Tracking Australian Foreign Fighters in Syria

Nov 26, 2013

The Syrian civil war has resulted in one of the largest mobilizations of foreign fighters since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.[1] At that time, Western countries were largely unaware of the threat that foreign fighters could pose to their own security. Today, governments in Europe and North America have expressed fears that foreign fighters in Syria will return to their home countries as committed jihadists with deadly skills and violent intent. This concern extends to Australia, where the Australian Federal Police have described the activities in Syria as “a real game changer” that will dramatically increase the threat of violent jihadism at home.[2]

This article examines the role of Australians in the Syrian insurgency, including the impact on Australia’s domestic threat environment. It gathers what is currently known about the Australians involved in Syria, places this in the context of past Australian jihadist activity, and shows how the Syrian conflict has the potential to increase the domestic terrorism threat to Australia.

The Australians in Syria
There have been six reported cases of Australians dying while fighting in the Syrian insurgency, but current information is limited and fragmentary. In most cases, it is difficult to confirm whether the six individuals were in fact involved in combat, and in some cases whether they were actually Australian.[3] The three most plausible cases are those of Roger Abbas, Yusuf Toprakkaya and a suicide bomber known only as “Abu Asma al-Australi.”

Roger Abbas was an Australian citizen killed in Syria in October 2012.[4] He was 23-years-old, from Melbourne, of Lebanese background, and had been a champion kickboxer.[5] He was initially reported to have entered Syria through Turkey to carry out aid work.[6] A martyrdom notice, however, referring to him as “Abbas Rajah al-Tartousi,” was placed on official jihadist forums such as Ansar al-Mujahidin and Shumukh al-Islam and claimed he fought with the al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.[7] A documentary exploring the circumstances of his death found evidence supporting the claim that he was carrying out aid work, and arrived without prior connections to Syrian armed groups, but also found evidence that he had become involved with Jabhat al-Nusra.[8]

In December 2012, another man from Melbourne, Yusuf Toprakkaya, was killed in Syria.[9] He was 30-years-old, married, of Turkish background and had been monitored by Australian authorities since at least 2010.[10] A YouTube clip posted by the al-Farouk Brigades referred to him as “Abu al-Walid al-Australi” and showed him handling weapons and priming detonators.[11] Toprakkaya arrived in Turkey in mid-2012, and like Abbas appears to have had no prior connections to Syrian rebel groups before his arrival.[12]  Once in the region, he wandered along the border with Syria until he found a group willing to smuggle him into the warzone. He then hitched a ride to a village near the city of Maarat al-Numan, met members of a local brigade and declared his willingness to fight.[13] He had no previous military experience but over the following months developed skills as a marksman and bomb-maker, before being killed in battle by a sniper.[14]

The most controversial incident involving an Australian in Syria occurred in mid-September 2013, when Jabhat al-Nusra stated that a man known as “Abu Asma al-Australi” executed a suicide bombing in the town of al-Mreiya, near Deir al-Zour.[15] The martyrdom notice claimed the man drove a truck loaded with 12 tons of explosives into a school with soldiers stationed in it,[16] and that the attack killed 35 Syrian soldiers and helped Jabhat al-Nusra seize the city’s military airport.[17] Australian Attorney General George Brandis confirmed that security agencies believe the bomber was Australian.[18] He is reported to be a 27-year-old man from Brisbane, of Lebanese background, who was married, and was already the subject of a terrorism investigation.[19]

There have been three other reported cases of Australians dying while actively supporting Syrian rebels, but less information is available for these incidents. In August 2012, for example, a well-known Sydney shaykh, Mustapha al-Majzoub, was killed in Syria.[20] Al-Majzoub was of Syrian heritage but born in Saudi Arabia, and his brother, Shaykh Fedaa al-Majzoub, was the only Australian member of the opposition Syrian National Council.[21] It was initially reported that he was killed in a rocket attack while delivering humanitarian aid.[22] Syrian rebel sources online, however, claimed that he died while commanding a military unit.[23] Reports also suggested that Australian authorities had monitored him prior to leaving Australia.[24] In November 2012, a man named Marwan al-Kassab died in an explosion in northern Lebanon while making bombs for Syrian rebels.[25] There were claims that the man was Australian, and a man by that name had previously been monitored by Australian authorities, but whether it was the same person remains unconfirmed.[26] In April 2013, a 22-year-old Melbourne man named Sammy Salma, who had traveled to Syria with Roger Abbas, was killed.[27] He was described as a martyr on jihadist websites but there is little to confirm that he had a combat role.[28]

In all, six Australian men are reported to have died in the Syrian conflict thus far, some while fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra. They have tended to be 30-years-old or younger, of Turkish, Syrian and Lebanese heritage, and several were known to authorities before leaving. They generally entered Syria through Turkey.

