A nightclub bouncer who reportedly became a terror group leader,A man who tweeted a photo of his young son clutching a severed head and a teenager who is believed to have turned suicide bomber, and others suspected of attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State movement. All of them, Australian.
The London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence reports that between 100 and 250 Australians have joined Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria. Given Australia’s vast distance from the region and its population of just 24 million, it is a remarkable number. The center estimates that about 100 fighters came from the United States, which has more than 13 times as many people as Australia.
Experts disagree about why the Islamic State group has been so effective recruiting in Australia, which is widely regarded as a multicultural success story, with an economy in an enviable 24th year of continuous growth.
Possible explanations include that some Australian Muslims are poorly integrated with the rest of the country, and that Islamic State recruiters have given Australia particular attention. In addition, the Australian government failed to keep tabs on some citizens who had been radicalized, and moderate Muslims have been put off by some of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments about their community.
Greg Barton, a global terrorism expert at Monash University in Melbourne, said Australia and some other countries underestimated Islamic State’s “pull factor.”
“We’re all coming to terms with the fact that this is a formidable targeter and predatory recruiter that goes after individuals one by one with a very masterful use of technology, and our sense of confidence that because we’ve got society working well makes us secure misses the point,” Barton said.
Australian Muslims of Lebanese origin are largely based in Sydney, the country’s biggest city. They have been less successful in integrating into Australian society than many other groups, and the first Australian-born generation of these migrant families has been overrepresented in terrorism offenses and general street crime.
Mohammad Ali Baryalei, an ethnic Lebanese who reportedly became a high-ranking member of the Islamic State group’s operational command, was formerly a Sydney nightclub bouncer and bit-part television actor. Australian security agencies suspect he single-handedly recruited dozens of Australians and helped them enter Syria.
Once a Sydney street preacher with the Muslim group Street Dawah, Baryalei was reportedly killed in battle in Syria last fall at age 33. The Australian government has yet to confirm his death.
Baryalei is accused in court documents of inciting from afar Islamic State sympathizers in Sydney to brutally slay a randomly selected victim. Security services recorded a telephone conversation between him and Omarjan Azari, who is awaiting trial on charges that include preparing to commit a terrorist act.
“What you guys need to do is pick any random unbeliever,” Baryalei allegedly told Azari, according to court testimony. “Backpacker, tourist, American, French or British, even better.”
Sydney-born Khaled Sharrouf, also ethnic Lebanese, horrified millions last year by posting on his Twitter account a photo of his 7-year-old son clutching the severed head of a Syrian soldier. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the image as “one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed.” Sharrouf had served a prison sentence in Australia for planning a foiled terrorist attack and had been banned from leaving the country, but used his brother’s passport to leave in 2013. Sharrouf’s appearance on the Syrian battlefield highlighted a flaw in Australia’s defenses against the Islamic State group: lax border security.
Counterterrorism police units have been attached to major airports to screen passengers. The unit at Sydney Airport was instrumental in recently intercepting two Sydney-born brothers, aged 16 and 17, who were about to fly to Turkey without their parents’ knowledge. Authorities suspect the brothers were headed to Syria.
Australia’s net still has holes.
Jake Bilardi, an 18-year-old who converted to Islam a few years ago, had avoided Australia’s counterterror radar when he left his Melbourne home for Syria in August. After Bilardi’s family reported him missing, police found chemicals that could be used to make a bomb at his home. Images of Bilardi armed with a rifle in front of Islamic flags appeared on social media sites later that year.
A picture of a young man resembling Bilardi behind the wheel of a van was posted this month with claims from the Islamic State group that foreign fighters from Australia and other countries took part in a near-simultaneous attack in Iraq that involved at least 13 suicide car bombs and killed two police officers. The Australian government has yet to confirm Bilardi’s death.