My first AVERT post examined which Australian terrorist plots had been genuinely connected to Islamic State, and what forms these connections took. For this post, I look at the wider impact Islamic State had on Australia’s terrorist threat.
This post will show how the threat has changed since the Islamic State’s rise in 2014 while the next post, Part 2, will discuss why these changes came about.
This table presents nine distinct changes to jihadist plots inside Australia before and after 2014, which I will elaborate on below. Jihadism refers to the violent global movement associated with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and like-minded groups. It’s an imperfect term, as it disregards the many wider uses of the term “jihad” within Islam, but it’s a widely-recognised term and one used by these extremists themselves. Keep in mind that this does not represent the entirety of Australia’s terrorist threat. For example, there is also the threat of far-right violent extremism, which I will discuss more in a later AVERT post.
2014 was a clear turning point. This was the year that Islamic State seized the Iraqi city of Mosul, claimed to have recreated the Caliphate, and called on its supporters to carry out attacks in their home countries. The table demonstrates that there have been dramatic changes in the jihadist threat facing Australia since then.
The most consequential change is that multiple attacks after 2014 managed to injure and kill people. From 2014- 2018 Australia had experienced seven violent attacks with apparent jihadist inspiration. These were the September 2014 Endeavour Hills stabbing, the December 2014 Lindt Café siege, the October 2015 murder of NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng, the September 2016 Minto stabbing, the May 2017 Brighton siege, the February 2018 Mill Park stabbing and the November 2018 Bourke Street attack. However, several of these attacks had a complex mix of motivations and there is plenty of reasonable debate to be had over how strong the jihadist element was. For example, there has been public debate over how to classify the Lindt Café siege. Similarly, I have only tentatively included the Minto stabbing, as the perpetrator admitted the attack and reportedly told the police he was an Islamic State sympathiser but pleaded not guilty on mental health grounds.
These seven attacks killed five people, and injured several more. Two hostages, Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, were killed in the Lindt Café Siege, NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng was killed in the Parramatta police station shooting, Hotel clerk Kai Hao was killed in the Brighton siege, and Melbourne restaurant icon Sisto Malaspina was killed in the Bourke Street attack. Five of the perpetrators also died in these attacks. In contrast, all of Australia’s jihadist plots before 2014 were foiled.
Another key change has been the sheer increase in the number of attempted attacks. During the Islamic State era, Australia not only experienced the seven violent attacks but also a range of unsuccessful plots. There have been eleven jihadist plots proven in court since 2014 and there are around four alleged jihadist plots yet to go through court. Therefore Australia has experienced up to twenty-two jihadist plots in the last five years.
In contrast, there were only four such plots from 2000-2013. These include the Jack Roche plot, instigated by al-Qaeda, to bomb Israeli and Jewish targets during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Faheem Lodhi and Willie Brigitte’s plot to bomb targets in Sydney, two cells in Melbourne and Sydney disrupted by Operation Pendennis in 2005, and a plot by Melbourne-based supporters of the Somali jihadist movement al-Shabaab to attack Holsworthy army barracks in Sydney foiled by Operation Neath in 2009. This is a substantial change, from four plots over thirteen years to over four plots a year.
Simpler and smaller plots
The recent attacks proved more difficult to foil than the earlier plots, not only because they have been more frequent but because of their simpler methods. The Islamic State era plots have been less elaborate than the earlier plots and planned over shorter periods of times. They required much less planning and therefore had a lower chance of detection.
These simpler methods were reflected in the choice of weapons. The first three plots in Australia (the 2000 Roche plot, the 2003 Lodhi/Brigitte plot and the 2005 Pendennis plot) all involved plans to set off bombs, while the 2009 Operation Neath plotters sought to use automatic firearms. In contrast, the clear majority of the 2014-2018 plots did not involve explosives. Nine of these plots involved the use of knives, and several others involved handguns and shotguns.
