New commentary on Australian IS plots

I have a new piece out discussing which terror plots in Australia have had a genuine and direct connection to “Islamic State” (IS), what the nature of these connections were, and what this tells us about the threat.

It’s up on the website of the AVERT (Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism) Research Network based at Deakin University. I will be a regular blogger there, posting twelve pieces over the next year. I’m going to use it as a chance to post more regularly than I tend do here, and to keep up with current developments. Please enjoy the first one!

News on Sub Rosa and other Australian security-related podcasts

For the first time in a while, we have a new episode of Sub Rosa out.  I spoke to David Schaefer again, this time about intelligence studies and a new article of his on the future of Pine Gap.

I also want to mention a bunch of other podcasts that may be of interest, particularly as some new Australian security-related ones are out.

One of my fellow PhD candidates at Monash, Alasdair Kempton, co-hosts the On War: the Podcast. My favourite episode is the one on pirates and privateers, particularly for the stories about the SMS Emden and the SMS Seaadler, followed by the episode on soldiers of fortune.

It has a similar style to War for Idiots, a podcast co-hosted by Army officers Mick Cook and Rich Thapthimthong, which I’ve mentioned here before. Both podcasts focus each episode on a war-related concept and aim to explain it clearly to listeners, with the difference that War for Idiots aims for a military audience while On War: the Podcast aims for an academic audience.

Mick Cook’s other podcast, The Dead Prussian, has just started a new season and so far it’s great.

Those three podcasts (The Dead Prussian, War for Idiots and On War: the Podcast) are ones I listen to a lot and find heaps of fun.

There are also Australian security-related podcasts I listen to much more intermittently.

The Lowy Institute’s podcast, which is more about  international relations and foreign policy rather than just security, is particularly valuable. I don’t listen to it often but one recent excellent episode was a panel discussion on Australia, China and the fallout from the foreign influence debate. It was the most responsible and nuanced discussion of this issue I’ve seen come out of any Australian think-tank.

A similarly less directly security-related podcast is The Little Red Podcast, co-hosted by Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim, which is the most informative podcast on China and Chinese-Australian relations that I know of.

We’ve also had two new Australian entrances into podcasting, though from long-established institutions.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) now has a podcast called Policy, Guns and Money, with five episodes out so far.

The Australian National University’s National Security College (NSC) produces the National Security Podcast, with about ten episodes out.

Finally, if your interest is more in information security, there’s Patrick Gray’s podcast Risky Business and Stilgherrian’s The 9pm Edict.

As for Sub Rosa, Kate Grealy and I have several more episodes planned, but it will probably be at least a few months before we produce and release the next one.

 

 

 

Islamic State’s virtually planned terror plots: a note on current and future research

Journalists, scholars and counter-terrorism practitioners have recently drawn attention to a particular strain of Islamic State terror attacks which have been described as “virtually planned”.

This refers to terror plots where the perpetrators are guided through sustained online communication with Islamic State operatives who provided encouragement, instructions or advice. These plots are also characterised by the absence of physical connections that might make them more directly planned than the term “virtual” would imply, such as one of the perpetrators having trained or fought with Islamic State.

Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser appear to be the first authors to note this as a distinctive type of plot. In 2015 they created a six-part typology to categorise jihadist plots in the West, and Type 4 was “remote communication with directives”. From 2016 onwards authors  such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Madeleine Blackman, Nathanial Barr, Bridget Morang, Rukmini Callamachi, Kim Cragin and Ari Weil popularised the term “virtual planning” to describe these plots.

Other authors explored the same concept but used different terms. Thomas Jocelyn and Peter Neumann described them as “remote-controlled” plots, Seamus Hughes and Alexander Melagrou-Hitchens referred to “virtual entrepreneurs” (capturing that Islamic State’s virtual planners also play a number of online roles other than plotting attacks, such as providing advice on how to travel to Syria) while John Mueller used the term “cyber coaching” (to refer specifically to virtual planners teaching the perpetrators which methods to use for their attacks). I tend to stick with “virtual planning”, and explored Australian examples with articles on the 2015 Anzac Day plot and the alleged 2017 Sydney plane plot.

