New article on Syria, and new information on the 200 fighters estimate

I had an article published in The Conversation yesterday about the domestic security threat that may result from Australians fighting in the Syrian insurgency, particularly in light of Jubhat al-Nusra’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda.

The article was also prompted by The Australian reporting on Saturday that the “number of Australians believed to be fighting in Syria has doubled in less than six months to about 200, and ASIO is concerned that at least 100 are fighting for radical al-Qa’ida offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.”

The figure of 200 Australians fighting came from “one senior government source”, and the number was seemingly endorsed earlier today by ASIO Director-General David Irvine.

I was sceptical of such a high figure, so in the article I pointed out some reasons to be cautious about it:

“This new figure cannot currently be verified, and should be treated cautiously until more information comes out. The estimate is higher than the ICSR’s maximum estimates for any European country, and one third of their maximum estimate for Europe as a whole. This seems doubtful, particularly as Australia usually has far lower rates of jihadist activity than many European countries.

Open-source research by myself and my colleague Shandon Harris-Hogan has found 17 cases of Australians allegedly involved in jihadist activity in Lebanon between 2000 and 2012. If the estimate of 200 Australians involved in jihadism in the Syria-Lebanon region since the outbreak of the Syria conflict is accurate, it represents an unprecedented escalation.”

Another reason for caution appeared a few hours after the article was published. Foreign Minister Bob Carr was interviewed on 7:30 and stated the following:

“There was a global figure quoted on the weekend in an interview I did that I can’t confirm or deny. The number of Australians who actually had been participating in the fighting would be a good deal lower than that 200 figure that was quoted. That 200 figure, if it is right, would include people who are raising money, expressing sympathy, people who have been described to me as Jihadist tourists turning up in a trouble spot.”

So it’s worthwhile being sceptical of unusually high estimates.

There is nonetheless substantial Australian involvement in the insurgency, raising serious security concerns. I hope you enjoy my article about it.

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