Australian citizens continue to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, and this trend has been identified as a national security priority. In mid-September 2014, the Australian federal government raised the National Terrorism Public Alert from “medium” to “high,” citing the foreign fighter threat.[1] Within a week, the country experienced its largest ever counterterrorism operation, when a series of raids by more than 800 federal and state police officers uncovered an alleged terrorist plot, reportedly instigated by a senior Australian member of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[2] Security was also enhanced at the Parliament House following “chatter” about a potential attack.[3]

This article details developments in Australian jihadist activity in Syria and Iraq during the past year, updating an article from the November 2013 issue of the CTC Sentinel.[4] It outlines the changing threat within Australia, as well as some of the countermeasures enacted by the Australian government. It finds that Australia faces an increasingly complex threat. Australian citizens continue to be involved in ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, including in senior positions, and potential domestic plots have been uncovered. The Australian federal government has responded to the evolving threat with increased security measures, extra resources for police and intelligence services, and a problematic push for extensive new powers.

New Australian Martyrs
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) recently estimated that 60 Australians are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq, that “tens” have returned, and that 15 have died fighting.[5] At least six of these deaths occurred in the past year and were publicly reported, providing some information on who has been involved and what militant groups they joined.[6]

In mid-January 2014, Yusuf Ali and his wife Amira Ali were killed in Aleppo. Initial reports said that they were killed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).[7] More detailed follow-up reporting, however, stated that the couple was affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, and that they were killed by ISIL as part of the power struggle between the two jihadist groups.[8] Yusuf Ali was born to a Christian family in Australia and spent his teenage years in the United States, while Amira Ali was of Lebanese and New Zealand background and was raised in Australia.[9] They had married in April 2013, lived in Queensland before traveling to Syria, and were both 22-years-old when killed.[10]

Also in January, Caner Temel was killed in Syria. He was reportedly recruited into ISIL by a man known as Abu Hafs, after first joining Jabhat al-Nusra.[11] He was 22-years-old, from Sydney, and of Turkish background.[12] He was also a veteran, having joined the Australian Army in February 2009, and he trained as a combat engineer before going absent without leave in late 2010.[13]

In mid-February 2013, a Sydney man named Ahmad Moussali was killed in Syria.[14] Moussali was Lebanese-Australian and a close friend of the aforementioned Yusuf Ali. Little is known about his involvement, other than that he had studied Arabic in Egypt in 2012 before entering Syria in 2013.[15]

Zakaryah Raad, an Australian man from Sydney, was killed soon after appearing in an ISIL video in June 2014 titled There is No Life Without Jihad, which called for Muslims across the globe to join ISIL.[16]

In July 2014, ISIL announced that an “Abu Bakr al-Australi” had carried out a suicide bombing in central Baghdad. He was later identified as Adam Dahman, an 18-year-old man from Melbourne who had left for Turkey when he was 17.[17] He attacked a market in central Baghdad near a Shi`a mosque, killing five people.[18] Dahman is the second known Australian suicide bomber, the first being Abu Asma al-Australi who bombed a school stationing Syrian soldiers near Deir al-Zour in September 2013.

Foreign Fighter Flow
The composition of the Australians involved in Syria and Iraq has changed little since November 2013. Judging from those killed, they tend to be male, under 30-years-of-age (often under 25), from a range of backgrounds (predominantly Lebanese-Australian followed by Turkish-Australian), in some cases have wives and children, and in most cases had attracted security attention before leaving Australia.[19]

A key change since November 2013, however, has been that many have joined ISIL and went to fight in Iraq. Previously, Australian fighters tended to operate within Syria, fighting either for Jabhat al-Nusra or groups that fell loosely under the FSA rubric.[20] There are still Australians who fought with Jabhat al-Nusra, such as a former Gold Coast resident who has called for attacks within Western countries, but overall ISIL appears to have overtaken Jabhat al-Nusra in popularity.[21]

