Hamdi Alqudsi, the central figure in Australia’s most successful jihadi recruitment network, has been sentenced to a minimum of six years in prison.
In July this year, the 42-year-old western Sydney resident was found guilty in the NSW Supreme Court of seven counts of supporting engagement in armed hostilities in Syria.
Alqudsi was found to have helped seven men travel to Syria between June and October 2013 to fight alongside militant groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. He’s the first Australian to have been charged under the 1978 Commonwealth Foreign Incursions and Recruitment Act, since the Syrian conflict broke out.
The police investigation
The network was foiled by a joint Federal and NSW police investigation involving the interception of nearly 300 exchanges that took place via telephone and text messages, as well as digital Apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. Alqudsi was working with Mohammad Baryalei, Australia’s most senior Islamic State member at the time.
The pair used code during their conversations, referring to the grooming of potential fighters as “soccer.” Alqudsi was heard to say he wanted “the right players in the soccer club”, while Baryalei remarked that he was willing to help the recruits make their way across, but wasn’t prepared to help them return to Australia.
Baryalei, a former Kings Cross bouncer and part-time actor, travelled to Syria in April 2013 and is believed to have been killed in October 2014.
When handing down the sentence, Justice Christine Adamson said it was important to impose a heavy sentence in order to deter others from such actions, and maintain confidence in the justice system.
She rejected his claim that he did not know his actions were illegal, and was not convinced that he showed any remorse.
Those recruited to fight in Syria
Of the seven men Alqudsi recruited, two were killed whilst fighting for opposing groups. In January 2014, Caner Temel died while fighting for Islamic State. In that same month, Tyler Casey and his wife Amira Karroum – one of the so-called “jihadi brides” – were killed by Islamic State, while fighting for then Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.
In 2013, Islamic State – then known as Islamic State in Iraq and Levant – and the Jabhat al-Nusra were both affiliates of Al Qaeda. But by January 2014, the two militant groups had split and were engaged in armed conflict against one another.
Last month, Jabhat al-Nusra announced it had split from Al Qaeda in order to remove the pretext for countries like the United States and Russia to bomb Syria. However, the US said this wouldn’t change their view of the group as a terrorist organisation.
Of the other recruits, Abu Hassan and Mehmet Biber have returned to Australia, while the whereabouts of Abu Alim and Nassim Elbahsa are unknown.
Another man, Amin Mohamed, never left Australia. Last year, the Victorian Supreme Court found him guilty of three charges relating to plans to fight in Syria.
Australians fighting overseas today
ASIO estimates that around 110 Australian citizens are overseas either fighting or working for militant groups like Islamic State.
They all face the loss of their Australian citizenship under the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill, which was introduced by the federal government last year. Over the past financial year, federal government figures show that 145 passports have been cancelled, 26 suspended and 22 applications rejected.
The most senior Australian jihadist fighting in Syria today is said to be Mostafa Farag. The 31-year-old former Sydney cleric travelled to Syria in 2012 and joined Jabhat al-Nusra. The latest Australian citizen to have been killed in the fighting is Neil Prakash. The Islamic State fighter was targeted by a US fighter plane on April 29 this year. Prakash is believed to have been at the centre of an internet-based jihadi recruitment network.
Australian legislation designed to stop foreign fighters
In 2014, Australian attorney-general George Brandis introduced a suite of new anti-terrorism laws before federal parliament, all of which were subsequently passed.
The bills were designed to curb the actions of foreign fighters, as well as those who engage in terrorist activities on home soil. However, critics see these laws as an unecessary attack on civil liberties.
The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill was passed on October 29 2014. The legislation has made it easier to identify, charge and prosecute Australians engaged in fighting overseas, and made it an offence to travel to declared areas that have been designated as harbouring terrorist activity. It also provides police with the power to arrest people for the offence of advocating terrorism on social media and allows for the welfare payments of suspects to be cut.
The law has been criticised for doing away with basic rights. It allows for delayed warrant notification – meaning police can enter a property, or that of a neighbour, without a warrant. The actual warrant must be issued within six months following the event.
And the government’s power to declare certain areas off-limits removes the presumption of innocence, meaning that those who travel to such regions must establish they did so for legitimate reasons, or else face up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Meanwhile, last year’s Allegiance to Australia Bill allows for Australians who hold dual-citizenship to have their Australian citizenship removed if they’re suspected of terrorism. It also allows for people who are allegedly fighting overseas or have committed an act of terrorism in Australia and are now overseas, to be declared non-citizens as soon as the immigration minister becomes aware of them.
A major criticism of this bill is that it effectively creates two classes of citizens – those who were born in the country and have an inalienable right to citizenship, and the third of the population who are either foreign citizens or foreign nationals, who can now have their citizenship revoked.
It is also criticised on the basis that a politician – the immigration minister – has enormous powers to cancel an Australian’s citizenship on a mere suspicion of a criminal offence.
It’s been shown that those Australians who have been recruited to fight in foreign wars are often those who feel most alienated in society. And this bill could contribute to further feelings of alienation amongst marginalised groups.
Hamdi Alqudsi will be eligible for release from prison on July 11, 2022.