Al-Qaeda and its allies pose a credible threat to Australian security. While al-Qaeda affiliates have repeatedly bombed Australian interests in Indonesia, the organization has consistently singled out Australia itself as a high priority target. The terror network is determined to make good on these threats, and several plots to attack Australia at home have been thwarted in their early stages. Therefore, an effective Australian counter-terrorism policy must address the threat locally, regionally and globally.
Because of Australia’s unique history, geography and demographics, Australians have a tendency to expect security threats to originate overseas, particularly from Asia. Australia is the world’s largest island, and has a population density 1% that of the United Kingdom, producing enormous border security challenges.
Radical Islamic insurgencies, cells and training camps are present in several countries in the immediate region. Australia’s nearest neighbor, Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country—is the birthplace of the regional terrorist umbrella group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). JI’s Operational Commander, Riduan Isamuddin, commonly known as “Hambali,” was also a member of al-Qaeda’s leadership council until his arrest in Thailand in August 2003.
However, Australia should not view the Southeast Asian region in isolation. On closer examination, the boundaries between al-Qaeda’s activities in Australia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are quite amorphous. Funding, ideology, training, logistical support and personnel flow back and forth between al-Qaeda networks in Australia, the immediate region, and areas such as Afghanistan and even Europe. An exclusive emphasis on the region obscures the potential for terrorist threats to infiltrate—or even originate in—Australia.
While neither al-Qaeda nor its regional franchises have yet succeeded in launching an attack on Australian soil, this is not for lack of trying. From the 1980s until 2004, Jemaah Islamiyah delegated Australian operations to the leadership of Abdul Rahim Ayub, an Australian citizen of Indonesian origin. He and his twin brother, Abdul Rahman, organized training for JI members and acted as the intermediaries between Australian JI members and the JI regional leadership. The brothers also taught Islamic studies at al-Hidayah Islamic School in Perth until they fled the country after the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) raided their home .
It seems the Ayub brothers focused on guarding their nominal positions of authority at the expense of producing operational results. Over time, al-Qaeda sought to intervene more directly to mount a terrorist attack on Australian soil.
One such attempt involved French Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—a Pakistani al-Qaeda affiliate banned by the Australian Government in 2003—operative Willie Virgile Brigitte, who was arrested in Australia in October 2003 after France’s Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST) discovered he was in Australia and informed ASIO .
While in Australia, Brigitte repeatedly met with Australian terror suspect Faheem Lodhi, whom police allege was planning to bomb either an army base or the electricity grid in New South Wales. Lodhi is alleged to have obtained maps and aerial photographs, contacted a chemical supplier and obtained a mobile telephone using false personal and company names. He is also alleged to have been the leader of foreign students at a LeT terrorist training camp during October 2001.
Brigitte was deported and is currently under indefinite detention without charge in France. Lodhi is in custody in Australia awaiting trial on nine terrorism-related charges.
The Brigitte case demonstrates that foreign terrorists are willing to travel to Australia in order to mount terrorist attacks. That terrorist traffic can also travel in the opposite direction was demonstrated by the case of Jack Roche .
Roche, a middle aged, British born-Australian family man and convert to Islam is currently serving a prison sentence over his plans to bomb the Israeli embassy in Canberra. He has contributed to the dissolution of the perceived barrier between the shady foreign terrorist and the ordinary member of society. Even before the London tube train bombings, Roche’s case demonstrated that apparently trustworthy citizens can self-recruit and plan attacks within their own country.
Roche’s case is also important because it demonstrates the level of hands-on collaboration and interaction between al-Qaeda’s core organization, regional affiliates and local recruits.
During February 2000, Roche was sent by Abdul Rahim Ayub to meet with Hambali in Malaysia. Hambali gave Roche funds and instructed him to go to Afghanistan for basic training with al-Qaeda.
In a subsequent trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Roche reports that he met with al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Muhammad Atef and “Saif” (presumably Saif al-Adel). In the Afghan training camp, Roche was given explosives training and assigned a mission, along with further funds.
Roche was to be the founding member of an all-Caucasian cell that would launch sporadic guerrilla attacks against Jewish and American interests in Australia. In addition to plans to conduct bombings and assassinations against Israeli and American diplomatic missions, the al-Qaeda leadership discussed assassinating prominent Australian Jewish businessman “Diamond” Joe Gutnick.
Roche’s first two tasks were to conduct surveillance and to recruit two more white Australian Muslims who would be sent to Afghanistan and trained in sniping and explosives respectively, completing a cell capable of blending easily into the Australian community.
Returning to Australia, Roche began implementing the first phase of the plan. In June and December, he conducted photographic and video surveillance of the Israeli consulate in Sydney and the Israeli embassy in Canberra, along with his (adult) son and a sympathetic taxi driver.
