SYDNEY – The children of refugees who fled Lebanon’s civil war for peaceful Australia in the 1970s form a majority of Australian militants fighting in the Middle East, according to about a dozen counterterrorism officials, security experts and Muslim community members.
Of the 160 or so Australian jihadis 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, 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 said.
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 from the Middle East, is a major headache for authorities, he said.
Kaldas oversees the state’s Middle Eastern Organized 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 the Lebanese community 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 in Brisbane.
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.
“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 religious extremism.”
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.
“You had people from the neighborhood and you flew into Tripoli or flew into Beirut and drove up to Tripoli and were taken across,” Barton said. “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.
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-Qaida and the Islamic State group, 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 Victoria state.
“They were stand over men, any everybody knew it, and that’s it,” Lebanese Muslim Association president Samier Dandan said 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 group of people say ‘look at them’ — we come together,” he said, describing a “siege” mentality within the community.
Although not involved in crime or extremism, Muhammad, who refused to give his surname, said that he was aware of people who were.
A school friend, 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 the Islamic State or other groups in Syria and Iraq.