There are reportedly many other Australians fighting in Syria, with estimates ranging from 70 to over 200. The 200 figure first appeared in a newspaper article in April 2013, which cited an Australian government official, and has been used widely by the media since, but it was later disavowed by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and former Foreign Minister Bob Carr.[29] A more credible estimate, reported in September 2013 and attributed to an anonymous senior official, is that 80 Australians are fighting or “involved in on-the-ground organisational roles” and that up to 20 are fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra.[30] The fighters are reported to be primarily Lebanese-Australian dual citizens, with 70% of them previously known to authorities, and as having entered mainly through Turkey but some through Lebanon—all of which is consistent with the above information on those killed.[31]

The Syrian Jihad in the Context of Past Australian Jihadist Activity
The Syrian conflict is not the first foreign fighter mobilization to involve Australians. From 1998-2003, roughly 20 Australians traveled to train in al-Qa`ida camps in Afghanistan and Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT) camps in Pakistan.[32] From 2002-2012, at least 16 Australians have been arrested in Lebanon, or charged in absentia, for alleged jihadist activities, mainly for involvement with Asbat al-Ansar and Fatah al-Islam.[33] Following the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, several Australians traveled to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab, with estimates ranging from 10 to 40.[34] There are also indications of Australians being involved in jihadist activity in Yemen, mainly during 2010.[35]

With the Syrian conflict, however, the scale is far greater. Even the lower estimates of Australians fighting exceed the highest estimates of Australian jihadists previously involved in conflicts overseas. This is unusual because Australia does not tend to have many people involved in jihadist activity (less than two dozen people in Australia have been convicted over involvement in jihadist terrorism plots).[36]

Several factors contribute to the unusually high level of Australian involvement with Syrian jihadist groups. First, jihadist activity in Australia has strong historical links with Lebanon, demonstrated by the familial connections of many previously convicted men as well as the numerous cases of Australians involved in such activity in Lebanon.[37]  The Lebanon connection means that the conflict in Syria, a state that shares a border with Lebanon, has had greater relevance for potential Australian jihadists than insurgencies in Kashmir, Somalia, or Yemen.

Second, the Syrian theater is much easier to access because Turkey has been functioning as a “launching pad.”[38] In Australia’s previous foreign fighter mobilizations, well-connected individuals were usually needed to facilitate access to camps and conflict zones.[39] In the case of Syria, however, many of the Australian fighters appear to be entering via the Turkish border with few pre-existing connections to Syrian armed groups.

Third, the Syrian conflict has broad appeal. The continuing massacres and the clear failure of the international community to prevent them has generated widespread outrage and allowed jihadist groups, including the al-Qa`ida affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), to present themselves as the best capable forces to defend Sunni Muslims and to attract people who may initially have had no intention of joining these groups. This can draw new people into jihadist activity, broadening the Australian jihadist scene beyond the previous cluster of small, interconnected and closely monitored networks.

The Threat at Home
The involvement of Australians in the Syrian insurgency has increased the potential for violent extremism on Australian soil in two ways. First, the conflict has already prompted sectarian violence in Australia, with Shi`a and Alawites being targeted by supporters of the rebellion and Sunnis being targeted by its opponents.[40] There have been 17 publicly reported incidents of Syria-related violence in Australia since early 2012.[41] The violence has mostly been by Sunni supporters of the insurgency targeting Shi`a and Alawite businesses, homes, and places of worship. The attacks have mainly occurred in Sydney and Melbourne and involved members of the Syrian, Lebanese and Turkish communities.[42] The incidents include assaults, property damage, arson and shootings. This violence decreased in 2013, but communal tensions and fears remain.[43]

