Over the past 20 hours, the following facts have emerged:
• Following a series of coordinated raids on 19 properties in the Melbourne area, four Australian citizens of Somali and Lebanese descent, mostly in their mid-20s, were arrested in the morning hours. Several others are being questioned.
• According to the acting federal police commissioner, the suspects’ intention was to attack the Australian Army’s Holsworthy Barracks in suburban Sydney, killing Australian military personnel as well as themselves. Planning is said to have been at an advanced stage.
• The police believe that the attackers might have been inspired by the Somali-based militant movement Al Shabaab, with two associates of the cell having travelled to Somalia in order to participate in fighting.
Much of the context and circumstances, however, remain unclear:
• The method of attack. The Australian authorities claim that the attack was to be an ‘armed assault with automatic weapons’. The alleged intention was to kill as many military personnel as possible before being killed themselves. If true, this would be the exact same method that was used by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar e-Taiba in Mumbai in November 2008. Was it the suspects’ intention to copy these tactics?
• Links to Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is the youth militia of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council in Somalia, which – for a few months in 2006 – represented the Somali government. Like the Taleban in Afghanistan, Al Shabaab is an extremist Islamist movement with links to Al Qaeda. It has driven much of the recent fighting in Somalia: its aim is to expel international forces, overthrow the government and establish a harsh form of Islamist rule.
Al Shabaab has been successful in recruiting ‘foreign fighters’ from across the world, mostly – but not exclusively – members of the Somali diaspora. The most recently reported incident is that of two groups of men from Minnesota, one of whom died in Somalia. Earlier this year, Channel 4 in Britain uncovered the case of a young man from Ealing (West London) who blew himself up in Somalia.
Intelligence services have long been concerned about the rising traffic of jihadists to and from Somalia. In an interview earlier this year, the head of the British Security Service MI5 expressed concern about ‘returning fighters’, urging policymakers to ‘focus more on the Horn of Africa and Somalia in particular’.
In the context of the Australian plot, the question is whether the four individuals had successfully established ties to Al Shabaab, or whether it was merely their intention to do so.
How did they try to connect with Al Shabaab? What role was played by the internet? What prompted them to turn their attention from fighting in Somalia towards attacking a target in Australia?
• Al Shabaab and the global jihad. Al Shabaab has long had ties to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda leaders have repeatedly encouraged followers to join Al Shabaab’s jihad. Thus far, however, Al Shabaab’s operations have been limited to Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Whilst drawing on the support of the Somali diaspora across the world, there have been no overseas operations, nor has Al Shabaab encouraged terrorist attacks against Western targets abroad.
This, again, raises the question to what extent the four men were ‘freelancers’ who were inspired by Al Shabaab propaganda on the internet, or whether they followed orders directing them to attack targets in Australia.
If the latter turns out to be true, the alleged plot would represent a major escalation of Al Shabaab’s campaign. If the former is correct, it demonstrates the ease with which jihadist recruits seem to be able to transfer their attention from one jihadist ‘battlefront’ to the other. If indeed they were freelancers, the planned attacks seem to have been purely opportunistic, resulting from their inability to go to Somalia and participate in the kind of jihad which appears to have radicalised them.
The significance of this plot has been depends on the answers to the questions above. There can be no doubt, however, that the situation in Somalia is finally spilling over into the West. The Australian plot together with the cases of radicalised Western Muslims joining Al Shabaab may be harbingers of a new – albeit not entirely unexpected – problem for Western security agencies.