18 Sep 2014

Why is Australia facing a domestic terror crisis?

Isis is urging followers to carry out public beheadings, says Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. How did the country become a target and how do counter-terrorism officials respond?

Australia says it has completed its largest domestic counter-terrorism operation in history.

More than 800 officers swooped on houses across Sydney and Brisbane, making 15 arrests based on intelligence that suggested extremists were planning a “gruesome execution” on a random member of the public. Prosecutors said it was part of a plan “clearly designed to shock and horrify” and involved an “unusual level of fanaticism”.

There are inevitable parallels between this alleged plot and the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich in London two years ago. It is also a sign that Australian security services face similar challenges to their counterparts in Britain.

But is there real cause for concern? Yes, if the numbers are to be believed. At least 60 Australians are thought to be fighting with jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, with 15 reported killed so far in both conflicts, including the country’s first two suicide bombers.

The government says it believes about 100 Australians are actively supporting extremist groups from inside the country, recruiting fighters and grooming more potential suicide bombers, as well as providing funds and equipment.

Unsettling signs

All this could be dismissed as hype were there not such fearful signs from the battlefield. In August shocking images emerged, such as that of a seven-year-old Australian boy, the son of one of the country’s most wanted terrorists Khaled Sharrouf, holding up a severed head in Syria.

Other high-profile cases include Mohamed Elomar, a once respected boxer who left Sydney for Syria a year ago and who has since become one of Australia’s most wanted terrorists, posing with severed heads of Syrian soldiers and appearing to participate in mass executions in Iraq.

Last week police arrested two men in Brisbane for allegedly preparing to fight in Syria, recruiting jihadists and raising money for the al-Qaeda offshoot group Jabhat al-Nusra. “Australians are now acting as English language Islamist extremist propagandists, accessing audiences and contacts they could not have dreamed of before social media to connect them,” the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) has warned.

“The unprecedented numbers involved and the diverse range of source countries mean that even if only a portion eventually poses a threat, the scale of this will be considerable,” it says.

“It is of relevance to note that of the Australians who trained with al-Qaeda or its affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s and 2000s, almost all returned to Australia and were involved in some form of terrorist-related activity, with around a third of them subsequently arrested and/or convicted of terrorism offenses.”

British and Australian responses

Australia has fewer active fighters overseas than the UK, but there are signs suggesting their organisation between the battlefields and the homeland is more streamlined and cohesive. In fact, at least 20 IS and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have returned to Australia and remain under surveillance.

“For potentials jihadists harbouring even a basic intentions to travel from Australia to Syria, you require higher level of dedication, money and planning,” says Hannah Stewart, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. This, coupled with Australia’s recent decision to send a 600-strong force to the Middle East to join the US in the fight against IS, has potentially reinforced their motivations.

“Australia supported the 2003 Iraq invasion, and is now embroiled in a fight led by America – the arch-nemesis of the west,” Ms Stewart adds. “In the Jihadist narrative, the country is just as much ‘the west’ and pro-America as Britain.” Geography, in the eyes of Islamic State cause at least, means little in a battle of ideology.