The second danger is that some veterans of the war in Syria may attempt domestic terrorist attacks. While the overwhelming majority of jihadist foreign fighters globally do not end up attacking their home countries, a small number do, and they prove more capable than those without military experience.[44] Australia’s past jihadist terrorism plots were all closely tied to the earlier foreign fighter mobilizations. An al-Qa`ida plot in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics, an LeT plot in Sydney in 2003, and two self-starting cells disrupted in Melbourne and Sydney in 2005 all included individuals who had trained in al-Qa`ida and LeT camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[45] A plot to carry out a mass shooting against Sydney’s Holsworthy Army Barracks in 2009 involved Melbourne men who had functioned as a support network for al-Shabab, and who had dispatched others to train and fight in Somalia.[46] Given the greater scale of the Syria mobilization, it has the potential to have an even greater impact on the domestic security threat.

Several options have been posited to address this risk. The Federal Police’s Deputy Commissioner for National Security Peter Drennan has said that control orders, which place various restrictions on liberty and have only been used twice in Australia before, may be necessary against some suspected returning fighters.[47] Both the Federal Police and the Attorney General’s Department have released official statements warning that it is illegal to join the fighting, and in June 2013 the government proscribed Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization.[48] ASIO continues to confiscate passports from Australians suspected of traveling for terrorist purposes, and it confiscated 18 passports from mid-2012 to mid-2013, the largest number in any year.[49] Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr had explored ways of banning suspected fighters from returning, and the current immigration minister, Scott Morrison, has expressed support for the idea.[50] There is no apparent legal basis for such a ban, however, and Australia has the intelligence capabilities and legal tools to take a more targeted approach.

Conclusion
The Syrian conflict is having an impact well beyond its borders, by drawing in neighboring countries like Turkey and Lebanon, becoming a magnet for jihadists around the world, and exacerbating sectarian tensions. For Australia, this has resulted in a foreign fighter mobilization on a scale not previously seen, sparked sectarian violence in Sydney and Melbourne, and provided a cause that could expand the country’s traditionally small jihadist scene. This has been a dramatic development for jihadist activity in Australia, and therefore poses a key concern for security agencies.

The actual extent of the threat, however, remains unclear. For example, local sectarian violence has recently declined despite continuing tensions. The most serious threat posed is that some returning fighters will have the intention, and increased capability, to attack Australia. This possibility, however, depends on the numbers of people actually fighting, the groups with which they are fighting, and to who else they may be connected. Reliable information on these details is currently limited. What is clear is that the Syria mobilization could radically reshape jihadist activity in Australia, a security concern that needs to be closely monitored.

Andrew Zammit is a Research Fellow at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre.

[1] For Malet’s definition of foreign fighters as “noncitizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflicts,” see David Malet, Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identities in Civil Conflicts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 9. Also see Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Zelin, “How Syria’s Civil War Became a Holy Crusade,” Foreign Affairs, July 7, 2013.

[2] Cameron Stewart, “Is Syria Turning our Idealistic Youth into Hardened Jihadis?” Australian, April 27, 2013.

[3] Much of the information about their alleged combat roles comes from jihadist forums and social media. Scholars in the area tend to consider information derived from the official jihadist forums and social media accounts as often reliable, but not authoritative. Consequently, sections in this article about the activities of particular individuals may require revision as more information comes to light.

[4] Angus Thompson, “Melbourne Kickboxing Champion Roger Abbas Killed in Crossfire in Syria,” Australian Associated Press, October 31, 2012.

[5] Ibid.; “Lost in Syria,” Head First, ABC Television, May 15, 2013.

[6] Thompson.

[7] Personal interview, Aaron Zelin, May 2013. On the importance of such forums for the global jihadist movement, see Aaron Zelin, “The State of Global Jihad Online: A Qualitative, Quantitative and Cross-Lingual Analysis,” New America Foundation, January 2013.

[8] “Lost in Syria.”

[9] Stephen Drill, “Mother’s Grief After Yusuf Toprakkaya’s Death in Syria Battle,” Herald Sun, January 3, 2013.