The plan, however, began to fall apart when Roche attempted to recruit his fellow Muslims. Already an impressionable person, Roche’s credulity had been exacerbated when he converted to Islam, making him an easy mark for al-Qaeda. The disapproval of his fellow Muslims gave him pause for thought.
The plan received another blow when the Ayub brothers got wind of it, and reacted defensively to al-Qaeda’s attempt to sideline them. By August 2000, JI’s spiritual leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir had ordered Roche to halt the operation, and by 2001 Roche had abandoned the mission.
The plan’s initial success and eventual failure hinge on two factors. Firstly, the decentralized, somewhat ad hoc network of al-Qaeda, regional and Australian-based agents succeeded in formulating and carrying out the early stages of a plausible plan. However, the unclear lines of authority inherent in such a loose network ultimately led to failure.
Secondly, al-Qaeda’s recruiting strategy made sense in an Australian context. In Britain, large and longstanding Pakistani and North African immigrant communities generate youths who are alienated both from the general community and from their own cultural traditions, and are therefore susceptible to radicalism. In Australia, no such enclaves really exist. The aggressive proselytism of radical Muslim fringe groups, however, has attracted converts who are already alienated from wider Australian society. These individuals, such as Roche, are susceptible to the overtures of terrorist recruiters. Yet, it was the negative response of converts that Roche himself attempted to recruit that led him to question his mission.
Incitement to Terrorism
In the wake of the July 2005 bombings in London, Australian public attention has focused on the role of Islamic fundamentalist fringe groups in the country. In particular, Sheikh Muhammad Omran, who has claimed that the London bombings were not carried out by Muslims, and that the September 11 attacks were an “inside job”, has developed a media profile that threatened to overshadow the August 23 summit between the Prime Minister, Immigration Minister, security officials and mainstream Muslim leaders. Omran also calls himself a friend of Abu Qatada and Osama bin Laden, although he denies that either is a terrorist, and is reportedly critical of their anti-Saudi position.
Omran is the spiritual leader of Islamic Information and Services Network of Australasia (IISNA), a group that propagates a pro-Saudi Salafi position in Australia. There have been calls for foreign-printed books being sold at IISNA’s Sydney bookshop to be banned because of their incitement to political violence and racial and religious hatred. Similar calls were directed at the bookshop of a smaller outfit, the Islamic Youth Movement (IYM).
While the sale of foreign-printed radical publications in two Sydney bookshops is obviously of concern to the community, banning these books would not close off the most important medium for terrorist propaganda, which is the Internet. Alongside its bookshop, IYM has been publishing a Qutbist, pro-al-Qaeda web publication, Nida’ul Islam (Call of Islam) for a decade . Published in English and Arabic, Nida’ul Islam printed interviews with Osama bin Laden, Omar Abd al-Rahman, Ansar al-Islam leader Fateh Krekar and JI leaders Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar. The publication also featured regular updates on guerrilla battles and terror strikes around the Middle East. Articles on parenting and society described non-Muslims as filthy, corrupt and disgusting and encouraged home schooling. Democracy was condemned.
Nida’ul Islam is published by Bilal Khazal, a Lebanese immigrant who was convicted on terrorism charges by a Lebanese military tribunal in absentia in December 2003. A CIA report places Khazal at an Afghan training camp in 1998, as a confidant of bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. ASIO has kept tabs on Khazal since November 1994, and in 2004 he was arrested for compiling a terrorist instruction manual and posting it on the Internet. His trial will begin in April next year . Although the law seems to be finally catching up with Khazal, it should be noted that until 2000 he was working as a baggage handler for Qantas airlines. And Nida’ul Islam continues to publish its militant message from the Sydney suburb of Lakemba.
An eventual terrorist attack in Australia could involve operatives from al-Qaeda proper infiltrated from abroad, JI terrorists, or even domestic operatives. Most likely, these elements will work together in any successful attack. The greatest terrorist threat may come from Australia’s own citizens, and they may not look like “Islamic fundamentalists” or even like Muslims.
The examples given in this article are illustrative, not exhaustive. A worrying number of Australian citizens have trained with al-Qaeda or LeT in Afghanistan, and several are currently facing terrorism charges in separate cases in Australia and the U.S.
Australia is not only the target of al-Qaeda’s global terrorist message, but in some cases its point of origin. Australian security depends on successfully constraining al-Qaeda and its allies in the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia and within Australia itself, and ultimately in ensuring alternatives to violence and social alienation are available both in Australia and abroad.
1. “Behind Closed Doors” The Australian, August 5, 2005, p15.
2. ASIO Report to Australian Parliament 2003-2004, part 2.
3. Sentence in the case of The Queen and Jack Roche, District Court of Western Australia, 1 June 2004.
5. “The Baggage of Bilal Khazal” Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 2004.