A further change has been increasing evidence of Australian jihadists playing leadership roles. One example is former Sydney preacher Abu Sulayman, who is now a member of Jabhat al-Nusra’s Shari`a Council. Sulayman has stated that he was appointed by al-Qa`ida to mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL.[22] He has appeared in several Jabhat al-Nusra videos, and has become their most prominent English-speaking member to address the fratricidal dispute.[23]

In July 2014, the Lebanese Army arrested a Lebanese-Australian dual citizen named Hussam Sabbagh, who has been accused of playing a major role in Jabhat al-Nusra networks in Lebanon.[24] Prior to his alleged Jabhat al-Nusra activity, he had been accused of involvement in Fatah al-Islam’s attempted uprising in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, near Tripoli, in 2007.[25] Lebanese media reports suggest he has since come to command a 250-strong militia.[26]

The Domestic Threat to Australia
Not all Australian involvement in these conflicts requires travel. ASIO currently estimates that around 100 people in Australia are supporting jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq in various capacities, such as by providing funds and equipment.[27] While this is largely a continuation of previous activity, the domestic situation has changed in three key ways during the past year.

First, there is growing evidence of active recruitment networks within Australia. Many of the Australian fighters prior to November 2013 appeared to be entering Syria with few pre-existing connections to armed groups, but since then two alleged recruitment networks have been uncovered. In December 2013, two men were arrested in Sydney and charged with offenses under the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act of 1978. Police alleged that one of the men, Hamdi Alqudsi, was closely linked to extremist groups in Syria and had recruited at least six fighters, including Yusuf Ali and Caner Temel, and facilitated their travel.[28] Police alleged the other man, Mohammed Amin, was preparing to join the fight. Alqudsi had allegedly cooperated with Mohammad Ali Baryalei, a former Sydney bouncer now believed to be a senior ISIL figure. Authorities believe Baryalei recruited approximately 30 Australians, first for Jabhat al-Nusra and then for ISIL.[29] Then, in September 2014, two members of an alleged recruitment network for Jabhat al-Nusra were arrested in Brisbane, one of whom is believed to be the brother of the suicide bomber “Abu Asma al-Australi.”[30]

Second, several of the newly apparent fighters have close connections to past extremist violence in Australia. In contrast, many of the known fighters in 2012 and 2013 appeared to have had little involvement in Australia’s most serious jihadist networks. The two most prominent examples of this new trend are Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, two ISIL fighters who have drawn repeated media attention by making threatening statements toward Australia and posting photos online of themselves posing with murdered captives and severed heads.[31] When Sharrouf released a photo of his seven-year-old son holding a severed head, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described it as underscoring “the degree to which ISIL is so far beyond the pale with respect to any standard by which we judge even terrorist groups.”[32] Sharrouf and Elomar were closely connected to earlier jihadist activity in Australia. Sharrouf was a convicted terrorist, having been arrested in November 2005 as part of Operation Pendennis, a joint ASIO, federal police and state police investigation that foiled two terrorist cells in Melbourne and Sydney.[33] He pleaded guilty to a small role in the plot (attempting to procure timers for the explosives) and was released from prison in 2009.[34] He continued to attract the attention of police and security agencies before escaping to Syria using his brother’s passport.[35]

Sharrouf’s fighting companion, Mohamed Elomar, is the nephew of the Sydney Pendennis cell’s leader, and one of his uncles (Hussein Elomar) was convicted of terrorism offenses in Lebanon.[36] His brother, Ahmed Elomar, was briefly detained in Lebanon in 2007 and would later be convicted of jihadist-related violence in Sydney.[37]

Other examples of this changing dynamic include Adam Dahman, the Australian suicide bomber in Iraq. He was the brother-in-law of Ahmed Raad, who had been a member of the Melbourne Pendennis cell and acted as their treasurer.[38] Similarly, Zakariyah Raad was related to two members of the Melbourne Pendennis cell and had been involved in violence in Sydney.[39] Another relative, Mounir Raad, currently claims to be in Aleppo with ISIL.[40] Amari Ali, who was killed in Aleppo, was the cousin of Melbourne Pendennis cell member Fadl Sayadi.[41] Some other members and associates of the Pendennis cells are suspected of fighting in the region.[42]

