Updates on terrorism court cases and parliamentary hearings

There have been a few developments in Australian counter-terrorism prosecutions and parliamentary hearings over the past month. This post helps keep track of them.

Shoma hearing

In Melbourne, Momena Shoma had a plea hearing on Tuesday 29 January. Shoma was the Bangladeshi student who stabbed her homestay host one month after arriving in Australia. She had told police that she entered Australia purely to carry out an attack in support of Islamic State (IS).

The hearing revealed that three days before the attack she messaged a friend through WhatsApp, saying that she needed “to gather more courage… to carry out his [Allah’s] blessing”. However, she is believed to have carried out the attack entirely on her own. In Bangladesh she had interacted with IS on Facebook and reportedly sought to marry a man who went on to fight for IS in Iraq, but there is no suggestion that IS directed the attack itself.

Most importantly, the hearing also revealed the trauma Shoma put her victims through. The stabbing victim, Roger Singaravelu, said that he lived in fear and was now unable work, telling the court that “I don’t believe I will ever recover,” and “I can’t escape what happened.” The court was also told that his daughter suffers flashbacks and nightmares.

Namoa and Baydeh sentencing

In Sydney, Alo-Bridget Namoa and Sameh Baydeh have been sentenced over their terrorist plot. They conspired to rob non-Muslims on New Years Eve 2015, and then to carry out further violence. They were sentenced to around four years each. These are the shortest sentences I’ve seen for anyone in Australia convicted of “conspiracy to do act(s) in preparation for terrorist act(s)”. According to the sentencing document, this is partly a result of them having renounced their beliefs and (particularly in the case of Baydeh) assisted authorities.

Azari hearing

Also in Sydney, Omarjan Azari had a sentence hearing on Friday 1 February. He the first person charged with a terrorism offence following the Operation Appleby raids in September 2014. This was when around 800 NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT) officers raided properties across Sydney, arresting and questioning 15 people, while 70 Queensland JCTT officers carried out raids in Brisbane.

These raids were a very dramatic event at the time. Now, IS is nowhere near as strong as it used to be and JCTT raids have become far more frequent and far less controversial, so it can be hard to remember the atmosphere of September 2014.  To provide some background:

Understanding these events requires briefly turning to the Middle East. September 2014 was a tumultuous month in the region, in which the confrontation between IS and the US-led military coalition reached a new level. By this time, IS had been able to successfully exploit the chaos of Syria’s civil war and the fragility of Iraq (as the political settlement forged to contain the outbreak of violence after the 2003 US invasion started to collapse). By June 2014 IS had conquered swathes of land in Iraq, including the million-strong city of Mosul, and declared itself a “Caliphate”. By August they conquered more territory, seized the Kurdish city of Sinjar and perpetrated acts of genocide against its Yazidi population, and were poised to expand further.

US President Barack Obama responded on 7 August by ordering airstrikes and assisting the Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga to push back against IS. In reprisal, IS publicly murdered American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. On 10 September, Obama announced a broad coalition including Australia and other traditional allies to “roll back this terrorist threat” and “ultimately destroy” IS.  Following this, IS escalated its overt and covert efforts to attack Western countries. …

….

Counter-terrorism authorities watched these developments with concern. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) monitored local IS supporters and urged the government to raise the National Terrorism Public Alert. On 12 September the alert was raised from Medium to High.  Then on 18 September security agencies launched Australia’s largest ever series of counter-terrorism raids after intercepting a message from a Syria-based Australian IS member allegedly ordering supporters at home to murder a random member of the public. More than 800 federal and state police officers raided locations across Sydney and Brisbane to disrupt the suspected plot and its surrounding networks.

The intercepted call was between Omarjan Azari in Sydney and Mohammed Ali Baryelei in Syria. Baryelei was later killed in a US air strike, while Azari was charged with terrorism offences. His trial was stalled several times but eventually went ahead. In November 2018 a jury found him guilty. There has been little media coverage (I have only found two stories), but that might change after he is sentenced. Hopefully more information will become public about what appears to be one of IS’s first virtually planned plots.

At his sentence hearing, the judge remarked that “What has been striking to me … is how many persons who ­become involved in terrorism ­offences are very young, and there is an immaturity involved in it”. Unfortunately, as several of the attacks in Australia show, someone does not have to be mature to be able to cause harm and suffering.

Azari will be sentenced on Wednesday.

Parliamentary hearing on citizenship laws

Meanwhile, on Wednesday 30 January the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held a public hearing on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Strengthening the Citizenship Loss Provisions) Bill 2018. The bill will essentially reduce some of the restrictions on the citizenship-stripping laws introduced in 2015. This new bill will make it easier to revoke Australian citizenship from convicted (if inside Australia) or suspected (if outside Australia) terrorists.

As regular readers of this blog may know, I view the terrorist threat as real and serious, but I’m sceptical of the general trend of introducing increasingly powerful counter-terrorism laws. I expressed several objections to citizenship-stripping back in 2015, and no developments since have led me to change these views. Certainly not the Prakash fiasco, which was discussed a lot at the hearing.

A transcript of the hearing is now available.

Update 1: (added 15 February 2019) Azari did not end being sentenced on Wednesday 13 February, though the NSW Court Lists had listed his sentencing for then.

Update 2: (added 15 February 2019) The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s report on the new citizenship-stripping bill is now available. The committee was split, and the Labor members wrote a dissenting report (starting on page 41) opposing the bill.

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