The Holsworthy Barracks Plot: A Case Study of an Al-Shabab Support Network in Australia
Jun 21, 2012
In August 2009, Australian security agencies foiled an al-Shabab associated plot to attack Holsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney. Codenamed Operation Neath, the counterterrorism operation disrupted the mass-shooting plot in its early stages. Five men were charged, and three—Wissam Fattal, Saney Edow Aweys and Nayef el-Sayed—were convicted of planning to attack the barracks. The men had sought weapons, dispatched others for training, conducted reconnaissance of Holsworthy Barracks and asked senior al-Shabab religious figures in Somalia for permission to attack Australian targets.
The Holsworthy Barracks incident marks one of the few al-Shabab associated plots in the West, yet it has received little attention by analysts and scholars. The trial concluded in December 2011, with some court material becoming publicly available in April 2012. This article draws on the recently released material to provide a case study of how an internal threat emerged from what began as a diaspora-based support network for an external insurgency. In this case, the transformation did not occur through overseas instigation or online radicalization, but through the involvement of non-diaspora-based ideological sympathizers, socially linked to an earlier cell, determined on revenge, and restricted from traveling abroad. This article shows that while the Somali connection was new, the plot developed through processes characteristic of Australia’s jihadist scene, which has tended to be small, interlinked and closely-monitored.
Development of Australian Jihadism
Jihadist activity occurred in Australia prior to the Holsworthy Barracks plot. There was an unsuccessful al-Qa`ida and Jemaah Islamiyya (JI)-directed conspiracy to bomb Israeli and Jewish targets during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT)-guided plot that was foiled in 2003, and self-starting cells arrested in Melbourne and Sydney in 2005’s Operation Pendennis. Clusters of aspiring Australian jihadists had also traveled for training or combat overseas, chiefly to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1999-2003, Lebanon throughout the 2000s, Somalia from 2007 onwards, and there are also some indications of travel for jihad in Yemen.
The Somali cluster was the precursor to the Holsworthy Barracks plot. In 2007, the Australian Federal Police launched Operation Rochester to investigate reports of Somali-Australians traveling to fight for al-Shabab against the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government. That investigation ended because not enough evidence could be gathered to press charges. Operation Neath began in February 2009 as another investigation into al-Shabab support, with around 20 people—including Aweys, Fattal and el-Sayed—suspected of assisting the Somali jihadist movement. By 2009, this small support network had expanded beyond the Somali diaspora to include people of other backgrounds, mainly from Middle Eastern countries who lacked the nationalist element in their motivation. Of the three convicted in the Holsworthy Barracks plot, only Saney Aweys, the key link to al-Shabab, was from the Somali diaspora; Wissam Fattal and Nayef el-Sayed were of Lebanese descent.
Phone intercepts between Aweys and shaykhs in Somalia suggested that el-Sayed and Fattal conceived the plan and had strong social links to the cell arrested in Melbourne during the 2005 Operation Pendennis raids. Often those involved in jihadist plots worldwide have also featured on the periphery of earlier investigations, as was the case in the London and Madrid attacks, and this has tended to be the case in Australia’s small jihadist scene as well. For example, the earlier Australian plots—the 2000 al-Qa`ida/JI plot, the 2003 LeT-guided plot and the two 2005 Pendennis cells—each involved one or more people who had belonged to the first cluster of travelers who had attended either an al-Qa`ida training camp in Afghanistan or an LeT camp in Pakistan. In addition, the LeT and Pendennis cells contained people closely linked, often through friends or family, with people associated with previous plots. The Holsworthy Barracks case demonstrates a similar dynamic. While there is no Afghanistan or Pakistan connection, there is a direct link to an established jihadist organization in a conflict zone and evidence of friendship links to an earlier, failed cell.
