Australians fighting in Syria: what is the threat at home?

Reports of Australians fighting with the Syrian insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra’s highlights a security threat to Australia.
Reports of Australians fighting with the Syrian insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra’s highlights a security threat to Australia.

by Andrew Zammit

The Syrian insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra’s recent pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda, alongside reports of Australians fighting in the insurgency, highlights a security threat to Australia.

According to ASIO director-general David Irvine, there are hundreds of young Australians fighting in Syria, with possibly 100 active with Jabhat al-Nusra.

When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad brutally suppressed peaceful protests in early 2011, it sparked an insurgency that continues today. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, and international actors have moved in to exploit the situation, including al-Qaeda. 

The bulk of the Syrian rebellion operates under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but several jihadist groups, loosely unified as the Syrian Islamic Forces (SIF), also play a prominent role. One of these jihadist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, has drawn attention for its explicit rejection of democracy and close al-Qaeda links, leading to its designation as a terrorist organisation by the US state department.

Any doubts about Jabhat al-Nusra’s links with al-Qaeda can be dispelled by recent announcements. On April 7, al-Qaeda released a video statement, calling for unification to achieve an “Islamic state” in Syria. On April 9, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, the current name of al-Qaeda in Iraq) released a pre-planned audio message, declaring that Jabhat al-Nusra was a mere extension of the ISI, and that they were unifying under the new name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

On April 10, Jabhat al-Nusra released an audio message disputing that it was solely an extension of the ISI and rejecting the new name. However, in the statement Jabhat al-Nusra confirmed its close cooperation with the ISI and explicitly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, based in Pakistan.

This announcement will worsen the tragic situation for Syrians caught in the middle, and further complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to support the anti-Assad insurgency.

The announcement will also heighten concerns that the Syrian conflict is providing a new pathway for Westerners to join al-Qaeda. A recent study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), based on 450 sources including Western and Arabic media and online jihadist forums, estimates that 135-590 Europeans have joined the insurgency.

At the time the ICSR’s European estimates were published, April 2, the study’s author Aaron Zelin provided the following estimate for Australia: 18-123 fighters.

If we use the ICSR’s minimum figures, there are fewer fighters in Syria from Australia than from Britain, France and Ireland, but more than from other European countries. If we use their maximum figures, only Britain has more of its citizens fighting in Syria.

Most of these Australians are believed to be Lebanese dual citizens, as both sides of the conflict have recruited fighters from Lebanon, Syria’s fragile neighbour. The jihadists often recruit from and through the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which is itself experiencing increasing violence since the Syria conflict broke out.

The ICSR’s estimate has been superseded by the more recent figure of 200 Australians involved. This new figure cannot currently be verified, and should be treated cautiously until more information comes out. The estimate is higher than the ICSR’s maximum estimates for any European country, and one third of their maximum estimate for Europe as a whole. This seems doubtful, particularly as Australia usually has far lower rates of jihadist activity than many European countries.

Open-source research by myself and my colleague Shandon Harris-Hogan has found 17 cases of Australians allegedly involved in jihadist activity in Lebanon between 2000 and 2012. If the estimate of 200 Australians involved in jihadism in the Syria-Lebanon region since the outbreak of the Syria conflict is accurate, it represents an unprecedented escalation.

Regardless of which figures turn out to be accurate, there has been substantial Australian involvement in the Syrian insurgency, including at least four reported deaths so far: on August 2012, October 2012, November 2012 and January 2013.

The Australian Federal Police have been openly concerned about people joining the insurgency and released an official statement warning that it is illegal. The Attorney-General’s Department has similarly released a fact sheet, warning of the relevant laws and recommending non-violent methods of assisting Syrians.

There have already been cases of violence from the Syria conflict spilling over into Australia, and al-Qaeda’s increasing role heightens this threat.

This does not mean any Australian connection to the conflict should be cause for alarm. Many Australians are travelling to Syria without taking part in the conflict. Moreover, many may be fighting for the non-jihadist insurgent groups, and many fighting for the jihadist groups may have no intention of engaging in violence outside of the Syrian conflict zone.

However, any fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, now openly loyal to al-Qaeda, could pose a serious security risk in Australia. Al-Qaeda’s increasingly prominent role increases the likelihood that the conflict will provide opportunities for aspiring Australian jihadists to gain experience, contacts and deadly skills. Australia’s four major jihadist terror plots have all included people who had training or fighting experience with overseas jihadist groups, or ongoing communication with such groups.

Research by Norwegian academic Thomas Hegghammer found that one in nine Westerners who trained or fought in an overseas jihadist insurgency ended up becoming involved in terrorist plots against the West. If this trend holds true in the future, it suggests that most Australians fighting in Syria will not become a security risk, but some could become highly dangerous.

The ICSR study stated that: “European security services are well advised to monitor the situation closely and adopt an intelligence led, highly discriminate approach towards dealing with returning fighters”. A similarly pro-active but cautious approach is appropriate for Australia.

Andrew Zammit is a researcher in the Global Terrorism Research Centre in the School of Political and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.

A version of this article also appeared in The Conversation.