Since then, Katrina Zorzi and I have been doing quite a bit of research on virtual planning, as a side-project, to interrogate and contribute to the further development of the concept. We’re looking at the extent to which such plots are genuinely new, widespread, and significant, and what they tell us about various debates within terrorism studies, such as those over online radicalisation and lone wolves. We also hope to examine how virtual planning has created opportunities for women to be more involved in Islamic State’s external attacks, even during periods when their propaganda appeared to eschew combat roles for women, and if broader contextual factors have helped enable the development of virtually planned attacks. We’re also interested in what aspects of Islamic State’s strategy and military doctrine made it particularly open to adopting this approach, and why other jihadist organisations have so far used this approach far less (which also involves revisiting al-Qaeda’s small number of virtually planned attacks).

We will post some intermittent updates about it on this blog, but first I wanted to share this table summarising existing estimates of how widespread such plots are.

This table lists the number of virtually planned plots various authors have noted in particular regions at particular times, and where possible how large a proportion of all Islamic State-associated attacks they accounted for.  At the end of the table I added my own estimates for Australia.

Author(s) Geographic location Time period Authors’ estimate of virtually planned IS plots Authors’ estimate of total of IS-associated plots Virtually planned plots as proportion of total IS-associated plots
Petter Nesser, Anne Stenersen and Emilie Oftedal Europe[1] January 2014 to October 2016 16 38 42%
Seamus Hughes and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens United States March 2014 to March 2017 8 38 21%
Joseph Liow Malaysia January 2013 to September 2016 7 13 54%
Kim Cragin and Ari Weil Indonesia January 2014 to December 2017 14 Unclear Unclear
Kim Cragin and Ari Weil Worldwide January 2014 to December 2017 51 273 19%
Andrew Zammit Australia[2] January 2014 to December 2017 5 19 26%

Not all the figures in these articles match up. For example, Cragin and Weil state that that Islamic State carried out fifty-one virtually planned plots across the world (that is, in countries that did not contain an Islamic State Wilayat) between January 2014 and December 2017, and that seventeen of these were in the West. However, the figure of seventeen seems too low given evidence of six virtually planned plots in Australia, sixteen in Europe and eight in the United States, either within the same time period or within even shorter periods.

Nonetheless, these various sets of figures indicate that Islamic State’s virtually planned terror plots have been quite prevalent, amounting to between a fifth and half of all Islamic State plots depending on the region.

It will be interesting to how Islamic State’s loss of territory inside Syria and Iraq changes that. I’ve previously expressed scepticism that this territorial loss will have much impact on virtually planned attacks, on the grounds that that “virtual encouragement or direction has been provided to plotters in the West by individuals in Somalia, Libya, and the United Kingdom”, but I hope that scepticism turns out to have been misplaced.

 

[1] For Europe, Nesser, Stenersen and Oftedal’s did not explicitly estimate the number of virtually-planned attacks, but noted that nineteen of their plots involved “involve online instruction from members of IS’s networks”. Three of these nineteen involved returned foreign fighters, but the remaining sixteen fit the criteria for virtually planned plots. See their article here along with Appendix 1 and Appendix 2.

[2] For Australia, my estimate of six virtually-planned plots from January 2014 to December 2017 is based on the February 2015 Sydney plot (NSW JCTT Operation Castrum), the 2015 Anzac Day plot (Vic JCTT Operation Rising), the 2015 Mother’s Day plot (Vic JCTT Operation Amberd), the 2016 Anzac Day plot (NSW JCTT Operation Vianden, but this is an extremely tentative inclusion), the alleged September 2014 Sydney plot (Operation Appleby) and the alleged July 2017 Sydney plane plot (NSW JCTT Operation Silves). My estimate of nineteen total IS-associated plots in Australia during this period is based on the sixteen incidents listed here along with the June 2017 Brighton siege, the alleged July 2017 Sydney plane plot, and the alleged November 2017 Melbourne plot.