It was also not the first time a terrorist plot in Australia emerged from a support network for an overseas movement. This had also occurred with the country’s first global jihadist plot, which involved Jack Roche, a member of the Australian branch of JI. In 2000, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, and was asked by senior al-Qa`ida leaders to conduct reconnaissance for attacks to take place during the Sydney Olympics. While for Roche the shift toward focusing on a local target was instigated by senior al-Qa`ida figures who were redirecting training camp attendees, for the Holsworthy Barracks plotters the shift occurred through a different process.
From Support Network to Terrorist Cell
The Holsworthy Barracks plot was not instigated or directed by al-Shabab. In addition, none of the three convicted terrorists received training at an overseas jihadist camp. They dispatched at least two other individuals to Somalia, but one of those could not handle the training, returned early, and was not proven to be part of the conspiracy. The other was last reported to be missing in Somalia.
The shift also did not occur through online radicalization. Evidence presented at the trial showed that their discussions with al-Shabab-affiliated clerics were not online but over the phone, or through people sent to Somalia. The planned attack was a low-tech operation, and downloaded extremist material did not feature in the trial. Possession of online extremist material alone, however, would not have sufficiently explained the plot, as recent research suggests the internet’s role has been overstated in discussions of jihadism. One large-scale research project by the UK think-tank Demos, which interviewed terrorists and compared them with non-violent control groups, found that members of the control groups had also often viewed online extremist material. The difference was that the violent extremists were more likely to have shared the material with each other and discussed it as a group, showing the importance of social dynamics. This can be combined with other research to show that if the group in question has access to training camps and conflict zones or knows people involved in other cells, they are far more likely to turn to violence than the many people who view online extremist material in isolation. For example, a recent UK Home Office report found that “the internet does not appear to play a significant role” in jihadist radicalization compared to “personal attachments to radicalizing agents.” Recent testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Jihadist Use of Social Media by Will McCants and Brian Jenkins supports this. None dispute that the internet plays a role, but other factors are often needed for people to turn from online activity to terrorist plots.
In this case, one such factor was the imprisonment of their friends in the cell, led by the self-proclaimed Shaykh Abdul Nacer Benbrika, who was arrested in Operation Pendennis in 2005. Nayef el-Sayed visited Benbrika in jail in June 2009 and the court heard the plotters were partly motivated by revenge for Benbrika’s imprisonment. In a phone conversation between Saney Aweys and Shaykh Hayakallah in Somalia on June 12, 2009, Aweys cited the imprisonment of Benbrika’s cell, along with other issues such as troop deployments to Afghanistan, as proof Australia was a legitimate target.
The plotters, however, did not initially intend to attack within Australia. Several first tried to join the jihad in Somalia, but had their passports confiscated by agencies monitoring the plot. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) has the power to confiscate passports to prevent suspected terrorists traveling overseas. This power has been used more than 50 times since 9/11 and prevented several members of the Neath and Pendennis cells from accessing overseas camps. It carries the risk, however, that extremists will then focus their attention at home and, being now aware of state attention, escalate their plans.
Attacking the country in which one resides is not the immediate logical step after failing to join an insurgency abroad, but al-Shabab was not solely nationally focused and was making repeated overtures to, and emphasizing ideological affinity with, al-Qa`ida. This resulted in an official merger between the two organizations in February 2012. The process was only partly underway while the Holsworthy Barracks plot was progressing, yet the Somali jihadist movement’s increasingly globally-focused discourse likely made an attack in Australia less of a leap. This is supported by apparent al-Shabab connections appearing in other plots, such as when a man linked to al-Shabab’s international network attacked Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard with an axe in January 2010. Support networks for insurgencies with a stricter national focus do not tend to spawn cells that threaten the host country.
The fact that the Holsworthy plotters took al-Shabab’s words seriously is evident in how they did not immediately set about attacking the barracks but reached out to al-Shabab-affiliated imams for permission. This was not unusual; jihadist doctrine tends to discourage individual initiative and emphasizes training, combat experience, gaining approval for attacks, and functioning as a group. There are exceptions, such as jihadist strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri—highly popular with the Pendennis cells—who theorized a decentralized jihad where Islamists could attack at their own initiative. Al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership, on the other hand, tends to seek greater control, but al-Suri’s ideas have slowly taken greater hold within the broader movement.