The third and most serious change in the domestic situation is new evidence of violent plans by ISIL supporters. On September 18, 2014, federal and state police forces raided houses across Brisbane and Sydney, arresting 15 people of whom one has so far been charged. While little information is currently available, the plot was reportedly instigated by Australian ISIL recruiter Mohammad Ali Baryalei and involved a plan to kidnap and murder a randomly chosen non-Muslim member of the Australian public, film the killing, and place the video on social media.[43] Then, on September 23, two police officers arranged to meet a suspect in a carpark outside a Victoria Police station. The suspect was an 18-year-old man named Abdul Numan Haider, whose passport had been confiscated because of potential plans to join ISIL. When approached by the officers, Haider attacked them with a knife, although one of the officers managed to shoot and kill him. The incident, and whether it was pre-planned by Haider, is still being investigated.[44]

State Response
Australia has enacted a series of countermeasures in response to escalating jihadist activity. In addition to foiling a suspected terrorist plot and disrupting suspected recruitment networks in Sydney and Brisbane, federal police also arrested Mohamed Elomar’s wife, Fatima, at Sydney Airport. She was accused of attempting to bring supplies to her husband and is facing trial.[45]

Federal police have also issued warrants for the arrests of Khaled Sharrouf, Mohamed Elomar and Mohammad Ali Baryalei.[46] Another measure has been passport confiscations, with ASIO canceling around 45 passports in the last financial year, compared to 18 in the previous year and less than 10 in most of the preceding years.[47]

The threat has now become a major political issue, with the prime minister and senior MPs continually addressing the concern in public statements. The attorney-general has described it as “the government’s number-one national security priority.”[48] The federal government has granted $630 million in extra funding, over four years, to organizations such as the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) to tackle the foreign fighter threat.[49] The government has also raised the national terrorism alert and is currently introducing extensive new national security legislation.

This includes an amendment designed to make it easier for ASIS to spy on suspected Australian fighters overseas on ASIO’s behalf by no longer requiring specific approval from the foreign minister. Also proposed are measures to make it easier for ASIO to confiscate passports and to allow prosecutions in Australia to use evidence gathered in foreign countries without the permission of the foreign government.[50]

Several of the proposed changes, however, are more contentious. These include reducing the burden of proof required to use coercive powers such as control orders and preventative detention, and placing greater restrictions on speech by broadening the definition of promoting terrorism. Another proposed measure is to alter the traditional burden of proof for suspected foreign fighters, potentially requiring any Australian returning from designated areas in Syria and Iraq to prove they were not involved in terrorism.[51] These proposals go against the recommendations of multiple recent inquiries into counterterrorism legislation, and have encountered a strong backlash from Muslim communities and sections of the wider public.[52]

Australia’s jihadist foreign fighters pose an ongoing and increasingly complex national security threat. Australians have continued to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, with many joining ISIL. Some of the fighters have been involved in war crimes, some have made explicit threats against Australia, some have played leadership roles, and some have returned to Australia. Evidence has also emerged of active recruitment networks, connections to earlier terrorist plots, and of violent plans within Australia.
At the same time, the threat has become a greater political priority, resulting in escalating countermeasures, extra resources to security agencies, and attempts at legislative changes. Several of the proposed legislative changes, however, are highly contentious and might complicate counterterrorism efforts. The continuing foreign fighter problem has prompted a high-level response, but elements of the response pose their own problems. On the whole, the situation has substantially worsened during the past year.

Andrew Zammit is a researcher at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre.

[1] Latika Bourke and Lisa Cox, “Terror Risk High: Tony Abbott Announces Increase in National Terrorism Public Alert System,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 12, 2014.

[2] Karl Hoerr and Lucy Carter, “Senior Australian Islamic State Member ‘Arranged for Random Beheadings in Sydney, Brisbane’; Omarjan Azari, Believed to be Involved in Alleged Plot, Faces Court,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 18, 2014.

[3] “AFP to Take Over Parliament House Security After ‘Chatter’ About Possible Terrorist Attack; Investigation into Thwarted ‘Beheading Plot’ Continues,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 21, 2014.

