A 7.30 investigation has uncovered a secretive and radical program operating inside an Islamic book store in western Sydney, which is encouraging young Muslims to fight in Syria.
The concerns of authorities have been heightened by the bloody conflict in Syria, which has become a magnet and a new training ground for militants around the world, including in Australia.
ASIO has estimated around 100 Australians could be currently fighting in Syria.
Four Australians have so far died in the conflict. Questions have been asked as to whether they were providing humanitarian relief or if they were also fighting at the front line against the brutal Assad regime.
Their families maintain they weren’t fighting and were there to aid the humanitarian effort by helping the maimed and wounded, including women and children caught in the crossfire.
Since it opened just over a year ago, the Al Risalah bookstore has gained a reputation as a centre of Islamic extremism.
Community leaders like Jamal Dahoud are concerned about what is taking place.
“The Al Risalah bookstore especially is very secretive, very secret,” he said. “They conduct their business in a very secret way.
“I tried to explore who is behind this group – we can’t.”
7.30 has been investigating Al Risalah’s activities and the people behind it, identifying four key sheikhs.
All are radical and all are encouraging Australians to get involved in the Syrian crisis.
The most famous of the sheikhs is Abu Suhaib, known to authorities as Bilal Khazal.
Khazal is a former baggage handler for Qantas, trained at a military camp in Afghanistan, and was a confidant of Osama Bin Laden.
He was lecturing at Al Risalah in 2012 until he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in jail for producing a do-it-yourself terrorism book.
The possibility that militant sheikhs are radicalising youth at home – before they go to Syria – has Australian authorities on high alert.
The head of the New South Wales Police counter-terrorism unit told 7.30 they are aware of Al Risalah.
“I am aware of some of activities that go on there and some of the individuals involved,” said Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas.
He said federal authorities are “very much involved in some of the issues” raised by 7.30.
“It’s a matter of us sitting down with our colleagues in the federal sphere and then working out where we go from there, but there has to be tangible evidence and it has to be available to the police,” he said.
Deputy Commissioner Kaldas said it is “not advisable” to encourage people to partake in the Syrian war.
“Sending people into a war zone is something that’s quite heartless and quite selfish,” he said.
“I have to say for someone to be advocating for someone to go and fight in a war but are not prepared to do it themselves tells me something about those who are advocating that.”
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says Australians fighting in Syria could be breaking at least three laws, including the Foreign Incursions Act, which makes it an offence for Australians to participate in this kind of civil war.
Mr Dreyfus also holds concerns that Australians would return from the conflict having been further radicalised.
“Clearly there is a radicalisation that’s involved in wanting to participate in this military and violent activity,” he said.
“There is a concern before people go, but there is also a concern when they return – as the director-general of ASIO has spoken about.
“If you’ve gone to Syria, participated in the conflict there – particularly with a terrorist group – and then returned to Australia, it’s likely you’ll return with terrorist ideology [and] with more knowledge.”
Up to 100 Australians are thought to be fighting in Syria at the moment and authorities fear young Australian Muslims are being radicalised on home soil as a program in a Western Sydney bookstore suggests.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The spectre of home-grown terror has haunted security agencies in countries like Australia since 2001.
It was revived last week in London by the horrific knife murder of a British soldier and this week in Sydney by the arrest of a man accused of threatening to kill a Commonwealth officer.
Authorities’ concerns are being heightened by the bloody conflict in Syria. It’s become a magnet and a new training ground for militants around the world, including in Australia.
To date, four Australians have died fighting in Syria against the Assad regime and a hundred Australians are currently believed to be on the frontline, even though it’s illegal under Australian law.
So who are these jihad warriors? Where are they coming from? And are they being transformed into dangerous radicals?
Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s been investigating, and a warning: this story contains some disturbing images.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA, REPORTER: According to the video, this is martyr Abu al-Walid. To his friends and family he was Yusuf Toprakkaya, a Melbourne bricklayer and a father. He was killed in Syria last year.
In this tribute video posted online after his death in December, 2012, he’s shown making detonators for bombs and on night patrol with rebels in Syria, proof that he was involved in fighting at the frontline, a criminal act under Australian law.
MARK DREYFUS, ATTORNEY-GENERAL: They’re breaking at least three laws: the Foreign Incursions Act, which makes it an offence for Australians to go and participate in this kind of civil war; the Criminal Code Act so far as they are participating in the conflict with a proscribed terrorist group, and it’s also against the arms sanctions that we’ve imposed on the Syrian regime, and that involves not just not supplying arms to the current Syrian Government, but not assisting in any way in providing assistance in a military conflict to the Syrian Government.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Yusuf Toprakkaya was well known to Australian authorities. He was named in this secret 2010 cable from the US Embassy in Canberra, requesting 23 Australians be added to the terrorist screening database.