Only four of the twenty-two recent plots have involved explosives. These were the May 2015 Melbourne plot, the December 2016 Federation Square plot, the alleged July 2017 Sydney plane plot, and the November 2018 Bourke Street attack. Some of these attempts were sophisticated, such as the alleged plane plot, but some were simple. The Bourke Street attacker’s attempt to cause an explosion by igniting gas canisters contrasts sharply with the 2005 Pendennis plotters’ elaborate attempts to use chemicals and laboratory equipment to manufacture their own explosives.
Similarly, the Islamic State era plots have involved much smaller groups. Only in four recent cases (the December 2014 Sydney plot, the December 2016 Melbourne plot, the alleged November 2018 Melbourne plot, and the plot to murder NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng) were more than two people charged with terrorism offences for a single plot. This contrasts with the twenty-two people charged (with eighteen convicted) under Operation Pendennis in 2005 and the five people charged (with three convicted) under Operation Neath in 2009. Instead, almost all the Islamic State era plots have involved either lone individuals or pairs.
Another change has been the choice of targets. The pre-2014 plots had a wide range of targets, including Israeli diplomatic facilities, Holsworthy Army Barracks, and possibly electricity stations in Sydney and the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor. No single target stood out. In the Islamic State era, around eight of the plots have had one target in common: police officers.
Sometimes police were the only target, other times the police were one target among others. For example, in the 2015 Melbourne Anzac Day plot Sevdet Besim planned to drive his car over a police officer, steal their gun, and then shoot other people nearby, while in the October 2016 Sydney plot the individual was believed to have included a police station and a court house among their intended targets. This focus on police should not be overstated, as the range of targets among the 2014-2018 plots remains diverse, but police have clearly become a much more prominent target than they were before the rise of Islamic State.
Women and children as direct actors
Another change is that women have become directly involved in Australia’s jihadist plots. Female Bangladeshi student Momena Shoma pleaded guilty to an act of terrorism for her Islamic State -inspired stabbing of her Melbourne host, while Sydney woman Alo-Bridget Manoa has been found guilty of plotting a terrorist attack with her husband. In contrast, no women were charged over any of Australia’s pre-2014 jihadist plots.
Several children have also been involved in recent terror plots, the most well-known being fifteen-year old Farhad Jabar who murdered Curtis Cheng. Similarly the December 2014 Sydney plot, the May 2015 Melbourne plot, the April 2016 Sydney plot, and the October 2016 Sydney plot, all resulted in the convictions of people under eighteen years old. No children were charged over involvement in Australia’s earlier jihadist plots.
Lack of overseas training
Finally, most of Australia's pre-2014 plots involved some people who had returned from training with jihadist groups abroad. Jack Roche had trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Faheem Lodhi and Willie Brigitte had trained with Lashkar e-Toiba in Pakistan, Shane Kent from the Melbourne Pendennis cell had trained with al-Qaida and Moustafa Cheikho from the Sydney Pendennis cell (and reportedly others) had trained with Lashkar e-Toiba. Yacqub Khayre, who was charged over the 2009 Holsworthy Barracks plot but was acquitted, had briefly attended an al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia.
In contrast, none of the plots from 2014 onwards involved anybody who had returned to Australia after training with Islamic State. Only one recent plot involved someone who had attended any jihadist training camp abroad, and this was the same Yacqub Khayre mentioned above. In June 2017, around eight years after his brief involvement with al-Shabaab (he is believed to have fled the training program), he carried out the Brighton siege. Otherwise, none of the recent plotters in Australia had received any formal training overseas.
There had been widespread concerns that Australia would face attacks from terrorists trained by Islamic State, just as other countries have, but instead Islamic State ended up changing Australia's jihadist threat in quite different ways.
The Islamic State’s impact
In short, the Islamic State's rise and the unprecedented global reach of their influence have seen a dramatic escalation of jihadist plots in Australia. Compared to the 2000-2013 era, Australian jihadist plots have become much more frequent, been carried out by smaller cells using simpler methods, tended to use knives and firearms and often targeted police, involved more women and children among the perpetrators, and almost never involved individuals who had trained with jihadist groups abroad. The most unfortunate development is that the Islamic State era plots have been more likely to harm people, so far resulting in five deaths (not including the perpetrators) and many injuries.
Why the Islamic State's rise had such a transformative effect on Australian jihadism will be discussed in the next post.