Of the 160 or so Australian jihadists believed to be in Iraq or
Syria, several are in senior leadership positions, they say.
But unlike fighters from Britain, France or Germany, who experts say
are mostly jobless and alienated, a number of the Australian
fighters grew up in a tight-knit criminal gang culture, dominated by
men with family ties to the region around the Lebanese city of
Tripoli, near the border with Syria.
Not every gang member becomes an Islamic radical and the vast
majority of Lebanese Australians are not involved in crime or in
radicalism of any sort. Australian Muslims say they are unfairly
targeted by law enforcement, especially after the surge in fighting
in Iraq and Syria, and that racial tensions are on the verge of
spiraling out of control.
Still, there is a clear nexus between criminals and radicals within
the immigrant Lebanese Muslim community, New South Wales Deputy
Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas told Reuters.
"It is good training," said Kaldas, himself an immigrant from Egypt
and a native Arabic speaker.
The ease with which some hardened criminals from within the
community have taken to militant extremism, and the prospect of what
they will do when they return home from the Middle East
battle-trained, is a major worry for authorities, he said.
Kaldas oversees the state's Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad and
was the United Nations-appointed chief investigator into the
assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in a
car bomb attack in Beirut in 2005.
In recent years, he said, the divide between criminal gangs and
radicals in Lebanese community, who were driven by different
motives, had narrowed.
"I do worry about those who may be extremists infecting more people
who were just pure criminals," said Kaldas.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott says that at least 20 of the fighters are
believed by authorities to have returned to Australia, and that more
than 60 people believed to be planning to go to the Middle East have
had their passports canceled.
Last month, the national security agency raised its four-tier threat
level to "high" for the first time and about 900 police launched
raids on homes in Sydney's predominantly Muslim western suburbs and
GRILLED MEAT AND CARDAMOM
Only about half a million people out of Australia's 23.5 million are
Muslims, making them a tiny fraction in a country where the final
vestiges of the "White Australia" policy were only abolished in
1973, allowing large scale non-European migration.
At least half of Australia's Muslims live in Sydney's western
suburbs, which were transformed in the mid-1970s from white
working-class enclaves into majority-Muslim outposts by a surge of
immigration from Lebanon.
The inhabitants of low-slung suburban villages like Lakemba, which
now hosts the Imam Ali Mosque, Australia's largest, soon replaced
the greasy aroma of fish and chips - and beer - with the scent of
grilled meat and cardamom, the staples of the Middle East.
A broad sampling of the areas in Sydney most associated with
Lebanese ancestry on the 2011 national census - Auburn, Lakemba,
Punchbowl, Granville - show them lagging far behind the rest of New
South Wales state on indicators such as income and employment.
After the raids and an intense media focus on the community, most
Lebanese Australians are wary of public comment. In the western
suburbs, outsiders are looked on with suspicion and few were willing
to speak to Reuters.
"It's a troubled community as a group," said Greg Barton, director
of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University. "So
they're over-represented in petty crime, in organized crime, in
When the civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the fighting was a draw
for many Lebanese Muslim families in Australia. Clannishness and old
family networks made it easy for youngsters from the community to
slip away and join the fighting.
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"You had people from the neighborhood and you flew into Tripoli or
flew into Beirut and drove up to Tripoli and were taken across,"
"It was a very smooth, easy pathway in."
Both police and academics, however, struggle to explain what would
draw second-generation Australians back to the violence which their
parents had fled.
Aftab Malik, a Scholar-in-Residence at Sydney's
Lebanese Muslim Association who has spent years living in western
Sydney's Muslim community, said he believed the convergence between
radical Islam and organized crime was unique to Australia.
"I haven't come across that in the U.S. or in Great Britain. It's
quite specific here and I don't know why that is," he said.
"STAND OVER MEN"
The fighters from Australia include a radical using the name Abu
Sulayman al-Mujahir, who left for the Middle East with what
intelligence officials say was the task of ending an internecine war
in Syria between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and a suicide
bomber who killed three people in Baghdad in July. The Islamic State
named the bomber as Abu Bakr al-Australi on its Twitter feed.
It also includes two men from Sydney, Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed
Elomar, who have posted images from Syria on Twitter, showing them
posing with the heads of executed fighters, holding guns and
standing over bloodied bodies.
Australia has issued warrants for their arrests, but police say they
are still believed to be in the Middle East. Their social media
accounts have been suspended.
Elomar's brother is serving jail time for assaulting a police
officer, while Sharrouf served four years for his involvement in a
2005 plot by Islamist radicals to blow up a nuclear power plant in
"They were stand over men, any everybody knew it, and that's it,"
Lebanese Muslim Association president Samier Dandan told Reuters
during a drive through western Sydney, using an Australian term for
an extortionist or violent thug.
For Muhammad, a young man of Lebanese ancestry who grew up in the
western suburbs of the city, the evolution from hard man to militant
makes perfect sense.
"We tend to live in these clusters, and so when media or government
or any outside organization or group of people say 'look at them' -
we come together," he said, describing a "siege" mentality within
Although not involved in crime or extremism, Muhammad, who refused
to give his surname, said he knew people who were.
A schoolfriend, he said, was involved in criminal gangs as soon as
he left high school and was killed in fighting in the Middle East
earlier this year.
Over the past year or so, Muhammad said, his cousin, who has been
jailed for assault and who used to drink alcohol and never prayed,
had shaved his head and grown a long beard. He also began sharing
violent jihadist videos on social media.
"The violence stays, it's just that you're doing it for a purpose
this time," he said of those who fight alongside Islamic State or
other groups in Syria and Iraq.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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