A nightclub bouncer. A young son. A teenager. All Australians who went on to commit atrocities in Syria. Between 100 and 250 Australians have joined Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, according to the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. In light of Australia’s distance from the Middle East and its population of just 24 million, it is a widely disproportionate number, especially compared to the estimated 100 fighters from the US, which has more than 13 times as many people as Australia.
With its multicultural success and an economy in its 24th year of continued growth, expert opinion is divided over why Daesh has been so successful in recruiting in Australia. Hypotheses include the possibility of poor integration of Australian Muslims, a backlash against Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments about their community, and the failure of the Australian government to follow up on citizens who had been radicalized, AP reports.
Australia and some other countries underestimated Daesh's "pull factor", Greg Barton, a global terrorism expert at Monash University in Melbourne told AP.
"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.
In Australia, Muslims account for 2.2 percent of the population, compared to only 1 percent in the United States. In the US, Muslims are from families who migrated in pursuit of the American economic dream, whilst a larger proportion of Australian Muslims are from families who fled Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s and '80s, according to AP.
Australian Muslims of Lebanese origin are primarily based in Sydney, the country's biggest city. Arguably, they have been less successful in integrating into Australian society than many other groups, and it is the first Australian-born generation of these migrant families that has been overrepresented in terrorism and general street crime offences.
Mohammad Ali Baryalei, an ethnic Lebanese who reportedly became a high-ranking member of Daesh’s operational command, was once a nightclub bouncer in Sydney and small-time television actor. Australian security agencies suspect he recruited dozens of Australians single-handedly and helped them enter Syria. Baryalei was once a Sydney street preacher with the Muslim group Street Dawah, and was reportedly killed in battle in Syria last fall at age 33. The Australian government has still not confirmed his death.
Baryalei’s name also appears in court documents of inciting Daesh sympathizers in Sydney to accusations of murder. A telephone conversation between him and Omarjan Azari, who is awaiting trial on terrorism charges, was recorded by security services.
"What you guys need to do is pick any random unbeliever," Baryalei is alleged to have told Azari, according to court testimony. "Backpacker, tourist, American, French or British, even better."
Khaled Sharrouf, another ethnic Lebanese born in Sydney, shocked millions last year with his Twitter posting of his 7-year-old son brandishing the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier. US Secretary of State John Kerry described the image as "one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed", AP reports.
Sharrouf's presence on the Syrian battlefield brought to light a flaw in Australia's defenses against Daesh: lax border security. Sharrouf was once imprisoned in Australia for his role in planning a thwarted terrorist attack and had been banned from leaving the country., but used his brother's passport to escape in 2013.
The Australian government acknowledged their airport security system was problematic, focusing more on who was entering, rather than on those departing. In August, it was announced that biometric screening would be introduced in all Australian international airports in a new spending scheme on intelligence, law enforcement and border protection, worth 630 million Australian dollars ($500 million).
According to AP, counterterrorism police units are in place at major airports to screen passengers. Once such unit at Sydney Airport was key in recently preventing two Sydney-born teenage brothers, aged 16 and 17, who were suspected of flying to Syria via Turkey without their parents' knowledge. Nevertheless, the system is not fool-proof.
Jake Bilardi, an 18-year-old who converted to Islam a few years ago, was under Australia's counterterror radar when he left his Melbourne home for Syria in August. When Bilardi's family declared him missing, bomb-making chemicals were found in a police search of his home. Later that year, images of surfaced on social media sites of Bilardi armed with a rifle in front of Daesh flags.
An image of a man resembling Bilardi behind the wheel of a van was also posted this month with claims from Daesh that foreign militants participated in a near-simultaneous attack in Iraq with at least 13 suicide car bombs and resulted in two police officers dead. The Australian government has not yet confirmed Bilardi's death.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has executed her enhanced powers to prevent Australians from joining Daesh and, in some cases, from returning to Australia. She has canceled about 100 passports, including Bilardi's, although he had left prior to his passport being revoked. However, keeping would-be militants from departing Australia may exacerbate the risk that they will commit terrorist acts within the country.
A week after his passport had been canceled Numan Haider, an 18-year-old Muslim Australian of Afghan origin, knifed two Melbourne police officers and was shot dead in September. Authorities became aware of him months earlier, over what police considered to be erratic behavior, including allegedly brandishing a Daesh flag at a shopping mall.
Australian authorities have clearly been taken by surprise by the growing domestic threat posed by Daesh supporters. Officials had reduced security at Parliament House in an effort to cut costs less than a year ago, yet since then, security at the seat of national government has been raised to unprecedented levels. The government increased Australia's terrorist threat level to the second-highest level on a four-tier scale in September.
Police have raided scores of homes in an attempt to foil terrorist plots, charging several suspects and detaining others without charge under new counterterrorism laws. Australia's main domestic spy agency now has more than 400 high-priority counterterrorism investigations — more than double the number compared to a year ago.
But these special measures did nothing to deter Man Monis, a 50-year-old Iranian-born, self-styled cleric with a long criminal history. Monis took 18 people hostage at a Sydney café last December, forcing them to hang a flag bearing the Islamic declaration of faith in the cafe window, then demanded that he be delivered a flag of the Islamic State group. At the end of the 16-hour siege, Monis and two hostages were killed.
Despite repeated from members of the public concerned by his online rants, a government review found that Monis had fallen under the radar and off a terrorist watch list. As a Shia Muslim, he was believed to be an unlikely recruit to Daesh, a Sunni Muslim movement.
Hass Dellal, the executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, which promotes awareness of cultural diversity within Australia, said that the trauma of the Sept 11 attacks might make Americans more resistant to Islamic State recruiting.
Dellal also suggests that public discussion of radicalization and extremism is more balanced in the United States than in Australia, which had effectively banned the immigration of Middle Eastern Muslims until the 1970s.
Some Muslims have been critical of anti-immigrant sentiments by Prime Minister Abbott, accusing him of driving a wedge between Muslims and the rest of Australia.
"I've often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a religion of peace. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it," Abbott proclaimed in a speech in February, angering many Muslims with its suggestion of duplicity.
Barton, the Monash University expert, suggested that Australia’s experience may eventually parallel that of the US, if Daesh extends its influence in America.
"It may be a lag effect," Barton said. "It may be in six months' time, the figures are much more comparable."
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