The Terror Down Under
The Islamic State is threatening to attack the U.S. and Britain. But thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, Australia is the first to find itself on the front lines of the newest terror war.
Islamic State fighters, Western officials have repeatedly stressed, pose a different kind of threat than their terrorist precursors. With a large contingent of foreign fighters holding Western passports, they can easily cross international borders, possibly carrying out attacks far removed from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The threat these fighters pose to the West has typically focused on the group's alleged ambition to strike targets in Europe and the United States.
Islamic State fighters, Western officials have repeatedly stressed, pose a different kind of threat than their terrorist precursors. With a large contingent of foreign fighters holding Western passports, they can easily cross international borders, possibly carrying out attacks far removed from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The threat these fighters pose to the West has typically focused on the group’s alleged ambition to strike targets in Europe and the United States.
But this week, Australia has emerged as the group’s potential first target. In the largest anti-terror raid in Australia’s history, 800 police descended on Sydney and Brisbane early Thursday morning, detaining 15 people and charging two of them in connection with a terror plot. The country’s security officials claim they thwarted an attack that would have involved random killings of civilians — and possibly a public beheading — and an attack on Parliament House, which houses the offices of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. According to Australian media reports, the suspects planned to abduct members of the public and execute them on camera, then upload the footage to social media.
Australia hasn’t had a terror strike on its soil, but the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, weigh heavily on the country, and the recent fighting in Iraq and Syria has rekindled fears that the country may experience another terror attack. Though exact figures are hard to come by, security officials believe that more than 100 Australians have traveled to Iraq and Syria and linked up with radical groups there.
The country has also been rattled by the case of Khaled Sharrouf, an Australian citizen who has become a media phenomenon after fleeing the country and joining up with Islamic State militants in Syria. In 2009, Sharrouf pleaded guilty to a failed 2005 Islamist plot to detonate bombs in Melbourne and Sydney, but was released later on the basis of his mental health and deemed to no longer be a public threat. Sharrouf’s Twitter persona quickly gained attention when, after issuing a call-to-arms urging his fellow Australian Muslims to join the Islamic State, he posted multiple graphic photos on his Twitter feed, which has since been deactivated, including one of his young son holding a severed head.
That photograph made it onto the front page of the Australian:
— David Marler (@Qldaah) August 10, 2014
Amid growing warnings that jihadists like Sharrouf may return home to carry out attacks, Australia last week raised its terror alert level to "high" — its second-highest level — for the first time since the system was introduced in 2003. On Thursday, those fears became more palpable, a fact reflected in the media coverage of the raids. "Islamic State horror hits home" the Australian headlined its article. The tabloid the Daily Telegraph offered a more mystifying, yet still terrified take: "The real threat that dare not speak its name."
Though Australia has long been home to a moderate Muslim community, analysts fear that domestic attacks could help radicalize a larger portion of the community, which staged widespread protests after the raids.
"Attacks like the one that was thwarted in Australia are meant to polarize the population and increase reactions against Muslims," Magnus Ranstorp, the director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College, told Foreign Policy. "This works as a recruiting tool for the Islamic State later down the road."
Maybe, but it could also easily spark a significant backlash. The group’s beheadings of American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, as well as its subsequent murder of British aid worker David Haines, have turned public opinion in both the United States and Britain sharply against the group and sparked new support for airstrikes against Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria. Australia, a close U.S. ally, has said it is willing to be part of the burgeoning U.S.-led coalition being cobbled together to cripple the militants and gradually push them out of their havens in Iraq and Syria. Canberra hasn’t committed to using military force against the group, but it also hasn’t ruled it out. Thursday’s raids — and the country’s growing IS fears — could persuade Australia that it’s time to fully join the fight.
Siobhán O'Grady was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2016 and was previously an editorial fellow.
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan
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