Australian involvement in the Syrian insurgency at the end of 2013

The Murphy Raid ended 2012 with 3-part series on the state of Australian jihadism:

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

Australian jihadism at the end of 2012, part II: key events in 2012

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

I was thinking of marking the end of 2013 with a similar series. However, the main development has simply been the continued involvement of Australians in the Syrian conflict, which I’ve written on several times already.

So instead, this is a post of resources on Australia and the Syrian insurgency for anyone who wants to stay up-to-date on this topic. It has past writings by me and others, plus some information on new developments.


My writings on Australians in Syria

On 26 November an article of mine was published in CTC Sentinel. It was a 2000-word piece that gives an overview of current information on Australians fighting, how it relates to past Australian jihadist activity, and what threat it may pose at home.

Earlier I wrote three other pieces on this topic. This article from April was an introduction to why the Syrian conflict raises domestic security concerns for Australia. This post from June provided a list of reported incidents of Syria-related violence in Australia (I have not come across media reports of any new incidents since then). This post from July expressed scepticism towards the estimate that 200 Australians were fighting in Syria, 100 of them with Jabhat al-Nusra (this estimate isn’t used as often now as it was then).

If you only want to read one of these articles, I recommend the CTC one, as it’s the most up-to-date and it covers the points made in the three earlier articles (though in less detail).


New developments

However, two significant developments have since occurred.

First, on December two men have been arrested in Sydney and charged with several offences under the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978 for allegedly supporting al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. Police allege that one man, Hamdi Alqudsi, was actively recruiting fighters (at least six) and facilitating their travel to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra and presumably the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. They allege the other man was preparing to travel and fight with such groups.

These arrests undermine a claim from my CTC Sentinel article where I suggested the process of Australians traveling to fight in Syria was not very organised:

“In Australia’s previous foreign fighter mobilizations, well-connected individuals were usually needed to facilitate access to camps and conflict zones.[39] In the case of Syria, however, many of the Australian fighters appear to be entering via the Turkish border with few pre-existing connections to Syrian armed groups.”

The arrests indicate that at least some active recruitment and facilitation may actually have been occurring in Australia. Moreover, Federal Police Deputy Commissioner National Security Peter Drennan has said that he does not believe this case is a once-off and that several similar networks may be in place. If true, this indicates that the process of Australians travelling to fight to Syria may have recently become more organised, or may have always been more organised than it appeared.

We will have to see what comes out of this trial, and any future ones, which will be very interesting to follow.

Second, on 8 December it was reported that around 20 Australians had their passports confiscated by ASIO in the past few months because of suspicions they were planning to fight in Syria.

At the time of ASIO’s last annual report, its passport cancellation powers had been used about 70 times. Now with the new confiscations reported, that figure would be around 90.

As ASIO had used this power 18 times from mid-2012 to mid-2013 (which was more than any previous year), this means ASIO has cancelled passports around 40 times in the past 18 months. Previously, ASIO’s passport powers have not been very controversial, and have often not been noticed much at all. However, I suspect this massive escalation of their use means there will be quite a bit of controversy over them in 2014, particularly as several of the men are mounting a legal challenge.

Combined with the arrests above, it looks like the AFP and ASIO have recently decided their lack of success in preventing Australians from fighting in Syria means they have to make greater use of the legal tools they have. We will likely see further arrests and uses of these powers in 2014.


Other articles

Many other countries are concerned that foreign fighters in Syria may later pose a domestic threat. If you’re interested in the wider situation, take a look at these recent pieces by Aaron Zelin, Thomas Hegghammer and others:

Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Danger to the West?

Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans

Foreign Jihadists in Syria: Tracking Recruitment Networks

Dealing with European Foreign Fighters in Syria: Governance Challenges & Legal Implications


But more importantly…

Finally, this is all a very narrow way of looking at Syria’s civil war. The greater problem is the war itself, that it has killed over 100,000 people, caused over two million people to flee their homes, and isn’t likely to end soon. This humanitarian catastrophe is far more urgent than the conflict may later have on Australia and other Western countries.

Prompted by this War On The Rocks post, I’m going to end the year with a donation to UNICEF’s operations to help Syrian refugees. If you would like to do the same you can do so here.

Are ad-hoc attacks really the future of jihadism?

There is a widespread view that the terrorist threat in the West will, for the near future, consist mostly of ad-hoc attacks by individuals or very small cells. A recent article by the US writer Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for National Journal, typifies this view. In the UK Matthew Goodwin has written that “the days when we faced a clearly identifiable threat with top-down chains of command look obsolete. Instead we have lone attackers or small cells of fanatics”.

In this post I question whether there has in fact been a trend towards self-starting small-scale plots and whether we should assume it will continue. The post specifically focuses on jihadism, as it poses the most serious current terrorist threat to the West (though far from the only one).


Has there been a trend towards self-starting small-scale plots and ‘lone wolves”?

Recent data does show a turn towards plots that involve very small numbers of attackers. A recent Bi-partisan Policy Center report which examined jihadist plots in the United States from 2011 to 2013 (inclusive) found that of 17 plots, 13 were carried out by individuals and the remaining four were by pairs.