[10] Ibid.; Dan Box and Pia Akerman, “Syrian Rebels Eulogise Aussie ‘Martyr,’” Australian, January 2, 2013.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tracey Shelton, “An Australian in Syria: The Journey of a Foreign Fighter,” Global Post, March 4, 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] His death occurred during a battle for the Wadi al-Dayf military base. The assault against the base was led by Jabhat al-Nusra, but Toprakkaya was reported to be part of a separate group involved in the offensive. See Shelton. Also see “Australian Killed Fighting Alongside Syrian Rebels: Activists,” Daily Star [Beirut], January 2, 2013.

[15] Natalie O’Brien and Nick Ralston, “Australian Man in Syria, ‘Abu Asma al-Australi,’ Suspected to be Suicide Bomber,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 14, 2013; Paul Maley and Dan Box, “Aussie in Syrian Suicide Attack as Fears Mount over Terror Training,” Australian, September 13, 2013.

[16] O’Brien and Ralston; Michael Brissenden, “Australian Man Reportedly Blew Himself up in Suicide Bombing at Syrian Military Airport,” ABC News, September 14, 2013.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Paul Maley, “Terror Fight Returns as A-G’s Focus,” Australian, November 18, 2013.

[19] Ibid.; Paul Maley and Dan Box, “Australia’s First Suicide Bomber Believed to be 27-Year-Old Brisbane Man Named on Social Media as ‘Abu Asma al-Australi,’” Australian, September 20, 2013; Renee Viellaris, Kris Crane and Kate McKenna, “Muslim Community in Logan Denies Suicide Bomber in Syria Was One of Their Own,” Courier-Mail, September 21, 2013.

[20] Will Ockenden, “Sydney Sheikh Dies in Syria,” ABC AM, August 22, 2012; Leesha McKenny, “Sydney Sheikh Killed in Syria: Reports,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 21, 2012.

[21] Ibid.

[22] McKenny.

[23] Mansour al-Hadj, “Contradicting Statements On The Mission Of Slain Prominent Australian Sheikh Mustapha Al-Majzoub In Syria,” Middle East Media Research Institute, August 30, 2012.

[24] Paul Maley, “Sydney Sheik Killed in Syria ‘An Extremist,’” Australian, August 22, 2012.

[25] Paul Maley, “Death of Extremist Second Syria Link,” Australian, November 1, 2013.

[26] Paul Maley, “Dual-National Aussies Answer Syria Rallying Call,” Australian, November 7, 2012.

[27] Nino Bucci, “Father’s Anguish Over Son’s Death in War-Torn Syria,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 19, 2013.

[28] Nino Bucci, “Claims Australians Killed in Syria Were Fighters, Not Aid Workers,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2013; Caro Meldrum-Hanna, “Are Young Australian Muslims Being Radicalised on Home Soil?” ABC 7:30, May 30, 2013.

[29] Paul Maley and Cameron Stewart, “Australians Answer the Syria Jihad Call,” Australian, April 13, 2013; Andrew Zammit, “About the Estimated 200 Australian Fighters in Syria Again,” The Murphy Raid blog, July 18, 2013; Sam Caldwell, “‘G’Day Damascus’: Does Australia Really Have the Biggest Contingent of Rebel Fighters in Syria?” The Point Magazine, August 2013.

[30] A small portion of the fighters, however, are reported to be fighting for the al-Assad regime. See Paul Maley and Dan Box, “Aussie in Syrian Suicide Attack as Fears Mount Over Terror Training,” Australian, September 13, 2013.

[31] Maley and Box, “Aussie in Syrian Suicide Attack as Fears Mount Over Terror Training”; Maley and Stewart, “Australians Answer the Syria Jihad Call.”

[32] David Irvine, “Protecting Secrets, Protecting People,” speech delivered at the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria, November 10, 2013; Andrew Zammit, “Explaining a Turning Point in Australian Jihadism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 36:9 (2013).

