Australia is not new to the threat of jihadi terrorism.
Jihadi militants have been active in Australia since the 1980s.
Al-Qaida (AQ), including its regional franchise Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), was behind most of the earlier failed or foiled terrorist plots on its soil. It even seems AQ had an obsession with Australia’s only nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, targeted various several times in different plots. JI targeted Australian interests mainly abroad, in Indonesia. The most serious jihadist activity occurred from 2003-2005.
The civil war in Syria has clearly been the main trigger for the changes in the Australian jihadist arena since 2012. In July 2014, following the uproar produced by the tweets and gruesome photos posted by two now famous Australian jihadists, then director-general of security (head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization or ASIO) David Irvine declared that some tens of people had already returned from the Middle East and another 150 in Australia had inclinations to support extremist movements.
Then, in the eyes of millions of people around the world Australia became a symbol of the global Islamic State (IS) threat when on the morning of December 15, 2014, Man Haron Monis, a troubled 50-year-old man of Iranian origin on the fringes of the city’s Muslim community, took 18 hostages in a famous café located in downtown Sydney, practically paralyzing the center of the metropolis. The televised saga ended after a 16-hour siege in which two people and Monis were killed.
In the foreword of the sixth issue of its English magazine Dabiq, IS described how Monis “brought terror to the entire nation” and called upon others to copy his “daring raid.”
He was also praised for his conversion to Sunni Islam. Monis was also mentioned discretely in a short note in the December 2014 issue of Inspire, the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) magazine.
Andrew Zammit, a leading researcher of this topic, notes the large number of Australians involved with groups such as IS greatly exceeds any of Australia’s earlier jihadist mobilizations.
Although this raises well-founded fears of an increased threat at home, Zammit evaluates that “the foreign fighter threat to Australia may not turn out to be as great as feared” as neither JN nor IS appear to have made attacks in the West as high a strategic priority as al-Qaida’s senior leadership did.
Yet IS does consider attacks in the West – the “Far Abroad” ring (Europe, the United States, Southeast Asia) – as part of its overall strategy to foment a broader war. IS encourages attacks in the Far Abroad in order to provoke Western governments and societies into targeting and alienating Muslim communities and thus drive Muslims toward IS.
Paradoxically, the more IS is squeezed in Iraq and Syria and defeated militarily by the broad ad-hoc coalition gathered against it, the more foreign fighters, who for the moment serve mainly as cannon fodder, will be compelled to return home or immigrate to more hospitable lands.
Since January 2015 this trend has begun to materialize: the January 2015 attacks against the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish kosher grocery store in Paris, France; pre-emptive raids by Belgian police in the town of Verviers against a group suspected of preparing a major attack ending with two killed IS jihadists; the attacks in February against both a public event called “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” and a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark; the arrests of nine people in Barcelona and Tarragona, Spain, suspected of links to IS, in April; and the various police operations in Malaysia in April that led to the arrests of 95 individuals with links to IS.
The arrests in April 2015 of five young would-be terrorists in Melbourne accused of plotting to bring terror to the city’s streets during Anzac Day centenary commemorations are part of the same trend.
It should be noted that IS invests few resources and operational effort in most of these attacks – apart from very effective and targeted propaganda on the Internet amplified by the mainstream media, which is sometimes hypnotized by the gruesome events and thus serves as a resonance chamber.
The Monis hostage situation in December 2014 is a good example of such a success.
Moreover, there is a fierce competition between IS under the leadership of Abu Bakr al– Baghdadi and al-Qaida under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri for the hearts and minds of jihadists worldwide.
Zawahiri announced in September 2014 the establishment of a new affiliate group, “Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent” or AQIS, which covers jihadist activities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and India’s states of Assam, Gujarat and Kashmir.
Interestingly there is no mention of who is responsible for Indonesia or Australia, territories where AQ and its associates were active in the past.
Competition between the two jihadist organizations has clearly emerged as playing a role in the case of the attacks in France.
AQAP claimed responsibility for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices by the two brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi. But Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four people in the Parisian kosher grocery store, pledged allegiance to IS in a video published online after his death. A month later IS referred to Coulibaly in Dabiq as a “brave mujahid” who had given his “bay’ah” (oath of allegiance) to the group beforehand.
It remains to be seen if AQ or AQIS will try in the future to challenge IS in Australia by reviving old networks or recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
The writer who holds a PhD is a Senior Research Scholar at The International Institute for Counter- Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzlyia, Israel.