The flaw in the Government’s counter radicalisation program was that it relied heavily on Muslim community leaders. But the young men I met with said their community leaders didn’t understand them.
I wrap a checked shirt around my head and pull up the hoodie to conceal my face. Holding a makeshift Islamic State flag on a piece of paper, I take a deep breath, then I hit “Record” on my phone.
“I pledge my allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the caliphate Dawlat al-Islam.”
Then I hit send.
It’s June 29, 2015. I’m a journalist, and I’ve just pledged my allegiance to Isis.
Three hours later I get a response. Melbourne recruiter Neil Prakash, one of Australia’s top Isis leaders, writes back from Syria using Surespot, one of the many new, encrypted instant messaging services used by terrorists and radicals. (Prakash was later reported killed in a bombing raid, though some in the counter-terrorism community have doubts about his death.)
For two months, I’ve been stalking him online, as well as a mysterious Sydney jihadist going by the name Abu Hassan Australi. I’ve been establishing my online bona fides as a Muslim wanting to make hijra – the “migration” to the Isis war zones of Iraq and Syria.
“Well done brother,” Prakash writes. “Now you must go meet other brothers.”
“Inshallah [God willing], you can meet brothers in Sydney, verify you more,” Abu Hassan replied two days later.
That was it. I was in. No going back now.
THE GROWING THREAT
Last year the Australian government was pouring millions of dollars into deradicalisation programs and counter-terrorism efforts. Academics were theorising about how youngsters were so easily drawn into radicalism. But when the Muslim convert and Australian teenager Jake Bilardi blew himself up for Isis in early 2015, we were still shocked by how fast radicalism seemed to be spreading, and no closer to understanding it.
Jake Bilardi (centre), 18, went to Iraq and died as a suicide bomber.
It became clear that conventional journalistic techniques would not work if I wanted to reveal the inner workings of Australia’s radical networks.
So I made up my mind. In May 2015, I quietly began my undercover incursion into the shadowy world of Australian radicalism.
MAPPING THE NETWORK
First, I needed to map the networks. I investigated the breeding grounds of jihadists like Khaled Sharrouf, the Sydney man notorious for posting pictures of his son holding a severed head, and Mohamad Elomar, whose wife and children were stuck in Syria after his death.
Khaled Sharrouf was killed fighting for Isis, his daughter Zaynab says.
I labelled hotspots in Sydney and Melbourne: the now defunct al-Furqan Bookstore, Preston Mosque, Lakemba Mosque, al-Noor Mosque. In my previous reporting on terrorism, I had learned about Islam and especially the language (the specific English translations of Arabic) that radicals used. Using the wrong terms could see my cover blown.
Only then did I put out feelers on social media, posting a simple message on Twitter.
“Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh. I’m from Australia and want to make hijra (a migration). Any Australian ikhwan (brothers) in Syria or Iraq, or in dar al kuffar (land of the infidels) can help?”
Those messages led me to Neil Prakash and the Sydney jihadist, who to this day I have not been able to unmask, known as Abu Hassan Australi.
THE VETTING PROCESS
All my conversations with Prakash began with the official Arabic greeting. Inevitably, though, the question followed: “Do you want to make hijra?”
Prakash and other Isis recruits use the word to describe the travel of foreign fighters to Syria or Iraq.
I said yes. Then the process of tazkiya (recommendation) began – a necessary step for me, as with all foreign recruits, to ensure I was not a spy.
Every single recruit into Isis, man or woman, had to be vouched for by trusted people in Australia. It was these people, living quietly in the suburbs, that I wanted to find. That was when Prakash insisted I make a video.
The video was incredibly risky. Using the wrong word or phrase could expose me as an impostor.
Then there were the legal issues: Could such a video breach counter-terrorism laws?
My worries were made more real by what Prakash had already asked me to do. A few weeks before he requested the video, Prakash had asked me to kill several Australian journalists who were doing what I wanted to do: Writing about Islamic State’s influence in Australia.
Prakash had asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I had once worked in the communications field, and he said these journalists were “lying non-believers” who should be killed.
I refused. I said my focus was on getting to Syria. Chillingly, Prakash was undeterred, telling me he already had four “brothers” in Tasmania who’d he ordered to attack the journalists but that I could help by supplying intel to them.
The death threats, and information I had already gleaned about potential terror attacks, prompted me to contact authorities. In a crowded cafe along Collins Street, I met two Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) agents. I told them what I planned to do.
“We’re worried you could be getting yourself in too deep and could break the law,” one told me.
“It’s important you don’t condone terrorism or support it in any way,” the other said, as he picked up his coffee.
In the end, though, if I wanted to continue my journey into the heart of radicalism there was no other option. I made the video.