[33] Fatah al-Islam is a militant Sunni Islamist group that is inspired by al-Qa`ida’s ideology. Its members are mostly Arabs from various Middle Eastern countries. It emerged in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in November 2006. Its goals are unclear but include the establishment of an Islamic state in northern Lebanon. Asbat al-Ansar is a Palestinian Salafi-jihadi group that was involved in a number of terrorist operations against Lebanese official targets in the past. Also see Shandon Harris-Hogan and Andrew Zammit, “The Unseen Terrorist Connection: Exploring Jihadist Links Between Lebanon and Australia,” Terrorism and Political Violence, in press, 2014.

[34] Richard Kerbaj, “Somalia ‘Jihad Drive’ Probed,” Australian, December 5, 2007; Alison Caldwell, “Somali Refugees Being Recruited by Terrorists: Islamic Expert,” ABC PM, April 13, 2007.

[35] Andrew Zammit, “Sabirhan Hasanoff and Australia-Yemen Jihadist Connections,” The Murphy Raid blog, June 10, 2012.

[36] Shandon Harris-Hogan, “The Australian Neojihadist Network: Origins, Evolution and Structure,” Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict 5:6 (2012); Andrew Zammit, “Who Becomes a Jihadist in Australia? A Comparative Analysis,” ARC Linkage Project on Radicalisation – Conference 2010, Monash University, 2011.

[37] Harris-Hogan and Zammit, “The Unseen Terrorist Connection: Exploring Jihadist Links Between Lebanon and Australia.”

[38] “Turkey a Launching Pad for Syria-Bound al-Qaeda Jihadists, Experts Say,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 2012.

[39] On the need for facilitators in past cases of Australians engaging in jihadist activities overseas, see Zammit, “Explaining a Turning Point in Australian Jihadism.” Only in rare cases, such as David Hicks in Pakistan, did an Australian turn up with no known previous connections and manage to join a jihadist group. See Leigh Sales, Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007), pp. 20, 24–25.

[40] Sunni-Shi`a violence was rare in Australia prior to 2012.

[41] Andrew Zammit, “List of Syria-Related Violent Incidents in Australia,” The Murphy Raid blog, June 30, 2013. As this list is based on events reported in the media, it may miss some incidents that were unreported, and there is also a chance that some incidents were misreported as being Syria-related when they may have had other motives.

[42] Zammit, “List of Syria-Related Violent Incidents in Australia.”

[43] Of the 17 incidents reported in the media, if the four events for which the year of occurrence is unclear are excluded, 11 incidents occurred in 2012 and only two occurred this year. This suggests that 2012 was the peak year and the violence has not escalated since. There have been several arrests and prosecutions, and ASIO has noted that “strong leadership by the Islamic community leaders has so far helped largely contain communal tension of this sort in Australia.” See Zammit, “List of Syria-Related Violent Incidents in Australia”; “ASIO Report to Parliament 2012-13,” Australian Security Intelligence Organization, October 2013, p. 3.

[44] Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107:1 (2013).

[45] For the 2000 Sydney plot, see R v. Roche, 2005. For the 2003 Sydney plot, see R v. Lodhi, 2006; Stuart Koschade, “The Internal Dynamics of Terrorist Cells: A Social Network Analysis of Terrorist Cells in an Australian Contex,” Ph.D. dissertation, Queensland University of Technology, 2007, pp. 222-247; Sebastian Rotella, “The Man Behind Mumbai,” ProPublica, November 13, 2010. For the 2005 Melbourne cell, see R v. Benbrika & Ors, 2009; R v. Kent, 2009. For the 2005 Sydney cell, see R v. Elomar & Ors, 2010.

[46] R v. Fattal & Ors, 2011.

[47] Paul Maley and Cameron Stewart, “Federal Police Braces for New Terror Phase,” Australian, June 22, 2013.

[48] “The Syrian Conflict: Australian Government Advice,” Australian Federal Police, August 29, 2012; “Ongoing Violence in Syria: Important information for Australian communities,” Australian Attorney General’s Department, 2012; “Syria Group Listed Under Local Terror Laws,” Australian Associated Press, June 28, 2013.

[49] “ASIO Report to Parliament 2012-13,” p. 16.

[50] Paul Maley, “Carr Considered Banning Syria Fighters from Returning to Australia,” Australian, October 28, 2013; Jared Owens, “Morrison Flags Move to Shut Out Australian Veterans of Syrian War,” Australian, October 29, 2013.