Following from the previous post which covered Australian jihadism before 2012, this one examines the country’s key jihadism-related events during 2012.
This post will unavoidably be full of “alleged” and “reportedly”. The best terrorism research tends to come years after any event. Media sources can be unreliable, and more solid information often only comes out when journalists and academics are able to interview people involved (terrorists, their families, victims, investigators, affected community members etc), or when people slowly dig through the court documents which sometimes take years to be released.
For example, after the Melbourne and Sydney Pendennis cells were arrested in 2005, the nature of the links between them could not be discussed in the media for six years (even though it was possible to piece a lot of the information through public sources beforehand). In late 2011 the suppression orders were finally lifted and the cells’ interaction could be reported and some particularly valuable court documents became public. To this day, there is very little court material available on the 2009 Holsworthy plot. So researchers examining current events should be very aware of the limited and fragmentary nature of the information available, and always revisit their findings when new information comes out (as argued in this presentation on mistakes made by Middle East analysts).
With that in mind, this post runs through current information available Australia’s key jihadism-related events for 2012, and the next one will discuss what these events tell us about the evolution of Australian jihadism.
In February a Jordanian-Australian man who had been arrested in Lebanon because of alleged jihadism-related activity was convicted, though it is unclear what he was specifically convicted of. By my count he was the sixteenth Australian to be either arrested by Lebanese authorities, or charged in absentia, over alleged jihadist activity.
In March, Ibrahim Siddiq-Conlon, the leader of Shariah4Australia, was arrested. Siddiq-Conlon is essentially Australia’s less successful version of the UK’s Anjem Choudary. He was charged with child porn offences and with making a hoax threat. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served. While Siddiq-Conlon’s actions are not specifically an example of jihadism, this incident is valuable for demonstrating the poor fortunes of Australia’s Muslim extremist fringe. Similarly, Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia does not compare well to its UK cousin.
In May, Australia appeared in a copy of Inspire, the magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The issue (number 9) provided instructions on how to start bushfires, and mentioned Australia (among several other countries) as both as a target and as an example of the damage bushfires have caused. I argued that this was an unlikely scenario, as jihadists tend to stick to bombings and shootings. This was the second time Australia had appeared in Inspire, the first was simply when a picture of the Opera House appeared in July 2011.
New York guilty plea
In June, a dual US-Australian citizen, pleaded guilty in a New York court of providing material support to al-Qaeda. I considered this the first solid confirmation of Australia-Yemen jihadist connections. Over the years, media reports of Australian jihadists travelling to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Somalia 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. However, for Australia-Yemen jihadist connections there was no similar confirmation until this incident.
The Kenyan non-connection
Also in June, Chinese and Kenyan newspapers reported that an Australian had been arrested in a Kenyan counter-terrorism raid. I wrote a blog post about it, but the story turned out to be false, demonstrating the above-mentioned point about the importance of revisiting your own writings.
Joining the jihad in Syria
In August a Sydney Sheikh was killed in Syria, bringing attention to the most significant development in Australian jihadism in 2012: involvement in the conflict between the Assad regime and an insurgency that contains jihadist elements. In addition to fund-raising, dozens, if not hundreds, of Australians have travelled to the region since the conflict broke out. They have usually been of Lebanese and Syrian backgrounds and travelled for a variety of reasons, but there are unconfirmed reports that some became involved in jihadist groups fighting against the Assad regime. A recent estimate was that a hundred Australians were involved in either combat or combat support in Syria. Four are reported to have died in the conflict, including one man, Marwan al-Kassab, who was apparently killed in an explosion in Lebanon while manufacturing weapons for Syrian rebels. That would make him the seventeenth Australian reportedly involved in jihadist activities in Lebanon. The Federal Police are openly concerned about Australian involvement and released an official statement warning that taking part in the fighting is illegal.