Update 1: I have now removed the 2016 Anzac Day plot, which was tentatively included based on reports of possible instructions the perpetrator received from abroad. Last week he was sentenced and it turns out both of the people he was communicating with overseas were undercover police officers (see paragraphs 11-13 of his sentencing). For this reason, it cannot be counted as one of the Islamic State’s virtually planned plots, so my estimate for such plots in Australia during this period has changed from six to five, and I have updated the table to account for this.

Numbers of Australians involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq: estimates from Estimates

One interesting part of Senate Estimates is when the ASIO Director-General testifies before the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. Ever since the self-described Islamic State siezed territory in Syria and Iraq and became a major security concern worldwide, the Director-General has been sharing ASIO’s estimates of how many Australians are involved with IS and other jihadist groups in the region.

I’ve compiled the official figures from current ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis’s latest Senate Estimates hearing, as wells as figures from previous hearings (for categories that weren’t covered in the latest one).

Australian jihadists currently in Syria and Iraq:
“ASIO assessed that around 110 Australians are currently in Syria or Iraq and have fought or otherwise supported the Islamic extremist groups.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 May 2018, page 100.

Australians killed while involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq:
“At least 78 and possibly as many as 90 Australians have been killed because of their involvement in the conflict.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 May 2018, page 100.

Australians subject to travel restrictions:
“Since 2012, around 240 Australian passports have been cancelled or refused and 39 Australian passports have been suspended on ASIO’s recommendation in relation to Syria and Iraq.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 May 2018, page 100.

Total number of Australians who traveled and joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq during the conflict:
“Since 2012, around 220 Australians have travelled to Syria/Iraq to join the conflict. Although unable to further breakdown these figures for security reasons, ASIO notes that as the conflict continues, fewer individuals are successfully entering the conflict zone.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 27 February 2018.

The groups they joined:
“The vast majority of the Australians who travelled to Syria or Iraq in support of terrorist organisations are assessed to be associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 27 February 2018.

Other Australians have been involved with Jabhat al-Nusra (which renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and then formed the umbrella group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) as well as Ahrar al-Sham and some other groups.

Warrants issued for those still overseas:
“In relation to those individuals, the AFP has worked with its partner agencies, ASIO and the state and territory police, and we’ve obtained 21 arrest warrants in relation to those persons.” Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin, 27 February 2018, pages 35-36.

Those who returned:
“The other figure which is always of interest to this committee is those who have returned from the Middle East. That still sits at around 40. And, as I’ve said on several occasions before this committee, the overwhelming majority of them returned to Australia before ISIL was actually declared as this so-called province—this caliphate.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 October 2017, page 132.

Those suspected of providing support from within Australia:
“Furthermore, ASIO is investigating around 190 people here in Australia who are actively supporting extremist groups in Syria and Iraq through recruiting, fundraising and in some cases seeking to travel to join these groups themselves. This number includes our investigation into about 40 Australians who have returned from the conflict zone.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 18 October 2016, page 177.

The children involved:
“Of further concern are up to 70 children of Australians, that we are aware of, who have been exposed to extremist groups in Syria or Iraq. These children either travelled to the conflict zone with their Australian parents or, indeed, have been born there.”
ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 18 October 2016, page 177.

Three upcoming terrorism studies masterclasses and a conference on the aftermath of ISIS

Some interesting terrorism-related academic events are coming up very soon in Canberra and Perth.

First, my intermittent co-author and podcast guest, Levi West, and his colleagues at Charles Sturt University have organised three masterclasses on terrorism studies, which have a number of international guests skyping in.

The first two classes in particular look fantastic and have great guest lecturers. Steven Tankel wrote this excellent book on Lashkar e-Toiba which I’ve drawn on in previous work, Craig Whiteside and Seamus Hughes are in my “must-read” list whenever I hear they have something new out, Sarah Phillips is possibly Australia’s top scholar covering conflict in Yemen, Mark Pitcavage does great work on the extreme right, and Christopher Anzalone is probably the person I read most on al-Shabaab. It’s rare to have this much international talent at a terrorism studies events in Australia, particularly at a teaching-focused event intended.