It is possible that if the Holsworthy Barracks plotters accessed more extremist material online, or if any had trained in an overseas jihadist camp, they may have made less effort to seek permission. For example, the jihadists arrested in Operation Pendennis did not seek external sanction for an attack, probably because of features the Holsworthy Barracks plot lacked. The Pendennis plotters had a self-taught religious leader providing a theological basis for violence in Australia, they possessed vast amounts of downloaded extremist material, and multiple members had trained in al-Qa`ida or LeT facilities. The Holsworthy Barracks plotters lacked all this, inducing them to seek endorsement from al-Shabab, the only apparent jihadist organization to which the group was linked.
There is no indication that they gained the permission for which they were seeking. The al-Shabab affiliated imams in Somalia were reluctant to endorse the attack and were concerned about a backlash affecting local al-Shabab support. The plotters themselves disagreed over whether they had received permission. Whether they would have kept seeking fatawa until they received one, would have acted on their own, or would have given up is unclear. As the judge noted when sentencing them, planning and preparing for the massacre was itself a crime; going through with it would have been a further crime.
The Holsworthy Barracks plot shows how a terrorist cell can emerge from what was originally a diaspora-based support network for an overseas insurgency. In this case, the transformation occurred through the involvement of non-diaspora based ideological sympathizers, socially linked to a failed earlier terrorist cell, determined to seek revenge, and restricted from traveling for jihad abroad.
The fact that the internet played little role in this process supports wider research that has recently challenged the emphasis on online radicalization. Roshonara Choudhry-type incidents (where an individual is self-radicalized online) do happen, but so far the internet has proven less important for radicalization in Australia than real world social networks that include people with experience in camps and conflict zones. Online extremist material might increase willingness to act, but these other factors are usually required.
Al-Shabab itself also played little direct role in the cell’s transformation: its globally focused discourse and alignment with al-Qa`ida may have helped enable it, but the Somali jihadist movement did not instigate the plot and key figures advised against it to avoid losing support. This supports other findings that al-Shabab is not known to have directed any attacks in the West. Despite its endorsement of al-Qa`ida’s global jihad, they have instead focused on local and regional politics, although this certainly has the potential to change with the recent al-Qa`ida merger.
Andrew Zammit is a researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Centre, Monash University.
 Daniel Fogarty and Steve Lillebuen, “Extremists Jailed for ‘Evil’ Terror Plot,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 16, 2011.
 Ian Munro, “Terror on Tap,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 24, 2010.
 Exceptions include Raffaello Pantucci, “Operation Neath: Is Somalia’s al-Shabaab Movement Active in Australia?” Terrorism Monitor 9:3 (2011); Leah Farrall, “What the al Shabab-al Qaeda Merger Means for Australia,” The Conversation, March 5, 2012.
 Andrew Zammit, “Who Becomes a Jihadist in Australia? A Comparative Analysis,” ARC Linkage Project on Radicalisation – Conference 2010, Monash University, 2011.
 Cameron Stewart, “Phone Call Sparked Operation Neath,” The Australian, August 4, 2009.
 For Saney Aweys’ role as facilitator for al-Shabab, see Stewart and R v. Fattal & Ors, VSC 681, 2011.
 R v. Fattal & Ors, VSC 681, 2011. Aweys did not explicitly name Fattal and el-Sayed in the released intercepts, but it can be presumed that he was speaking about them. For example, the sentencing document quoted an intercept from June 12, 2009, where Aweys stated to Shaykh Hayakallah: “these are men from the Middle East. They are youth…What can I say…There are about five to six men now. Men who are their friends are in prison who we too knew each other earlier, but who were very close to them and their kinship have been imprisoned. They are imprisoned in this country. So, there are issues about these men having an intention to conduct operations here. We then disagreed between ourselves. We said – what if this endangers of all Muslims in this country/city/town…There are men, you, there are men and I don’t know if you have heard it before. Who are numbering up to 10 had been imprisoned here. These people, you know these infidels, they accuse them of something. Anyhow, the men were convicted and they are sentenced between 10 to 15 years of imprisonment. They were very good youth who were humble/poor and they were falsely framed for something that does not exist. These men are the ones that remain behind and we were nonetheless associates of them. But, we known them informally in general sense, and they are good people whom we are brothers. So, one of them came up with this story – to do something, here…” Also see footnote 19.
