-Jihad Movement“, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 14th March 2013. This report examines the transnational “counter-jihad” movement which influenced Anders Breivik and, less directly, Breivik copycats (though Breivik was also strongly influenced by more traditional extreme-right ideas).

I also would have shared Fred Halliday’s book chapter “Anti-Muslimism and Contemporary Politics: One Ideology or Many” from his 1995 book Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, but it doesn’t seem to be online.

Finally, I’ve been thinking recently about how victims of terrorism are rarely focused on in the field of terrorism studies, other than as statistics. The media has always done a much better job of conveying this human side of the story than the academy has, and social media at its best can do the same. So I strongly recommend Khaled Beydoun’s tweet thread which provides a personal story of each person murdered by this extremist.

Writing and other updates

This is another quick post for a few updates.

I recently had a chapter published in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2019, looking at counter-terrorism developments in Australia during the past year. You can read the chapter here or my Strategist post on it here.

I recently spoke to David Wroe for this article about the United States urging the Australian government to “take responsibility” for Australian Islamic State fighters captured in Syria. At some point I want to write a post on this issue, either on this blog, or AVERT, or elsewhere, to make clear how much of dilemma counter-terrorism authorities (not just in Australia) are facing. Leaving these Australians in hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces carries a whole range of risks, but my own preference (that the government make more efforts to prosecute them here) entails serious risks as well.

In other terrorism-related news, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor has announced a review into the citenship-stripping legislation, which is a great idea.

Finally, there are several terrorism trials currently underway in Sydney (according to the NSW Courts Registry app) which should be incredibly interesting, but I’ve seen absolutely no media reporting of them so I am guessing that there are loads of suppression orders. Hopefully some of it becomes public soon.