Syria’s internet access can be intermittent. It took weeks for Prakash to get back to me with instructions about who I would be meeting. Around 2am in late July 2015, he finally sent me a message.
“I have a brother for you to meet in Dandenong. He’s a lion and you can find out where to talk to like minded ikhwan (brothers) before you make hijra and learn more about Islam as you are a revert (convert to Islam).”
For the sake of security, I will call this man Brian. We met at the Dandenong Plaza shopping centre. He had light brown skin and looked to be of Middle Eastern descent. He was short, wore black jeans and a plain blue T-shirt and Adidas shoes. He shook my hand firmly but spoke in an uncertain voice.
“Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,” I said.
“Wa alaikum salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,” he replied. (And may peace also upon you.)
“Are you the akh (brother) Abu Khaled mentioned?” Brian asked.
“He says you want to make hijra, but you need to learn more about Islam and the right path?”
I thought of Jake Bilardi, the Craigieburn teen who turned to Isis after converting to Islam. Like me, Bilardi came from a non-Muslim background. Had he met Brian, online or in the mosques he frequented? Was this the little bird who had whispered in his ear the hate speech of Isis?
Bilardi died in a suicide bombing in Ramadi, Iraq, in March 2015.
Brian began to talk. There were a number of brothers all over Springvale, Dandenong, Broadmeadows and Preston, he said. They met up to discuss in small groups their deen (faith). Similar groups operated in other cities around Australia.
“We do it in secret and usually set plans up after Jumaa (Friday prayers),” Brian told me. That week, such a group was going to have a session, he said. The location would be given on the day.
The instructions came via the messaging app. It was to be held at a park in Springvale on Saturday.
When I approached the park, about seven young men were sitting in a circle talking. Their ages ranged from 17 to 30. Some of them had the beginnings of a beard, others had no facial hair. One older man wore a white thawb, a traditional Middle Eastern garment. In this multicultural part of Melbourne, the group did not stick out. It looked like a bunch of friends getting together. Some had brought tea to drink.
As I edged closer to the circle I was nervous. I could see Brian there and hoped that my video and the contact with him and with Prakash was enough to keep my cover.
“Glad you made it,” Brian said after greeting me in the traditional Islamic fashion. The older man in the thawb, who I met as I walked up to the group, introduced me to the others. “We are welcoming this new brother. He is a revert and turning to the right path.”
We sat down in a small circle. The older man, who appeared to be in his late 20s, continued to speak; his audience listening in rapt silence.
“Brothers, what we see today is a massive war against Islam and the Umma (community).”
Isis was taking the righteous path for Islam, the man said, and the war against the West was just and right.
“We see how Australia treats the Umma and tries to take us away from our deen. Our brothers are arrested simply for showing their love for Allah. Is that right?”
Almost in unison we replied “No”.
“So how do we fight against this oppression? Jihad, ya ikhwan (brothers). In the Koran does it not say, ‘And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out’?” the man said.
“What do you think this is saying? It says to fight the disbelievers wherever they may be and to fight them until there is no more fitna (division).”
The young men were shaking their heads in agreement, soaking in every piece of rhetoric.
ASIO was aware that Numan Haider, 18, had attended the al-Furqan Islamic centre.
“Look at our brother Abdul (Numan Haider). Did he not do what is just against the kuffar? Janna (paradise) is now his prize. But he was fighting for us, for the Umma.”
Numan Haider was shot dead by police as he tried to stab two officers outside Melbourne’s Endeavour Hills police station in 2014.
There was a pause: “I’m asking you, brothers. Did he not do what is right by Allah?”
“Yes,” we all said.
“Subhanallah he did. And we must do what is right. This is why you are all here today, to get on to the path and end these transgressions against Islam.”
The man then directed a question to me: “Do you not feel the pain of your Muslim brothers and sisters dying? Is this not why you have come to us, brother? Why you have reached out for guidance to Allah in dar al-kuffar (land of the infidels)?”
In a flash I responded with: “Allah subhana wa taala (glorious and exalted) is guiding me to the path of vengeance and why I must makehijra.”
“Allahu akbar (God is greatest) brother, you are a lion and among other lions here today sent by Allah. We must do what is right and according to Allah, subhana wa taala. It is our duty as followers of Allah to stand against this attack on the Muslim way of life. All the kuffar are trying to keep you from the righteous path.”
I was seeing first hand the process speculated on for so long: here, in the middle of a Melbourne park, young men were being radicalised.
As he spoke, men and women walked by, pushing prams and walking dogs, unwitting witnesses to an event that was troubling and terrifying much of the Western world. It was in these types of groups and gatherings where Australia’s dead jihadists were inducted into terror.
The meeting also highlighted our miscalculation: IS was not radicalising Australians just through the glimmer of a computer screen. Yes, IS expertly uses social media, but the real radicalisation happened face to face.
