The Islamic State threat just got imminent.
Earlier Thursday, Australian counterterrorism officers arrested 15 individuals in what Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has confirmed was a beheading plot related to the Islamic State. According to news reports, the suspects planned “to snatch and behead a random member of the public, then drape them in the flag of the Islamic State.” The footage would have been sent to the group’s video propagandists for production and release.
While some of those arrested have been released, two men have been charged with various offenses. In a sign of the investigation’s urgency, the suspected cell ringleader, Omarjan Azari, has already appeared in court.
This is a major story. Here are three reasons why.
1. The arrests and raids were a serious counterterrorism operation.
Over 800 police officers were involved, including specialist tactical officers from some of Australia’s top SWAT units. This level of deployment is unusual and reflects major concern on the part of senior law enforcement in Australia. From witness statements and the video footage released, the heavily armed tactical teams appear to have conducted “hard arrests,” meaning tactics employed where officers believe suspects have the capability and intent to endanger life. Australian media have photographed an inscribed scimitar sword recovered from one site.
2. There are strong indications of operational direction from the Islamic State.
Presenting their case against Omarjan Azari, prosecutors alleged a conspiracy with Mohammed Baryalei, an Australian senior Islamic State network facilitator likely living in Turkey or Syria. A Sydney street imam turned Islamic State fanatic, Baryalei is believed to have recruited around 40 Australians to fight for the jihadist group.
Two particulars stand out regarding the connections to the Islamic State. First, Prime Minister Abbott’s statement that “quite direct exhortations were coming from an Australian who is apparently quite senior in ISIL . . . to conduct demonstration killings here” almost certainly refers to Baryalei. Second, at Azari’s court appearance, the prosecutor stated that his arrest was driven by an intercepted phone call “only a couple of days ago.” This intercept likely involved participation from the U.S.’s NSA — under the “five eyes” agreement, the NSA maintains an exceptionally close relationship with Australia’s signals-intelligence community.
3. Australian counterterrorism operations are for real.
Over the past few months, Australian counterterrorism officials have grown increasingly concerned by the threat of Salafi extremism. Last week, in a separate operation, a number of suspected al-Qaeda-aligned terrorists were arrested in Australia’s northeastern Queensland territory. These individuals are believed to have been plotting an attack on Australian soil.
Hiding behind a small but loud community of idiots who shame Australia’s otherwise honorable Islamic community, terrorists have too many avenues of concealment. Australian officials recently raised the nation’s terrorist alert level to high. Around 60 Australians have either traveled to fight with the Islamic State, and others, it seems, are taking operational direction/inspiration from the group.
With terrorists like Baryalei, who follow in the repugnant tradition of al-Qaeda network facilitators like Rashid Rauf, the threat is both foreign and domestic. But the Islamic State poses a special danger, too.
As I explained before the group stormed through northern Iraq, this group has learned from its predecessors and from Edward Snowden. Its leaders know to stay off the radar, and they’re winning the hearts and minds of some non-negligible number of Westerners. Most of all, they’ve proven their intent and capacity to spread murder.
As today’s events attest, the storm is gathering strength.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.