These classes are all taking place in Canberra this month. The first masterclass is on the history of terrorism (its coming up so try to apply soon):

History of Terrorism Masterclass 07-11 May

 

Followed by one on contemporary terrorism (try to apply before 10 May):

Contemporary Terrorism Masterclass 14-18 May 2018

 

And then one on the financing and resourcing of terrorism (try to apply before 20 May):

Terrorist Financing Masterclass 29-31May 2018

 

It’s a busy month. In Perth, the University of Western Australia is hosting a Conference on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation: Post-ISIS:

Three years ago, ISIS claimed a cross-border caliphate stretching over vast swathes of north-western Iraq and eastern Syria. Fascinated by its rise, Muslim youths from all corners rapidly joined its cause. After three years of shocking violence, ISIS has faced major setbacks and has been in retreat in those areas it formerly controlled. Many of its fighters have been returning. This conference brings together experts to shed light on the lessons on radicalisation and de-radicalisation in the context of the rise and apparent decline of ISIS and to offer insights into future trends. What would radicalisation and de-radicalisation look like in the future? What are the responses required? These are the questions at the heart of this one-day conference being organised by The Centre for Muslim States and Societies, The University of Western Australia. The conference will be useful for policy makers, law enforcement groups, academia, students and all those interested in countering radicalisation.

Its speakers are:

Professor Amin Saikal, Australian National University | The defeat of the ‘Islamic State’ and its impact on US foreign policy in the Middle East

Profess James Piscatori, Australian National University | The Umma post-ISIS

Professor Samina Yasmeen, The University of Western Australia | JUD, ISIS and Pakistan: future trajectories of radicalisation

Dr Richard Vokes, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia | The shifting contexts of jihadism in Sub-Saharan Africa: a comparison of al-Shabaab and the Allied Democratic Forces

Dr Ian Chalmers, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, The University of Western Australia | How have the jihadists coped with Indonesia’s de-radicalisation campaign?

Dr Leila Ben Mcharek, Research Fellow, CMSS, The University of Western Australia | Libya: a case of survival of Daesh

Dr Shehzad Saleem, Research Fellow and Vice President, Al-Mawrid Institute | Understanding ISIS’s ideology and its continued influence

Nava Ghalili, Journalist | Youth empowerment as a means to prevent youth radicalization?

Ridwan, PhD Candidate, The University of Western Australia | Transnational Islam and Threat of Radicalisation in Indonesia

Farooq Yousaf, PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle, New South Wales

This is quite a different event to the masterclasses above, but it similarly looks excellent. I’m much less familiar with the work of its speakers (except for Samina Yasmeen, Amin Saikal and Ian Chalmers), but generally the scholarly background of the speakers looks to be area studies and Islamic Studies rather than terrorism studies, which is good change of perspective (I’ve gone on a bit before about how something as complex and contentious as terrorism requires a range of approaches).

It is also extremely affordable ($50 for students, $100 for others) and it’s this Friday, so if interested you’ll need to be quick.

 

And in a smaller bit of news, back in February post I mistakenly wrote that Talal Alameddine would be sentenced on 2 March for supplying the handgun used to murder NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng in the Parramatta terrorist attack. He will actually be sentenced on 18 May.

Four announcements

Four bits of news relevant to readers of this blog.

First, one of the founders of modern terrorism studies, Bruce Hoffman, is briefly coming to Australia. He will give a public talk in Canberra on 30 April, organised by Charles Sturt University:

hoffman event

Second, Kate Grealy and I have released a new episode of Sub Rosa, for the first time in over a year.

I interviewed David Schaefer, who is now at King’s College London, about Australia’s dependence on US space technology and how this impacts our military alliance and the risks of conflict entrapment. Click here to listen to the episode:

Episode 13: Space technology and the US-Australian alliance, with David Schaefer

dave schaefer kingsIn this episode, Andrew talks to David Schaefer about developments in space technology and how they are changing long-held assumptions about the military alliance between Australia and the United States.

David Schaefer is currently a PhD Candidate at King’s College London. When this episode was recorded in September 2017, David was based at the University of Melbourne, working for AsiaLink and Ormond College.