The Syrian war is particularly significant because Australia’s jihadist plots have involved connections to overseas conflict zones, whether the attacks were guided by an overseas group or involved people who wanted to join such groups but couldn’t. Moral outrage generated by the massacres of Muslims by a nominally secular regime could help draw new people into the jihadist scene, coupled with the fact that many Australians have a personal connection to the region and may travel to support their friends, families and communities but then become involved with the most extreme groups. The conflict also provides opportunities for aspiring jihadists to gain experience, contacts and deadly skills.
The insurgency is not contained solely within Syria. For example, Jordanian authorities recently uncovered an alleged terror plot by al-Qaeda in Iraq-linked jihadists who had gained weapons and expertise from taking part in the Syrian insurgency. The conflict may feed into existing Australia-Lebanon jihadist connections (such as with the groups Fatah al-Islam and Asbat al-Ansar) which are deeply tied to the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli. Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism Bill Paterson recently noted that “northern Lebanese jihadists are increasingly active in Syria, where they are likely to be working with elements of AQ in Iraq, under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra. We cannot exclude the possibility that some Australian-Lebanese dual nationals or other Australians may be among these.” Of all the events in 2012 the Syria conflict the most potential to spur jihadist radicalisation and is worth watching closely.
The Syria conflict has also increased communal tensions in Australia. Violence between opponents and supporters of Assad has occurred in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Reported incidents include shootings, arson and acts of extortion. ASIO’s recent annual report stated that “…The situation in Syria, with the potential for violence spilling into other parts of the Middle East, increases the possibility of associated communal violence in Australia and remains a concern for ASIO. There are a small number of people actively promoting hatred and inter-communal violence in Australia.” You can watch non-violent manifestations of this tension in this rather frustrating episode of Insight. The conflict has also put Zaky Mallah back in the news, who has reportedly received death threats from local supporters of Syrian jihadists.
September saw Australian police charge someone with terrorism offences for the first time since 2009. Following the reported exposure of an ASIO informant, police raided several people and properties associated with the al-Furqan Islamic Centre in Melbourne, resulting in one person being charged with “collecting documents being connected with the preparation for the engagement of a person in or assistance in a terrorist act.” I won’t write anything about the case as the trial is ongoing.
Media reports suggest the al-Furqan centre was founded by Skeikh Haron, who was involved in a mainstream Bosnian mosque in Noble Park before splitting away from them (with a small group of followers) about ten years ago. He then became a follower of Melbourne’s main Salafi leader, before falling out with him as well, and then broke away and formed his own small group of about 30-40 followers. You can read all about their views on their website.
Very shortly after the al-Furqan after, Sydney was dramatically affected by the global protests against an anti-Muslim film, the Innocence of Muslims. A few hundred local Muslims who objected to the film held a protest, which began peacefully although it involved some very extreme and disturbing placards (such as “behead all those who insult the prophet”) as well as some disgusting messages against Coptic Christians (a persecuted minority in Egypt). Things deteriorated further when a small core of angry young men among the protestors carried out violence against property and the police, resulting in several arrests over the following days.
While repeatedly and unanimously condemned by essentially every Muslim organisation in the country (with predictable fringe exceptions such as Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia and al-Furqan), the event had a major impact. It was entirely unexpected and there had been no earlier equivalents (for example, there were no violent protests in Australia against the Danish Mohammed cartoons). The event is not in itself an example of jihadism, but does demonstrate a small but deeply discontented extremist subculture, which has the potential to feed into other cases of extremism and alleged jihadism.
2012 was busier than 2010 and 2011. While no attempted terrorist attacks occurred but there were various extremist activities related to jihadism. In my view the al-Furqan raids were the most interesting, the Sydney protest was the most surprising, and the involvement of Australians in the Syria conflict is the most important for the future. What these events tell us about the evolution of Australian jihadism will be discussed in the next post.
Update 1: This post originally stated that there were three cases of Australians reportedly being killed while supporting Syrian rebels, but on 30 December there was a fourth case, and the text has been updated accordingly.