The Australian government has provided more details about a “sophisticated” Islamic State plot that was disrupted late last month. The self-declared caliphate shipped bomb components through the mail to Australia and then provided the recipients with directions concerning how to assemble an improvised explosive device (IED).
Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Australian Federal Police (AFP) deputy commissioner Mike Phelan explained that there were at least two planned attacks. First, the suspects built an IED that was intended to blow up an airliner. Second, they allegedly attempted to build a chemical dispersion weapon. The latter device was apparently only in the beginning stages of development.
Importantly, Phelan emphasized that the accused men were receiving orders from the Islamic State (ISIL) and not acting solely on their own initiative.
“It is alleged that this individual was receiving information, being inspired and directed, directly from ISIL in Syria,” Phelan said of one of the men arrested. “This advice was coming from a senior member of the Islamic State.”
The alleged would-be terrorists attempted “to place an IED on an Etihad flight out of Sydney on the 15th” of July, Phelan said. “At no stage did the IED breach airline security,” he added.
The would-be terrorists failed to get their explosive on board the plane and were forced to scuttle the attack. But it wasn’t until nearly two weeks later, on July 29, that four men were arrested. Two of them, a 49-year-old man and a 32-year-old man, have been charged with committing terrorism offenses.
The details of the plot are significant, especially given the direct role played by Islamic State operatives overseas.
“Components of this IED were sent through international air cargo by the ISIL operatives to the accused men here in Australia,” deputy commissioner Phelan said. “With assistance from the ISIL commander,” Phelan elaborated, “the accused assembled the IED, the components of the IED, into what we believe was a functioning IED to be placed on that flight.”
Australian authorities think they have recovered all of the components of the improvised bomb, thereby neutralizing the threat.
“The second plot relates to the building of what’s called an improvised chemical dispersion device,” Whelan explained. The suspects allegedly attempted “to create an improvised chemical device,” which “was designed to release the highly toxic hydrogen sulfide.”
“This hydrogen sulfide is very difficult to make,” Whelan said. He described the second plot involving toxic gas as “hypothetical.”
“There were certainly precursor chemicals that had been produced and some of the components had been produced,” Whelan said, “but we were a long way from having a functioning…chemical dispersion device.” He added: “There is no evidence at all that the device was completed.”
Whelan added that this Islamic State plot went far beyond mere inspiration. “We have been saying for a long time that it is not only the capability of lone actors that we have to worry about, but we also have to worry about sophisticated plots,” he warned.
“This is one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted on Australian soil,” Whelan said. “And if it hadn’t been for the great work of our intelligence agencies and law enforcement over a very quick period of time, then we could have had a very catastrophic event in this country.”
An advanced “remote-controlled” plot
While many details remain to be confirmed, the thwarted attack in Australia looks like an advanced “remote-controlled” plot.
Since the Islamic State declared itself to be a caliphate in 2014, American and European counterterrorism officials have repeatedly discovered that willing recruits were communicating with online handlers using social media applications. In a number of cases, these communications evolved into what European officials have described as “remote-controlled” plots, usually involving an individual attacker acting under the guidance of his or her handlers inside the caliphate’s home turf. Some of these unsophisticated attacks were successful, while many others were thwarted.
Authorities have detected more advanced versions of these types of plots before, including in Indonesia. Bahrun Naim, an especially prolific Islamic State operative, has reportedly transferred his explosives expertise to cells in his home country. Indonesian authorities say they have thwarted multiple attempts by Naim’s recruits to use military-grade explosives. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Indonesian authorities hunt Islamic State operative’s cyber recruits.]
But Islamic State operatives allegedly went several steps further in the latest plot uncovered in Australia. Not only did the so-called caliphate provide bomb-making guidance online, the group physically shipped the IED components as well.
The plan was far bolder than previous claimed attacks in Australia.
In Dec. 2014, Man Haron Monis took hostages at a café in Sydney. Monis and two of his hostages died as a result. The editors of the so-called caliphate’s Dabiq magazine declared that Monis was “resolved to join the mujāhidīn of the Islamic State in their war against the crusader coalition.” Monis “did not do so by undertaking the journey to the lands of the Khilāfah and fighting side-by-side with his brothers but rather, by acting alone and striking the kuffār where it would hurt them most – in their own lands and on the very streets that they presumptively walk in safety,” the sixth edition of Dabiq read.
Australian authorities said that Monis had psychological problems and a violent history, while also identifying with various other causes in the past. He reportedly converted from Shiite Islam to Sunni Islam and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before his siege in Sydney.
In June of this year, Yacqub Khayre murdered one person and held another hostage in an apartment building outside of Melbourne, Ausralia. The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency claimed that Khayre, who was killed in a shootout with authorities, was a “soldier” of the group and had “carried out the attack in response to calls to target the citizens of nations involved in the coalition.”
However, none of the previous Islamic State plots in Australia (whether they were merely inspired or guided) were as significant as the latest attempt, which could have caused mass casualties.
The Islamic State’s Sinai “province” blew up a Russian airliner, killing all 224 on board, in Oct. 2015. The jihadists claim to have used a simple IED to down the plane, which had taken off from Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh International Airport in the Sinai.
And the US government instituted a ban on select electronic devices on certain flights this year in order to interrupt suspected anti-airline plots by both the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
As the recent plot in Australia shows, the jihadists continue to focus on aviation as a prime target.