We spoke about his research on how technological changes have impacted the US-Australian alliance in ways that haven’t always been widely recognised in Australia’s national security debates. We also spoke about how this potentially makes Australia’s exposure to great-power conflict more complex and ambiguous than during the Cold War, particularly in the context of US-China rivalry and the prospect that any new conflict could open with cyber-attacks against information networks shared between Australia and the United States.

Third, the Monash Gender, Peace and Security group has released an interesting new resource which maps gender provisions in peace agreements. Take a look here.

Fourth, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute is hiring a new National Security / Counter-Terrorism Analyst. You can apply here before 29 April. They have also announced openings for their six month paid internships, you can apply here before 6 May.

Enjoy!

Did any Australians join the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

I’ve often written about Australians who have joined jihadist groups abroad, but have rarely come across evidence of Australians fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Intuitively, you could expect that some Australians were involved in fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The 1979 Soviet invasion prompted tens of thousands of Muslims across the world to travel to Afghanistan and join the fight throughout the 1980s. This was the world’s largest jihadist foreign fighter mobilisation until the Syrian civil war.

Given Australians have joined jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere since the 1990s, it would be surprising if there had been no Australians involved at all in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Yet I have only occasionally come across indications of Australian involvement, such as a section in Irfan Yusuf’s book Once Were Radicals, where he states that in the 1980s a friend of his, Kamal, “seemed to know a lot of what was happening there [in Afghanistan], and he also knew people who had gone from Australia to fight in the jihad” (page 151).

Another example is that an Australian woman, Rabiah Hutchinson, travelled to Pakistan in 1990 and based herself in the village of Pabbi (near the Afghan border). She stayed under the auspices of Abdul Rassul Sayyaf (who trained many Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists) and interacted with Osama bin Laden. But this was after the Soviets withdrew, and bin Laden was (according to Hutchinson’s biography, The Mother of Mohammed) surprised to encounter an Australian. He reportedly said “Australian – that must be a first!” (page 191). This anecdote suggests that Australians were absent during the 1980s, but we can’t read too much into it. The story might not be true, and Bin Laden was not then the central figure he would later become, so we can’t assume he would have known the nationality of each of the thousands of volunteers who traveled to join the conflict.

So there has generally been extremely little information around on any Australians fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

However, Thomas Hegghammer recently sent me some interesting things he has found.

He found that “there were people in Australia reading al-Jihad and writing letters to the editor”. Al-Jihad was the magazine produced by Abdullah Azzam’s Services Bureau. Hegghammer provided this image of al-Jihad’s 18th issue, page 41:

AlJihadLetterToEditor.jpg large

He added that the “same guy is mentioned in the next issue (p.45) as having sent money.”

Hegghammer also showed that the book Jihad in Afghanistan Against Communism refers explicitly to Australians among the mujahideen at the time:

JihadCommunismBookCover.jpg large

 

JihadCommunismBookPage.jpg large

Hegghammer helpfully adds to the extremely small body of public information on any Australian involvement in the 1980s foreign fighter mobilisation against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

It wouldn’t be surprising if a few Australians had been fighting the Soviets, but information on it is hard to come across, and I will let readers know if I hear of anything else.

 

Update 1: (added 29 March 2018) Anthony Davis from IHS-Jane’s has sent the following example. As with the examples above, I am not personally in a position to verify it, but I greatly appreciate it for adding to the small and fragmentary body of information on this topic:

l met a young Australian fighter called Yusuf while working in the northern Kunduz-Khanabad area in the late summer of 1982 with a group of mujahideen of the Jamiat-i-Islami party. He had served in the ADF and later married a Muslim woman from Malaysia and converted to Islam. He was actually less interested in killing communists than in fulfilling his duty as a Muslim to perform jihad. He took his religion extremely seriously rather to the amusement of his Afghan comrades-in-arms not all of whom prayed five times a day and many of whom enjoyed the odd joint of good local hash. They nick-named him “Sheikh” in a back-handed compliment to his religious rectitude. But with a full beard, long hair and turban, he otherwise fitted in well enough. At the end of the year he turned in his AK and joined me on the three week trek back to Pakistan. As far as I’m aware, he then returned to his wife in a kampong in northeastern Malaysia, having successfully ticked the ‘jihad’ box.