A similar, but less dramatic, shift towards smaller cells is evident in Europe. Petter Nesser’s research found that from 2008 to 2012 (inclusive) there were 33 European jihadist plots, of which 11 were carried out by individuals, compared to four out of 72 for the period from 1995 to 2007. Then in 2013, two men with apparent jihadist motivations were charged over the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, followed a week later by a possible copy-cat attack in France.

Not only are fewer attackers involved in jihadist plots in Europe and the United States, they are less likely to have received training or direct guidance from overseas jihadist organisations. This is particularly the case in the United States where none of the 2011-2013 plotters are known to have had such assistance.

This shows that there has indeed been a trend away from plots like the Madrid and London bombings towards self-starting plots by individuals and increasingly small cells. This has resulted in widespread commentary on ‘lone wolves’, including a report that senior police in Australia are concerned that “a ‘lone wolf’ strike will become the model of terrorist activity over the next decade.” Although many scholars push back against attempts to over-hype ‘lone wolves’, and the term is confusingly used in many different ways, the trend towards these self-starting and small-scale plots is clear.


What might have caused this trend?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross notes that it is easy to misperceive temporary fluctuations in data on terrorist plots for massive, enduring shifts in the nature of the threat. Noticing a trend is one thing, judging whether it will continue requires looking at the broader context and the causal factors behind the trend.

Using Petter Nesser’s review of the literature on ‘lone wolves’, we can identify at least three key factors: organisational capability, strategic instruction, and tactical contagion.

The first factor refers to how the success of counter-terrorism measures against an extremist movement may leave it with little choice but to rely on self-starting attacks by sympathetic individuals. For example, effective crackdowns on violent white supremacist organisations in the United States from the 1980s resulted in a proportional increase in ‘lone wolf’ attacks by far-right extremists. Similarly, the United States has reduced the capability of al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen to direct or guide large-scale plots, partly prompting the shift in attack methods.

The second factor is that jihadist strategic texts and orations have increasingly promoted the ad-hoc approach. A book released by jihadist strategist Abu Musab al-Suri in late 2004 theorised an ‘individual terrorism jihad’ where the movement’s sympathisers attack at their own initiative wherever they can. At the time al-Qaeda’s leadership was reluctant to adopt this method, and al-Suri was soon captured. Since then, AQAP’s Inspire magazine adopted his ideas, explicitly promoted them, and provided detailed instructions in the English language. The highest ranking American in al-Qaeda, Adam Gadahn, also endorsed this approach in a video released in 2011 and a recent video by al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for “dispersed strikes” that can be carried out by “one brother, or a small number of brothers.”

The third factor is tactical contagion. Terrorists often emulate the tactics of other terrorists. Ever since the London bombings, ad-hoc jihadist attacks have proven more effective than sophisticated ones. The success (in terms of causing deaths) of the self-starting attacks in Fort Hood, Little Rock, Paris, Boston and Woolwich caused other aspiring jihadists to emulate them.


Will the trend inevitably continue?

These factors help explain the current trend in jihadist plots. But they do not provide reason to presume that trend will continue, because none of these three factors are static.

For example, al-Qaeda’s limited organisational capability to directly carry out attacks in the West may not be permanent. A recent American Enterprise Institute report, as well as the Bi-partisan Policy Center report, showed how al-Qaeda’s affiliates and associates have a far greater geographic presence and reach than they did a decade ago. With two al-Qaeda affiliates seizing territory in Syria, a series of jailbreaks throughout the Middle East and North Africa in July (including about 500 prisoners escaping in Iraq), and the Egyptian coup seemingly re-validating jihadism, al-Qaeda’s strength may be increasing. Consequently, it may well rebuild its external operations capability and return to launching direct attacks that overshadow the ‘lone wolf’ threat. Indeed, Thomas Hegghammer tentatively predicts a “second wave” of large-scale attacks in the West in four to six years’ time.

Similarly, al-Qaeda’s strategic instruction can change. The movement’s leaders and strategic thinkers may decide to instruct their followers to refrain from ad-hoc attacks. This could occur if such attacks continue to produce few casualties and little economic damage, or if al-Qaeda does manage to rebuild its external operations capability. A simple change of minds in key decision-makers could significantly reshape the threat.

Finally, because of tactical contagion a single successful attack of a different sort could also alter the current trend. If another plot like the London bombings (a cell of at least four people, some with training, and receiving direct guidance from al-Qaeda) kills over a hundred people, it could prompt emulation. Western jihadists may then once again form larger groups and make more effort to seek out external training and support. Recent UK arrests suggest that the Westgate massacre in Kenya, a large-scale urban warfare assault, has already sparked copycat attempts. An attack within a Western country would likely have a greater contagion effect.


What does this tell us?

This shows that the widespread view (that the predominant terrorist threat in the West for the near future will consist of ad-hoc attacks by individuals or very small cells) is less tenable than it appears. There has certainly been a recent trend towards these sorts of attacks, but the key factors behind the trend could well change, possibly quite rapidly. We shouldn’t assume that terrorist plots over the next decade will closely resemble those of the recent past.