The sermon lasted just one hour. The young men stood up and headed home, one by one. It was then that a 19-year-old – we will call him Salman – approached me. He talked about how he had lost his way. “I was smoking and drinking, doing things against Islam. My parents couldn’t understand, they were brainwashed by kuffar ways,” he said.
Salman felt the Australian community hadn’t embraced him. Here in this group he felt at home.
Many Australian jihadists have come from tumultuous backgrounds. Prakash was a former rapper who did drugs. Khaled Sharrouf, a ringleader later killed in Syria, was a criminal. Some had only a moderate understanding of Islam. Salman, too, was from a tough background and had a very rudimentary understanding of Islam. Would his name soon splash across news headlines? I hoped not.
Salman went on to say: “The only brothers who know how I feel are the younger ones. It makes me feel like I belong more.”
Unwittingly, he had touched on a repeated criticism of Australian deradicalisation programs. The flaw in the Government’s counter radicalisation program was that it relied heavily on Muslim community leaders. But the young men I met with said their community leaders didn’t understand them.
In 2015 Australia allocated A$13.4 million (NZ$14.25m) for counter-terrorism programs. But despite all this money, here in front of me was a group of young men who were clearly falling through the cracks, feeling they didn’t belong. Throughout Melbourne, over the course of several months, I saw similar scenes, again and again. Young men meeting to discuss radical thoughts with an older man leading the group. Seeing terror attacks overseas, they talked about emulating them here.
Parks weren’t the only venues. They would also meet after Friday prayer in the corner of radical mosques or at someone’s home. Safe places, where they felt the language of radicalism could be spoken freely and not be heard by outsiders.
The young men who attended were often angry or lost in alcohol or drugs. Videos from the Isis propaganda machine would be shown. “So inspiring,” one said.
“We need to head to dawla (Isis’ Caliphate) or kill kuffar,” another said.
In Sydney, it was the same. Lakemba, Bankstown, Auburn and other areas all hosted these small, core groups discussing extremism and radical thoughts.
The mysterious jihadist Abu Hassan put me in contact with a man from Granville who would help facilitate my introduction to the radical network.
The level of extremism here was palpable. Having spent time in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, I was struck by a sense of deja vu: I had heard the same rhetoric from failed suicide bombers locked up in Abu Ghraib or in Iraqi Kurdish territory as I was now hearing from the men I met here.
Threats to the Australian public were common. The dialogue was aggressive. The young men would agree they must take action, follow orders. The level of violent rhetoric was many times worse than what I heard in Melbourne, and there were several groups who met frequently. They talked about what attacks they planned and how they would do it. They spoke of “bringing Islamic State here, like in Belgium. Like in Paris”.
Meetings would be set up at Friday prayer, online, and through encrypted messaging applications. With each group I met, I feared being exposed and in danger, despite being vouched for.
After one meeting I was able to talk with a group leader – we’ll call him Mahmoud.
Speaking to him it was clear he had been in the Sydney radical network much longer than others I had met. His knowledge of Islam was deep and his knowledge of Australian jihadists who had gone to Syria was detailed. He told me many of the people who run these groups have hated Australia for some time because of the Western “war against Islam”.
When I asked him why he didn’t go to Syria or Iraq, he told me his duty from Allah was to convince other brothers to go, or carry out attacks on home soil. He later told me he had a direct link with Isis fighters.
I was talking to a man directly carrying out orders from the deadly terror group. I was astonished.
Mahmoud told me the reason I had come to Islam was because I saw the truth. Now it was up to me to do the right thing. Calmly and convincingly he went on, trying to radicalise me, but our conversation was cut short as he had to leave.
“Allah knows best brother. Salam [peace],” Mahmoud said as he left and shook my hand.
Through the course of my investigation I would remain in contact with a number of Sydney men, who would urge me to visit again. Much of their talk was hot air, but the intentions were crystal clear.
Between meetings, the messages flew on encrypted messaging applications arranging get-togethers that I surmised were going on all over Australia. They are held in secret; Muslim community leaders are oblivious.
Their words are dangerously seductive: they play on the confusion of young men struggling with their sense of identity and life in a society whose politics and media seem increasingly alien and hostile to them. Prakash is (probably) dead now. But Abu Hassan, Salman, Brian, Mahmoud are alive and well, still living in the community and still plotting.
Their invitations kept popping up on my phone, inviting me to visit again, urging me to keep the faith. At the same time, though, I sensed my contacts were beginning to grow suspicious of me. As my fears grew, I began to withdraw. After nine months in the breeding ground of Australian radicalism, I’d simply had enough.
Months later, the Bastille Day attack in Nice reinforces my concern about how dangerous these men are.
They’re adamant about attacking within Australia – it’s just a matter of when, not if.