 These links to a previous plot demonstrate what Leah Farrall has termed “edge of network connections.” See Leah Farrall, “‘Edge of Network Connections’ and Terrorism,” All Things Counter Terrorism, September 29, 2009.
 Shandon Harris-Hogan, “Australian Neo-Jihadist Terrorism: Mapping the Network and Cell Analysis Using Wiretap Evidence,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 35:4 (2012).
 Sally Neighbour, In the Shadow of the Swords: On the Trail of Terrorism to Afghanistan and Australia (Sydney: Harper Collins Publisher, 2004), pp. 181-196.
 R v. Fattal & Ors, VSC 681, 2011.
 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, “The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization,” Terrorism and Political Violence 24:1 (2011).
 Noemie Bouhana and Per-Olof H. Wikstrom, “Al Qa’ida-Influenced Radicalisation: A Rapid Evidence Assessment Guided by Situational Action Theory,” UK Home Office Occasional Paper 97, November 2011.
 “Jihadist Use of Social Media – How to Prevent Terrorism and Preserve Innovation,” Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, U.S. House of Representatives, December 6, 2011.
 Debra Jopson, “Australia Raising its own Jihadists,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 4, 2012; Cameron Stewart, “Three Jailed for Army Base Terror Plot,” Australian, December 16, 2011.
 See footnote 7.
 R v. Fattal & Ors, VSC 681, 2011. In the intercepted conversation, Saney Aweys said to Somali Shaykh Abdirahman on July 10, 2009: “the guys are men who came from the Middle East and areas of that proximity…Hence, they want to know if they are about six guys who were among our colleagues. They want to know if it could be carried out here operations or if, for example, something can be robbed/taken from this government. Because they are saying that they are engaged with us in a war. Is it permissible for us to, like, to rob the system, do you understand…Because, most of them cannot leave as their passports were confiscated, and are followed by entities of the State/Government…Therefore, they are saying if we are stranded/stuck here, what is then permissible for us to do for Allah’s sake. That’s what they would like to know.”
 Gemma Jones, “Passports Revoked in Terror Tourism Crackdown,” Daily Telegraph, October 17, 2011.
 Farrall, “What the al Shabab-al Qaeda Merger Means for Australia.”
 Leah Farrall, “Will Al-Qa`ida and Al-Shabab Formally Merge?” CTC Sentinel 4:73 (2011).
 Raffaello Pantucci, “Al-Shabaab Proscribed in Canada and the United Kingdom,” Terrorism Monitor 8:11 (2010).
 Brynjar Lia, “Doctrines for Jihadi Terrorist Training,” Terrorism and Political Violence 20:4 (2008); Petter Nesser, “Individual Jihadist Operations in Europe: Patterns and Challenges,” CTC Sentinel 5:1 (2012).
 For al-Suri’s influence on the Pendennis cells see Benbrika & Ors v. The Queen, VSCA 281, 2010; R v. Benbrika & Ors, VSC 76, 2011.
 Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Kyle Dabruzzi, “Is Al-Qaeda’s Central Leadership Still Relevant?” Middle East Quarterly 15:2 (2008).
 Farrall, “What the al Shabab-al Qaeda Merger Means for Australia.”
 Stuart Rintoul, “Accused Split Over All-Clear for Attack,” Australian, September 16, 2010.
 R v. Fattal & Ors, VSC 681, 2011.
 Vikram Dodd, “Profile: Roshanara Choudhry,” Guardian, November 2, 2010.
 Clint Watts, “Al Qaeda & al Shabaab Merger: Why Now?” Selected Wisdom, February 18, 2012.