On 5 June Sabirhan Hasanoff, a dual US-Australian citizen, pleaded guilty in a New York court of providing material support to al-Qaeda. He had been accused of providing technical assistance through a co-conspirator who had travelled to Yemen and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. This was the first confirmation of something that’s been suggested in media reports for the past few years: Australian citizens becoming involved with jihadist groups in Yemen.
The key group is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based branch of al-Qaeda that produces Inspire magazine, and was behind the attempted bombing of an airliner in Detroit in 2009 and the placing of explosive-filled printer cartridges in cargo planes in late 2010. ASIO and other agencies have long been concerned about the possibility of Australians becoming involved with AQAP.
In the nearly eleven years since 9/11, there have been many reports of Australian citizens or residents engaging in jihadist activity in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia and Yemen. For the first four of these countries, these claims have been confirmed by evidence heard in open courts, multiple convictions (both locally and overseas), and sometimes by the people involved talking to the media.
For Yemen, there had not been any similar confirmation until last week.
Media reporting has indicated possible cases of Australian involvement in Yemeni jihadist activity since at least 2006.
In October of that year, three Australian citizens were arrested in Yemen, suspected of being part of a group running guns to jihadists in Somalia. Two of them were the sons of Abdul Rahim Ayub, the former leader of Jemaah Islamiyah’s Australian branch. They were also related to Khaled Chieko, who was arrested in Operation Pendennis in 2005, and convicted in New South Wales of a conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism in 2009.
Representatives of the AFP travelled to Yemen and interviewed the suspects. The solicitor of the third suspect, Polish-born Marek Samulski, called the detention into question, stating that “I have concerns that the process my client is subjected to is unconstitutional and unlawful”. By December the two brothers were released while Samulski remained in prison.
The two brothers then travelled to Lebanon, where they were deported from, before returning home. ASIO subsequently cancelled their passports. Later Samulski was also released without charge.
Media coverage of alleged Australia-Yemen terrorism links then went quiet until 2010, when a spate of connections was reported.
On March 2010 Sally Neighbour reported on “Abdullah” said to be suspected of (but not charged with) involvement in the Sydney Pendennis plot, for which Khaled Cheikho and eight others had been convicted. According to the article, “Abdullah” had previously attempted to travel to Yemen with his family in 2004. However, his passport had been cancelled by ASIO, when they found him “likely to support or participate in acts of politically motivated violence.” In late 2009 his passport was returned, and he the travelled to Yemen and disappeared. The article also stated that “Abdullah” was believed to have trained with Lashkar e-Toiba at the same time as David Hicks and that his attempted trip to Yemen in 2004 was arranged by Marek Samulski.
In May 2010 Shyloh Giddins, a former Sydney resident who moved to Yemen in 2006, was arrested following an investigation into AQAP activity. Yemeni authorities put her in solitary confinement while her two sons, aged four and seven, were placed under house arrest. Five weeks before her arrest, ASIO had deemed that her “extremist interpretation of Islam and her activities in Yemen are prejudicial to security” and cancelled her passport. She had earlier been married to Mohammed Touma, alleged organised crime figure and brother of Sydney Pendennis cell member Mazen Touma.
Human rights activists criticised her treatment in Yemen, particular the attempt to pressure her through her children. Consular officials requested the children be released and were refused. Canberra reportedly feared she would be killed. Giddins’ lawyer stated that “The whole system [run by the security police] is unlawful under the Yemeni constitution…. The Australians have an obligation and they have a duty of care to ensure that a country detaining our citizens affords them access to their lawyer and due process.” Eventually she was released without charge and deported.
Also in May 2010, the earlier-mentioned Sabirhan Hasanoff was arrested in Brooklyn and charged, with another man, of conspiring to assist al-Qaeda. The indictment against them stated that Wesam el-Hanafi (the co-accused) had travelled to Yemen in 2008, taken an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda, then returned to New York and conspired with Hasanoff to help “modernise” AQAP by providing technical equipment. Hasanoff, who grew up in Adelaide, first pleaded not guilty, but changed his plea last week.
It was also reported in 2010 that a US diplomatic cable, sent to the New York Times by Wikileaks, stated that 23 Australians were on the US terrorism watch list because of alleged links to Anwar al-Awlaki. This list was later placed online. On September 2011, one of the men named on the list was arrested after he allegedly stole an ATM with three other men in a ram-raid.
Beyond those examples, there have also been less specific claims about Australian involvement with jihadists in Yemen. In 2011 ASIO increased the number of people whose passports they confiscated reportedly because of concerns over Yemen. On February 2011, Four Corners aired a documentary where an informant claimed multiple Australians had trained in AQAP camps.
Australia has also featured occasionally in AQAP propaganda. The July 2011 issue of Inspire magazine featured a picture of the Sydney Opera House. Headlines posited that “Al-Qa’ida takes aim at Opera House“, though specialists cautioned people to not overreact, particularly as such threats are often made to get a reaction. Issue 9 of Inspire, released on May 2012, provided instructions on how to start bushfires, and mentioned Australia both as a target and as an example of the damage bushfires have caused.
Evidently, Australian security agencies have been concerned about Australia-Yemen jihadist connections for many years, particular as several suspects had been friends or family of convicted members of a terrorist cell in Sydney. Media reports provide many cases of possible involvement, but they cannot be considered confirmed without the claims being tested in a court, or anyone talking openly about their activities. That means Sabirhan Hasanoff’s guilty plea provides the first public confirmation of an Australian becoming involved with al-Qaeda through Yemen.
The significance of this should not be overstated. Hasanoff’s activities took place within the US and without any reported connections to other Australian citizens, so it tells us nothing about the other cases. As mentioned above, there have been many more confirmed cases of Australians involved in jihadist activity or training in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Somalia than Yemen. Recent terrorist cells in Sydney and Melbourne, such as those foiled in Operation Pendennis and Operation Neath, devised their plans without outside assistance. Also, AQAP’s external operations have never targeted Australia, which only intermittently appears in its propaganda.
Nonetheless, Hasanoff’s guilty plea is significant for confirming something long-suspected, and indicates that Australia-Yemen jihadist connections are worth watching.