On Sunday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “al-Qaeda has named Australia as a prime target for terrorism by firebombing in an online terrorism and bomb-making magazine.”
This was in reference to Inspire magazine, an English language publication by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which attempts to incite jihadist sympathisers in the West to carry out violence. The latest issue (9) provided instructions on how to start bushfires, and mentioned Australia both as a target and as an example of the damage bushfires have caused.
Alongside a picture of the Sydney Opera House were the words:
On December 2002 and in the south of Australia, flames of fire caused the eruption of 79 conflagrations in New South Wales, it spread to its environs. There were more than 4500 firefighters struggling to stop fires burning. Those crews were even backed up with helicopters’ support. It is considered the worst event of wild fires during 30 years. 19 houses were damaged at first and then, the fire went towards Sydney city where a firestorm erupted. It burnt down more than 500 houses. In that horrifying day, this firestorm released a heat energy equal to that of 23 nuclear bombs.
Later on the article broadly described the best times and places to start fires in several countries, including Australia.
It’s important not to make too much of every perceived threat. In 2009, there was completely unfounded speculation that terrorists were behind the Black Saturday bushfires. Victoria Police had to step in and debunk these claims.
Inspire produces these articles not just to incite attacks, but to generate fear. It’s already partly achieved that. By not mentioning any other threatened countries, the Sydney Morning Herald gave the misleading impression that the Inspire article was focused only on Australia. Inspire listed the prime targets for pyro-terrorism as the US, UK and Israel, followed by NATO countries. It was not aimed only at Australia as the Herald’s coverage implied.
Given the risk of the Inspire article creating further unnecessary fear, this post explores the likelihood of an al-Qaeda inspired bushfire attempt actually happening here.
Calls to attack the West with bushfires are not new; they have occasionally featured on jihadist internet forums since at least 2006. One widely-cited example is a posting that called for jihadists to light bushfires in “the United States, in Europe, in Russia and in Australia”. That posting attributed the idea to renowned strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, who had been an influential figure for many in the movement (including some Australian jihadists arrested in 2005*).
Jarret Brachman said of this, “We’re definitely going to see more of calls for these kinds of operations in the future….The question that American security professionals and first responders will have to wrestle with is whether anyone will be answering these calls.” So far, the answer is few or none.
Dozens of jihadist plots, possibly over a hundred**, have occurred in the West over the past decade. Of these, there does not appear to have been a single proven case of them attempting to light bushfires.
One possible exception is that in 2003 a jihadist detainee in FBI custody claimed there was a plan to start simultaneous bushfires in several US states. But to my knowledge (I am very willing to be corrected here) no jihadist in Western Europe, North America or Australasia has actually been convicted, or even charged, of planning to light one.
Israel has faced terrorist-lit bushfires, but it is in a very different situation facing a different movement. Pyro-terrorism certainly exists, but it has barely featured in the al-Qaeda inspired global jihad. Despite urgings for bushfire attacks, the foot soldiers proved reluctant to actually try it.
Based on the writings of several specialists, we can gather some likely reasons for this.
Adam Dolnik has pointed out that lighting fires was “generally not considered a glorious type of attack” in the global jihadist movement. Jihadists see themselves as warriors, and lighting bushfires is very un-warlike compared to bombings and shootings (even of civilian targets).
Killing civilians at all is a difficult step to take. Many jihadists first try to fight on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Bosnia and elsewhere. They often turn towards attacks on the West after being redirected by leaders at training camps, or after finding they can’t reach the battlefield.
Even then, a significant number are hesitant to carry out the sort of attacks al-Qaeda calls for – bombings of civilian targets with high symbolic or economic value, like mass transit facilities. As J.M. Berger has shown, a third of all jihadists in the US during the post-9/11 decade were plotting to attack military targets at home or abroad, even though jihadist leaders urged otherwise.
If killing civilians is itself a difficult threshold to cross, it should not be surprising that very few jihadists cross the threshold of trying to kill them in the blatantly un-warlike ways that Inspire magazine suggests. We have also not seen jihadists welding blades to trucks as suggested in the second issue of Inspire.
Another reason is that promptings for these type of attacks have not come from the highest levels of al-Qaeda. According to the CTC analysis of the recently al-Qaeda documents, bin Laden was not impressed by the unconventional attack methods proposed by Inspire.
A further reason, raised by Anthony Bergin in the Sydney Morning Herald article, is that jihadists would be concerned that a bushfire attack would have little value as the state could just deny terrorists were responsible.
Last, Adam Dolnik’s excellent book finds a key factor prompting innovation in terrorist groups is the repeated experience of failed operations, forcing them to adapt. While al-Qaeda as an organisation has experienced many failures and adapted to them, the typical jihadist in the West is not an experienced veteran. These foot soldiers tend to be newcomers to violence, without a record of involvement in earlier, failed attacks. As a result, they tend to be imitative rather than innovative, and hence stick to bombings and shootings.
So what does this tell us?
Basically, it’s not a big threat. Jihadist bushfire plots in Western countries have been rare, possibly non-existent, in the past. Future trends cannot be assumed to resemble past trends, but if the likely reasons for the rarity of these attacks remain valid, bushfire jihad in the West will be very rare for the near-future.
If some of the above reasons become invalid – for example, if more senior jihadist figures urge pyro-terrorism – this will likely have less impact in Australia than in the US and Europe, as they have a much greater frequency of jihadist plots.
True, a jihadist bushfire could happen here, and of course security agencies and emergency services should be prepared for every conceivable contingency. But it is a safe bet that the next jihadist plot in Australia won’t be an attempt to start bushfires, and that the next bushfire will not be lit by a jihadist but by your run-of-the-mill freak.
*For al-Suri’s influence on some Australian jihadists see paras 457, 503, and 549 of Benbrika & Ors v The Queen  VSCA 281 (25 October 2010) and paras 33.3, 33.18, 33.21, and 45(d) of R v Benbrika & Ors (Ruling No 1)  VSC 76 (11 March 2011) including footnotes.
**The number depends on how a plot is defined, as different writers use different criteria to decide what constitutes a plot. See the incident databases here.
Update 1: Thanks to @El_Grillo1 for pointing out that bushfire threats had been on the forums since at least 2006, not 2007 as I originally wrote.