Australian jihadism at the end of 2012, part I: before 2012

To end the year, I will be posting a three-part series on the state of Australian jihadism at the end of 2012.

This first post provides a brief overview of Australian jihadism and its defining features before 2012, and includes several points made in earlier writings of mine. The next posts will look at events that occurred in 2012 to discuss what has happened, how our jihadist scene has changed, and what the future might look like.

“Jihadism” is a contested but commonly-recognised term to encompass the violent global movement represented by al-Qaeda and likeminded organisations and individuals. The 2002 Bali bombings demonstrated the external threat this movement posed to Australia, and several incidents have demonstrated the internal threat.

This includes four major terror plots: an unsuccessful al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah-guided conspiracy to bomb Israeli and Jewish targets during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a Lashkar e-Toiba-guided plot that was foiled in 2003, two self-starting cells arrested in Melbourne and Sydney in 2005’s Operation Pendennis, and a self-starting (but al-Shabab-connected) plot to attack Holsworthy army barracks in 2009. Clusters of aspiring Australian jihadists had also travelled for training or combat overseas, chiefly to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1999-2003, Lebanon throughout the 2000s, Somalia from 2007 onwards, and also Yemen. There have also been arrests in miscellaneous countries (Kuwait, Iraq, Kazahkstan) and several other cases of alleged jihadist activity in Australia, such as recruiting, fund-raising, distributing instructional material, threats of violence, and more.

We can identify several key features of jihadism in Australia. First, Australia’s jihadist scene is very small. The most serious activity has involved a few dozen people out of a 476,000-strong Muslim population. If we were to measure it by comparing the number of people charged with jihadism-related offences relative to the size of the Muslim population, Australia’s level of jihadist activity is disproportionately low compared to the UK, France, Spain and some other Western countries. While that’s a very crude and problematic way of measuring it, other indicators (number of plots, reported cases of residents travelling for violent jihad overseas, popularity of extremist but non-violent groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir) would likely still show Australia as having a comparatively low level of activity.

Second, Australia’s jihadist scene is highly interlinked. For example, the early plots—the 2000 al-Qaeda/JI plot, the 2003 LeT-guided plot and the two 2005 Pendennis cells—each involved one or more people from the first clusters of travellers who had attended either an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan or an LeT camp in Pakistan. In addition, the LeT and Pendennis cells contained individuals closely linked, often through friends or family, with people associated with previous plots. In the 2009 Holsworthy plot there was no Afghanistan or Pakistan connection, but there was a direct relationship with an established jihadist organization (al-Shabab) in a conflict zone and social links to an earlier, failed cell. In fact, there have been friendship or family links between most Australian jihadist incidents. In this way, our jihadist scene is very similar to the UK’s, but different to US’s, where plots tend to be self-contained (see pages 420 and 422 of this article).

Third, while Australia’s first two jihadist plots were guided by established organisations, after 2003 they have been self-starting. That is, the subsequent plots had international linkages (and certainly inspiration) but the initiative and planning occurred among the small group of perpetrators, without outside support. Australia’s lack of externally-guided plots after 2003 contrasts with the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, which instead experienced a mixture of externally-guided and self-starting plots.

Fourth, Australia’s jihadist scene has been closely monitored. In both the Pendennis and Neath cases there was evidence of aspiring Australian jihadists attempting to train or fight overseas but being prevented by the state (often through ASIO confiscating their passports). The small and interlinked nature of our jihadist scene, the vast size and budgets of our security agencies, and consistent cooperation from local Muslim communities, have all made this possible. Authorities have investigated and gathered evidence on jihadist plots at their very early stages, and indeed been accused (sometimes accurately) of being overzealous.

Fifth, Australia’s jihadist scene has been quite low-tech. In the four major plots, the jihadists do not appear to have first met each other online, communicated extensively online, or partaken in technologically sophisticated plots. Their main use of the internet appears to have been to download massive amounts of extremist videos and documents (including instructional material). I am less confident on this point as much of the publically available information is dated and very little of the 2009 Holsworthy plot court material has been released. However, the evidence so far suggests the internet has been less important for jihadist radicalisation in Australia than real-world social networks that include people with experience in (or access to) camps and conflict zones.

Sixth, Australian jihadists have demographic characteristics that are similar to jihadists in other Western countries in several ways: they tend to be young Muslim men, to not have had strongly religious upbringings, and generally have a low employment status. However, they also differ in some ways, in that they are somewhat more likely to be native-born, be married and have children than jihadists in Europe. They are also disproportionately poorly educated (compared both to other Australian Muslims and to jihadists in Europe and North America) and are more likely to be of Lebanese heritage.

Finally, Australian jihadism has not been occurring over a long time period. It is largely a post-2000 phenomenon, unlike the US and France which experienced jihadist plots during the 1990s. It also appeared to be declining. The most serious activity occurred from 2003-2005, with the 2009 Holsworthy plot being the most significant incident since. 2010 and 2011 were rather quiet years.

Overall then, before 2012 Australia had a very small, interlinked, closely-monitored, low-tech, and apparently declining jihadist scene, involving young men of somewhat-similar backgrounds to jihadists in other Western countries. It manifested itself in four major plots, many attempts to train or fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia and to lesser extent Yemen, and a range of other actions. Their activities tended be externally-guided at first but after 2003 were self-starting.

So did anything change in 2012? The next post will address the key events of this year, and the final one will discuss what has changed and what it means.

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