Australian jihadism at the end of 2012, part III: what has changed?

This final post in the series looks at what the events of 2012 tell us about the current state of Australian jihadism.

The first post showed that, before 2012, Australia had a small, interlinked, closely-monitored, and low-tech jihadist scene. Australian jihadists tended to be young men of somewhat-similar backgrounds to other jihadists throughout the West, though more likely to have low educational qualifications and be of Lebanese background. This jihadist scene manifested itself in four major plots (in 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2009), many attempts to train or fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and later Lebanon, Somalia and to lesser extent Yemen. Their activities were externally-guided at first but after 2003 were self-starting. This jihadist scene was apparently declining, as the amount of activity occurring in 2010-2011 was quite small compared to 2003-2005 (a period which saw arrests of members of the LeT cell, the two Pendennis cells, and figures like Belal Khazaal).

The second post showed that while Australia experienced no attempted domestic attacks in 2012, there were various extremist activities related to jihadism, including involvement in the Syria conflict, communal violence relating to that conflict, a violent protest in Sydney over an anti-Muslim film, and a Melbourne man being charged under anti-terrorism legislation.

This post examines what the events of 2012 tell us about the evolution of Australian jihadism.


First impressions

Overall, 2012 did not present many dramatic changes. Several of the earlier points about Australia’s jihadist scene being small and closely monitored still stand. Judging by the limited information available, the demographic characteristics of people involved remain similar.

Nothing emerged in 2012 that contradicted the point that online radicalisation has not been a major feature of Australian jihadism. Australian jihadists and extremists use Facebook and Youtube, just as everyone else does, but there’s little evidence of them meeting online or primarily radicalising online. I keep expecting something to come out that and contradict that, as there’s no reason why Jihad Jane or Roshonara Choudhry (where an individuals’ radicalisation occurred almost entirely online) type incidents can’t happen in Australia.

However, so far that has not happened. Instead, face-to-face radicalisation remains very important. This is noteworthy but not particularly surprising, as several scholars argue that the internet’s role has been overhyped in discussions of terrorism.

One thing I did not expect the Sydney protest, as earlier incidents like the Danish Mohamed cartoons did not lead to violent protests in Australia. Noted earlier, the violence was not an example of jihadism in itself but demonstrated a small and discontented extremist subculture, which has the potential to feed into the other cases of extremism and alleged jihadism, particularly given the highly interlinked nature of Australia’s jihadist scene.


Still interlinked

That was one thing that remained consistent in 2012. There was plenty of overlap between the individuals and institutions (such as bookshops) that appear in reports of people travelling to Syria, the recent protest in Sydney, communal violence here resulting from the Syria conflict, and earlier jihadist incidents in Australia. Terrorism analysts stated that they saw many familiar faces in the Sydney protests, including people connected to the Sydney Pendennis plot, but also people who had been associated with extremist activity going back to the 2000 Olympics.

My own observations of publically available material found that sometimes the connections were extensive. For example, one of the arrested protesters, Ahmed Elomar is the nephew of convicted terrorist Mohamed Ali Elomar, who was the leader of the Sydney Pendennis cell arrested in Operation Pendennis in 2005. Another of Ahmed Elomar’s uncles was convicted of terrorism offences in Lebanon, but details are murky. Ahmed Elomar also knew Sydney Pendennis cell member Khaled Sharrouf, the two were accused of a violent incident in 2011. Ahmed Elomar himself was briefly detained in Lebanon in 2007, suspected of supporting Fatah al-Islam, and possibly tortured. After this 2007 detention in Lebanon, Ahmed’s father accused Sheikh Feiz of “brainwashing” his son. Several of the protesters were reported to be followers of Feiz, though he did condemn the violence and there is no evidence that he played any role in it.

When involved in Sydney riots, Elomar was on bail for charges he faced for an attack on a Shia-owned juicestore, allegedly undertaken by several men from al-Risalah Islamic bookstore (Elomar has now been convicted for this, I’m unaware if others have been). The bookstore’s Sheikh is Belal Khazaal, currently imprisoned for terrorist offences. Members of the al-Risalah crowd have not only been charged and convicted for anti-Shia violence and involvement in the riots, but also for whipping a young convert with an electrical cord in the name of Sharia (though this may have also been a dispute over money).

Another radical, but non-terrorist, connection is that one protester was Ibrahim Galiel, partner of Carnita Matthews. Carnita Matthews is the person who falsely accused a police officer of removing her niqab last year. There was a ruckus outside the courtroom at the time, again reportedly involving students of Sheik Feiz Mohammed again. They called themselves “Islamic Brotherhood Worldwide” but there’s probably no organisation by that name, it was just a slogan on their hoodies. Similarly the “Sixth Pillar” T-shirts worn by many of the protestors do not indicate that there’s an organisation by that name. It was later reported that it was “likely to be individuals who quickly grouped together in the days before the protest to print T-shirts”.

This interconnectedness is very common. Whenever a jihadism-related event occurs in Australia, a quick bit of searching reveals connections to earlier groups and activities. This was similarly the case with the al-Furqan centre in Melbourne, which was raided in September. Its founder had social links with the leader of the Melbourne Pendennis cell, and the centre was behind protests against the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne during April 2012. The al-Furqan centre was not involved in the Sydney riots, but expressed solidarity with rioters.