[4] Andrew Zammit, “Tracking Australian Foreign Fighters in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:11 (2013).

[5] Peter Hartcher, “The Real Terrorism Threat Lurks in the Indonesian Shadows,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 12, 2014. Of these 15 individuals, 14 “had fought on the Sunni side.”

[6] Information on the publicly reported deaths of Australians in the Syrian conflict prior to November 2013 can be found in: Zammit “Tracking Australian Foreign Fighters in Syria.”

[7] Clementine Cuneo, “Family and Friends Gather at Sydney Mosque to Remember Slain Muslim Woman Amira Karroum and Her husband Yusuf Ali,” Daily Telegraph, January 14, 2014.

[8] Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, “Amira Karroum and Tyler Casey: How a Young Australian Couple Came to Die in Syria,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 9, 2014.

[9] Ibid.; Bridie Jabour, “Family of Australian Woman Believed Killed in Syria Seek Return of Body,” Guardian, January 14, 2014.

[10] Cuneo; Suzanne Dredge and Matt Wordsworth, “Yusuf Ali, Australian Man Killed in Syria, Had Links to Al Qaeda, Court Documents Allege,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 17, 2014.

[11] Matt Brown, “Militant Says Australian Jihadist Caner Temel was Shot in Head by Rebel Sniper After Syria Siege,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 22, 2014.

[12] “Caner Temel Memorial: Service Held for Australian Man Killed while Fighting in Syria’s Civil War,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 18, 2014.

[13] Amanda Hoh, “Caner Temel Killed in Syria Revealed as Former Australian Soldier,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 19, 2014.

[14] Neil Keene, “Sydney Man and Roadside Preacher Ahmad Moussalli Killed in Syria,” Daily Telegraph, February 11, 2014.

[15] Rachel Olding, “How ‘Lion’ Ahmad Moussalli Died in Syrian War a Mystery,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 2014. Ahmed Moussali’s close friendship with Yusuf Ali suggests that if he was involved with any jihadist group in the conflict, it may also have been ISIL.

[16] Megan Levy, “Australian Man Zakaryah Raad ‘Died Fighting with ISIL Militants,’” Sydney Morning Herald, June 23, 2014.

[17] James Dowling and Alex White, “Suicide Bomber Adam Dahman was Led Astray,” Herald Sun, July 30, 2014.

[18] Simon Cullen, “Australian Suicide Bomber in Iraq was an 18-year-old Man from Melbourne,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, July 21, 2014.

[19] Dataset maintained by the author.

[20] Zammit, “Tracking Australian Foreign Fighters in Syria.”

[21] Mark Schliebs, “Jihadist Urges Kidnap of Western VIPs,” Australian, June 11, 2014.

[22] Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda Official in Syria was Extremist Preacher in Australia,”
The Long War Journal, March 21, 2014.

[23] Andrew Zammit, “Syria: A Fractured Opposition and Australian Consequences,” The Strategist, April 24, 2014.

[24] “Saqr Preps for Tripoli Militant Prosecution,” Daily Star, July 25, 2014.

[25] Shandon Harris-Hogan and Andrew Zammit, “The Unseen Terrorist Connection: Exploring Jihadist Links Between Lebanon and Australia,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26:3 (2014).

[26] “Saqr Preps for Tripoli Militant Prosecution.”

[27] David Irvine, “Diligence in the Shadows — ASIO’s Responsibility,” Address to the National Press Club, August 27, 2014.

[28] Rachel Olding, “Alleged Recruiter Faces Charges of Finding Men to Join Syria Terrorists,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 4, 2013.

[29] Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, “Mohammad Ali Baryalei: AFP Issues Arrest Warrant for Islamic State Jihadist Accused of Sending Australians to Syria, Iraq Conflict,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 9, 2014.

[30] “Two Men Accused of Terrorism-Related Offences Remanded in Custody,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 12, 2014.

[31] David Wroe, “Jihadist Threat to Diggers,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 5, 2014; Rachel Olding, “Jihadi Khaled Sharrouf Says he Would Have Launched Attack in Australia,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 1, 2014; Mark Schliebs and Paul Maley, “Aussie Jihadi in Iraqi Executions,” Australian, June 21, 2014; Rachel Olding, “AFP Issues Warrants for Australian ISIL Fighters Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2014.