Toprakkaya left behind his wife and family who live here in this small fibro house in Melbourne’s Northern Suburbs.
The Toprakkayas aren’t the only family mourning a father or brother who’s died in Syria.
Roger Abbas, a Sunni Muslim and champion kickboxer, is another Australian who gave his life to the Syrian cause.
SONYA ABBAS, SISTER: He was a very soft-hearted person who loved everyone, who hated hurting anyone.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: His sister, Sonya Abbas, last saw him in mid-2012 when Roger Abbas left Australia for Syria.
SONYA ABBAS: And then anyway, he goes, “I’m going.” And I said, “OK.” He goes – I said, “You can wait?” He goes, “No, no, you can follow me there. I’ll meet you there.” I said, “I don’t think I’m gonna go that soon. You’ll be back.” He said, “Well, I’m gonna go now and then I’ll go again with you.” So he left. I said, “Good luck.”
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Less than two months later, he was dead.
Sonya Abbas travelled to Syria to try and find her brother’s body, witnessing the humanitarian crisis first-hand, a result of the war between Sunni Muslims and Shi’ite President Bashar Al-Assad.
Sonya Abbas says her brother Roger went to Syria to do humanitarian work, but there’s evidence to suggest otherwise.
AARON ZELIN, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Well some of the individuals when they go over to a place like Syria will use a front cover saying that they’re working for a humanitarian organisation and actually be going over to join up with a rebel group.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Aaron Zelin is a leading US academic based at the Washington Institute. He’s been researching and analysing martyrdom notices posted on the websites of Jihadist groups, including this one belonging to Roger Abbas.
AARON ZELIN: It’s definitely possible that they could have been providing humanitarian relief, but in one case, with Roger Abbas, it actually noted that he was fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra and he actually had his own kunya, which was essentially a war name, and usually individuals who pick up these types of second war names are usually affiliated with more radical organisations.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Jabhat al-Nusra is an extremist Sunni group and designated terrorist organisation with ties to Al-Qaeda. In Syria it’s carrying out bombings and retribution killings against the Assad regime.
This video was posted online two weeks ago showing al-Nusra rebels executing Assad supporters.
So how do you respond to the rumours that perhaps he was doing more than, say, humanitarian work? That he was at the frontline fighting?
SONYA ABBAS: OK. Alright. To be quite honest with you, after what I witnessed, it doesn’t matter whether he was a fighter or whether he was doing humanitarian – he was doing that for Syrian civilians. So, it doesn’t matter.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Roger Abbas’ friend and fellow kickboxer, 22-year-old Sammy Salma, was in Syria at the same time. Salma was killed in an explosion near the frontline of Aleppo in April.
Roger Abbas was inspired by this man, high-profile Sydney Sheikh Mustapha al-Majzoub, who made this speech at an anti-Assad rally in Western Sydney in February.
MUSTAPHA AL-MAJZOUB, MUSLIM SHEIKH (Jan. 2012): Every time there is someone who is killed for this religion, this fire will only get stronger and stronger.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Seven months later in August, 2012, Majzoub was dead. His family declined 7.30’s requests for an interview, telling us that Majzoub was killed by a rocket attack while doing humanitarian work.
AARON ZELIN: The case of the four Australians is that all of them have ended up with martyrdom notices on jihadi forums. And there have been many foreigners who have died in Syria, but not all of the individuals who are foreigners who die in Syria end up with having martyrdom notices on jihadi forums. Therefore I think the allegations are somewhat suspect or potentially they did originally go there to help out in a humanitarian capacity and then joined up with some rebel forces.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This website says Sheikh Majzoub was killed while leading a rebel platoon in the northern Syrian town of Salma.
WEBSITE (male voiceover): “He named his platoon after his grandfather and it was there in Salma where a rocket from the enemies of Allah hit three men alhumdu lillah, Sheikh Mustapha being one of them and they were all martyr, as we reckoned them.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: When news of Majzoub’s death hit Sydney, hundreds of young Muslim men flocked to the Al Risalah Bookstore in Bankstown, Western Sydney to pay him tribute.
PREACHER: But I warn the youth today, and I say to them today, me and you, with Allah the blood of these martyrs will not be lost, but will we waste the blood of the martyrs?
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Since it opened just over one year ago, Al Risalah Bookstore has gained a reputation as a centre of Islamic extremism. Sheikh Majzoub gave his final lecture here.
MUSTAPHA AL-MAJZOUB: My dear respected brothers and sisters in Islam, (inaudible).