So Australia’s jihadist scene, and the broader extremist subculture, remains highly interlinked. As stated in Part I, this makes Australia’s jihadist scene very similar to the UK’s, but different to US’s, where plots are often self-contained (see pages 420 and 422 of this article).


Do these links actually tell us anything?

Of course, when it comes to writing anything about terrorism, it’s very easy to talk of “links”, but harder to assess what importance they actually have. In terms of the sort of links we saw in 2012, I’d draw the following three conclusions.

First, these interconnections are actually a positive sign. That the same groups and individuals keep popping up, again and again, is yet more proof that we are not seeing some sort of widespread spontaneous Muslim rage but a small and persistent extremist fringe.

Second, because of these links, various events will continue to have an impact well beyond those directly involved in any one incident. As Tony Sheehan from the Attorney-General’s Department noted “protests such as the one in Sydney have the potential to intensify existing tensions, particularly when combined with the localised violence in Sydney and Melbourne resulting from issues such as the conflict in Syria.”

Third, the nature of the connections seems to have changed. Earlier this century, several different jihadist networks in Australia could be linked to a few central figures. This was sometimes through operational links (joint involvement in criminal activity) or social links (family, friendship or religious teacher-student relationship). This seems to be far less the case now.

Some of these central figures have simply been arrested and imprisoned, such as Belal Khazaal, and Abdul Nacer Benbrika. However some other figures like Sheikh Feiz, who did not have operational involvement but did have social links to many different networks, simply seem to be just much less relevant to Australia’s jihadist scene than they were ten years ago.

With the old central figures playing a lesser role, it’s possible that there are new central figures that are simply more underground. However, I suspect that Australia’s jihadist scene is instead becoming more diffuse. Keep in mind the point made at the start of Part II about the limited nature of the information currently available.


Syria: the biggest change

The most important development in 2012 was Australian involvement in the Syria conflict.

Since the previous post, another Australian was killed in Syria. This made for a total of four reported Australian deaths in the conflict (one two three four). Three of these deaths have been confirmed, though there roles have not been). There was then a fifth report of an Australian death (see here, para beginning with “overseas news footage”), but this one seems very doubtful.

2013 will likely see further Australian involvement in Syria, in some cases with jihadist groups. This is significant because the Syria conflict has been described as “al-Qaeda’s last great hope.” Clint Watts writes that:

While most eyes have shifted to study AQAP in Yemen, Syria’s protracted civil war may breathe some life into al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda cites lessons learned from the failure of past fighting against the Syrian regime. Al-Qaeda has an established operational safe haven in Western Iraq through which to funnel fighters and ally with Sunni tribesmen in sectarian battles against the Shia majority government in Baghdad. Additionally, Syria’s proximate location to Israel provides a parallel jihadi cause for which al-Qaeda can pursue an enduring agenda beyond the Assad regime. However, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed parallel resistance force might likely outpace a Syrian Al-Qaeda front. Only time and good analysis will provide clarity on a poorly understood Syrian rebel landscape.

For these reasons, Syria has new-found importance to the global jihadist movement. Aaron Zelin’s research indicates that there have been between 1600 and 3600 foreign fighters in the conflict, although not all are involved at the moment. The Australian jihadist scene’s interlinked nature and connections to Lebanon mean that it will be particularly affected by events in Syria. To repeat some key points from the previous post:

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.


Where do we stand?

At the end of 2012, we can identify some changes. Earlier, aspiring Australian jihadists travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and possibly Yemen. Now the available information suggests they are travelling to Syria (often through Lebanon). We have not seen a major jihadist terror plot since 2009, but in 2012 we did see a range of extremist activities related to jihadism, including involvement in the Syria conflict, related communal violence, the Sydney protest and the al-Furqan raids.

I described Australian jihadism in Part I as “apparently declining”. However, in 2012 there was an unexpected uptick in cases of extremism and alleged jihadism compared to 2010 and 2011.

It no longer appears that Australian jihadism is declining. It is quite possible that considerable jihadist activity was occurring during 2010 and 2011, but it rarely made the news because security agencies simply monitored or chose to disrupt suspected activity rather than lay charges.

However, it does not follow that Australian jihadist activity is rising. Risa Brooks has shown how US analysts drew poorly-founded conclusions from a perceived spike in US jihadism in 2009. Clint Watts has written several posts on the problems of identifying trends in year-by-year measurements of low-frequency events like jihadist plots.

My view is while Australian jihadism is definitely at a lower level than during 2003-2005, it remains persistent and the Syria conflict in particular has created the potential for growth.

We will have to wait and see the impact the events in Syria have. Overall, we are still dealing with a very small, low-tech, interlinked and closely-monitored (though possibly more diffuse) extremist fringe. 2012 has simply delivered a few new angles to watch.


Update 1: On 13 June 2013 I updated some of the information on the Sydney riots.

Update 2: On 2 July 2013 I further updated some of the information on the Sydney riots.

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