Sophisticated Australian Airplane Bombing Plot a Warning to the West
Australia’s arrest last Saturday of four men suspected of plotting a terrorist attack on a commercial airliner signaled more than a resurgent terror threat to airplanes. Because the plot involved smuggling explosives and poison gases into standard kitchen utensils — a meat grinder or a mincer — the incident displayed the rapidly increasing sophistication of these terror plots, and the development of new means of attack.
The incident also exposed what international intelligence agencies — but few others — have known for some time: that in a recent ranking of countries where radical Islam is a significant security threat, Australia stands in third place.
This may surprise most people, who think of Australia as a land of laid-back surfers and cuddly koalas. In reality, however, a different side of Australia has emerged in recent years — one where radical Islam is rising. And it’s not just among immigrant populations. In Australia, as elsewhere, Muslim converts also play a large role. The large percentage of Australian Muslims who have joined the Islamic State also has been given short shrift. With an estimated 476,000 Muslims among 24.13 million Australians, the country has one of the highest per capita rates of Muslims who have made hijrah — or the journey to the Caliphate. Australia’s ratio is about on par with France.
According to a BBC report, the majority of Australia’s radicals were born inside the country. Sixty percent of them are of Lebanese heritage — another distinction from European ISIS members, most of whom appear to come from Northern Africa. Furthermore, a 2010 report from Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre noted that, unlike other jihadists in the West, radical Muslims in Australia tend to be married (77 percent, as opposed to 38 percent in the UK).
The four men arrested in conjunction with the latest plot all were Lebanese-Australian, according to the Daily Mail. Khaled and Mahmoud Khayat, alleged to be father and son, are believed to be related to a senior ISIS figure. The two others detained in the inquiry — Khaled and Abdul Merhi — are said to be related to Ahmed Merhi, who has been in Syria since 2014, and is a popular ISIS recruiter. According to the Australian, while Ahmed Merhi’s mother is Lebanese and a practicing Muslim, his Syrian father Faraj claims to have abandoned religion.
Abdul Merhi was released on Monday without charges. According to press reports, despite extensive questioning, officials found no evidence that he was involved in the plot.
Although the remaining three suspects have yet to be formally charged as of this writing, investigators claim that they were well on their way to developing a plot to smuggle either explosives or toxic gases onto a Dubai-bound Emirates flight in the hollow base of the mincer. Other reports suggest that they had already tried and failed to board the Emirates flight, which carried as many as 500 passengers and crew, and were therefore targeting a domestic flight. The plot was first noticed by British intelligence officials, who alerted their Australian counterparts.
If indeed the jihadists had planned to use a toxic gas, some experts believe that it might have been acetone peroxide, or TATP – familiarly known as “Mother of Satan.” The gas, which begins as a white powder that does not show up on standard airport tests, must be packed under high pressure. According to the Australian news web site news.com.au, the materials “could be placed in a grinder so it was opaque through an X-ray machine and appeared innocuous upon visual inspection.”
“Mother of Satan” gas was used in the 2016 Brussels terror attacks, and was found in the backpack of Salman Abedi, who blew himself up at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, this past May. It can easily be made at home using standard acetone and hydrogen peroxide.
Although the present plot was particularly sophisticated, it was far from Australia’s first brush with Islamist terrorism. Indeed, 15 plots were foiled in Australia between 2014 and 2016. In 2016, ISIS’ online magazine exhorted followers to “scorch Australia with terror.” Not that Islamist radicals needed much urging: Just in 2014, 18-year-old Numan Haider stabbed two counterterrorism officials outside of Melbourne, and Iranian-born Man Haron Monis held 18 people hostage, killing two, at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney. Several other ISIS-inspired stabbings, hostage-takings and one shooting have occurred since last year. Other attacks have since been interrupted, including more than one plan to kidnap non-Muslims en masse, and stage public beheadings.
But this particular plot has implications that reach far beyond Australia. The clever attempt to hide the explosive material in an everyday objects — ones that can be facilely passed through security systems — is one that can be easily copied by others, and for which we have no existing protections. It is also the first effort by Australian terrorists to stage an attack on this scale — both in terms of the number of potential victims and in scope, moving beyond Australian borders.
Together, they make frighteningly clear that even as the Islamic State’s territory withers, the global reach and power of jihadists is still growing stronger.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Follow her at @radicalstates.