[32] “Kerry Calls Severed Head Photo Among ‘Most Grotesque’ Ever,” Agence France-Presse, August 12, 2014.

[33] Bart Schuurman, Shandon Harris-Hogan, Pete Lentini and Andrew Zammit, “Operation Pendennis: A Case Study of an Australian Terrorist Plot,” Perspectives on Terrorism 8:4 (2014).

[34]Regina (C’Wealth) v. Sharrouf, New South Wales Supreme Court, 2009.

[35] Paul Kent, “Terrorist Khaled Sharrouf’s Anger in Car Parking Dispute,” Daily Telegraph, December 22, 2011; Nick Ralston, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, “Union Bribes Revealed,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 10, 2014; Janet Fife-Yeomans, “23 Australians Placed on a US Terror Watch List,” Perth Now, August 31, 2011; Yoni Bashan, “A Convicted Terrorist has Exposed Security Gaps at Sydney Airport After Boarding a Flight to Syria on his Brother’s Passport,” Sunday Telegraph, February 8, 2014.

[36] Debra Jopson, “Family Links Strong in Australian Cells,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 6, 2012.

[37] Greg Bearup and Paul Maley, “How a Regular Suburban Kid Put his Faith in a Killer Cult,” Australian, August 9, 2014.

[38] Dowling and White.

[39] Dylan Welch and Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, “The Australian Who’s a Key Figure in the Fighting in Iraq,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, June 30, 2014; Lisa Davies, “Sydney Sharia Whipping Case: Man Jailed for Dishing Out 40 Lashes,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 14, 2013.

[40] Mark Schliebs, “Aussie Trio Align with IS Fighters,” Australian, August 30, 2014.

[41] Rubinsztein-Dunlop, “Amira Karroum and Tyler Casey: How a Young Australian Couple Came to Die in Syria.”

[42] Alex White and Mark Dunn, “Freed Terrorists From Cell Led by Abdul Nacer Benbrika Could Still be a Threat,” Herald Sun, June 20, 2014.

[43] Cameron Stewart, “The Order to Kill that Triggered Operation Appleby,” Australian, September 19, 2014.

[44] “Melbourne Shooting: Officials Name Abdul Numan Haider as Man Shot Dead by Anti-Terrorist Officers,” ABC News, September 24, 2014; Martin McKenzie-Murray, “Inside the Terror of the Suburbs,” The Saturday Paper, September 27, 2014.

[45] Peter Lloyd, “Mohamed Elomar, Husband of Fatima Elomar who was Arrested at Sydney Airport, Believed to be Fighting in Syria,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, July 8, 2014.

[46] Olding, “AFP Issues Warrants for Australian ISIL Fighters Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar”; Rubinsztein-Dunlop, “Mohammad Ali Baryalei: AFP Issues Arrest Warrant for Islamic State Jihadist Accused of Sending Australians to Syria, Iraq Conflict.”

[47] Dowling and White; Andrew Zammit, “A Table on ASIO’s Passport Confiscation Powers,” The Murphy Raid blog, October 31, 2013.

[48] “Australians ‘Fighting in Syria and Iraq,’” Sky News, July 2, 2014.

[49] Latika Bourke and James Massola, “Tony Abbott Boosts Funding by $630m to Fight Home-grown Terrorism,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 6, 2014.

[50] Jessie Blackbourn and Nicola McGarrity, “How Reactive Law-making Will Limit the Accountability of ASIO,” Inside Story, July 24, 2014; Sangeetha Pillai, “Foreign Fighter Passports and Prosecutions in Government’s Sights,” The Conversation, August 7, 2014.

[51] Louise Yaxley, “Tony Abbott to Consider New Terrorism Measures for Australians Returning from Overseas War Zones,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, August 6, 2014.

[52] Gabrielle Chan, “Tony Abbott Calls Some Muslim Groups ‘Petty’ and ‘Foolish’ for Meetings Boycott,” Guardian, August 21, 2014.

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