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What do you know of the Al Risalah Bookstore in Bankstown?
JAMAL DAOUD, SOCIAL JUSTICE NETWORK: Al Risalah Bookstore especially is very secret, very secretive. They conduct their business in a very secretive way.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Some community leaders like Jamal Daoud are concerned.
JAMAL DAOUD: I tried, I tried to explore who’s behind this group. We can’t. It is very secretive. This is very worrying for us in a democracy to have some secretive organisation. They conduct all their businesses in very secretive way.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So you do not know who the sheikhs are?
JAMAL DAOUD: No.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: 7.30 has been investigating Al Risalah’s activities and the people behind it, identifying four key sheikhs. All are radical and all are encouraging Australians to get involved in Syria.
This is Sheikh Abu Sulayman, picture here delivering a lecture at the Al Risalah Bookstore last year, encouraging his audience of young Muslim men to join the jihad in Syria.
ABU SULAYMAN, MUSLIM SHEIKH: We’re calling day and night for us to support them with our wealth and with our blood and with whatever we possess.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Sheikh Omar El-Banna is another key teacher at Al Risalah.
OMAR EL-BANNA, SHEIKH: I want to pass on two points. That you are responsible for what’s happening there. … What should we be do? When one organ is in pain, the remaining parts of the body, they show care. … In Syria now, the problem, Allah will ask you, “What did you do?”
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This is Musa Cerantonio.
MUSA CERANTONIO, MUSLIM SHEIKH: Allah is our protector. He is our protector and they have no protector.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Once an Italian Christian, now a passionate convert to Islam, teaching at Al Risalah. Here Musa Cerantonio promotes the Al-Qaeda-backed jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.
MUSA CERANTONIO: Allah willing, as one of the leaders Jabhat al-Nusra said: “If we take this (Damascus) – and I don’t want to give false hope – but if we take this, Allah willing, victory is near.”
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Al Risalah has another even more infamous sheikh. Abu Suhaib, known to the authorities as Bilal Khazal, a former baggage handler for Qantas, trained at a military camp in Afghanistan and a confidante of Osama Bin Laden. Khazal was lecturing at Al Risalah until mid-2012 when he was convicted and sentenced to nine years’ jail for producing a do-it-yourself terrorism book. Al Risalah posted this video of Khazal online titled “Final advice before his imprisonment”:
ABU SUHAIB, MUSLIM SHEIKH: We ask God Almighty for victory and that the Islamic state rises up.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you believe that these bookstores are radicalising young men?
JAMAL DAOUD: Definitely. If you go inside and read what DVDs and books they’re distributing, it’s all about radical Islam.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The possibility that extremist sheikhs are radicalising youth at home before they go to Syria has Australian authorities on high alert.
Are you aware of the sheikhs behind Al Risalah and what they’re teaching, preaching?
NICK KALDAS, NSW DEPUTY POLICE COMMISSIONER: Um, I am aware of Al Risalah and I’m aware of some of the activities that go on and some of the individuals involved, yes
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Would it concern you if these sheikhs and teachers at Al Risalah were promoting violent jihad?
NICK KALDAS: All of that has to be of concern, certainly. But I would also say that our federal authorities are very much involved in some of the issues you’ve just raised, certainly in term of fundraising and people going – leaving Australia and going to fight overseas. The federal authorities have to be involved and have privacy in a lotta those issues.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: If there’s evidence of that though, of this radicalisation …
NICK KALDAS: It is of concern. It’s definitely of concern.
MARK DREYFUS: Clearly, there’s a radicalisation involved in wanting to participate in this kind of military and violent activity. There’s a concern before people go, but there’s a concern after they return as well. And the director general of ASIO has spoken of this, I’ve spoken of this: that if you’ve got to Syria, participated in the conflict there, particularly with a terrorist group, and then returned to Australia, it’s likely that you will return not just with terrorist ideology, but with more knowledge.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What would you say to the sheikhs or teachers at Al Risalah who are encouraging young men to go to Syria?
NICK KALDAS: Clearly that’s not an advisable option. I mean, sending people into a war zone is something that’s quite heartless and quite selfish, I have to say. For somebody to be advocating that others go and fight in a war when they’re not prepared to do it themselves tells me something about those who are advocating that.
LEIGH SALES: Caro Meldrum-Hanna reporting there.
[sources mentioned at links above.]
[I do not share opinions entirely but yes,it is scary because of the expansion]
credits to an Aussie friend who is not after fame,who seeks and finds,who wants to remain anonymous and I have to respect that and I have to appreciate the news sent from Down Under , and of course, to ABC