Australia has intercepted a teenager on his way to fight with extremist groups in the Middle East, according to the Middle East Eye. Officials removed the 17-year-old boy from a plane at the Sydney airport, in an event that demonstrates how the Australian police have taken seriously the recent failures of their counterparts in Britain. Their detainee is the third Middle East-bound teenager to be intercepted in Australia this month, as countries across the world struggle to staunch the outward flow of eager young recruits.
On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton spoke of the most recent intervention, which took place on March 12. The boy was taken off the flight after being interviewed by counter-terrorism officials, Dutton said. Since then, he has been returned to his family while the police conduct their investigation into the affair. Two other boys, brothers from Sydney aged 16 and 17, had been prevented from leaving the country on outbound flights to Turkey on March 6. In February, the world was captivated by reports of three teenage girls from Bethnal Green, London, who traveled to Syria via Turkey to join ISIS.
Australia has become an unlikely hotbed of jihadi recruiting over the past couple of years, but the authorities have been somewhat successful in their pursuit of prospective combatants. In the same press conference, the Australian government announced that their counter-terrorism unit had stopped around 200 suspected jihadis from leaving their shores. In the past seven months, Dutton estimated that around 85,000 travelers have been questioned on suspicion that they planned to join militant groups. The minister said:
Many of these young people, even without the knowledge of their parents, are downloading and receiving information through social media and on the internet otherwise. So essentially this death cult is reaching through the computer screens into the minds of young Australians, brainwashing them… we need whatever tools we have to apply to this situation but the CTU [Counter Terrorism Unit] officers are the front line response for us to investigate these matters, stop people traveling to an almost certain death or for contribution to the death of others, and then ultimately if they do survive returning to our country.
Tony Abbott, Australia’s Prime Minister, has previously termed ISIS an “apocalyptic death cult,” and his rhetoric is clearly catching on. Abbott expressed consternation at this latest press conference. He said:
Plainly, Australians, hard to believe in some respects, but nevertheless, people who have grown up, born and bred in a free and open society, sadly do seem susceptible to the lure of the death cult and some of them are tempted to go overseas.
He added that his government would ramp up counter-terrorism efforts and improve border security. “We will do everything we can to stop you if you do try [to join],” he said. “It is absolutely critical that the people of Australia appreciate that the death cult is reaching out to vulnerable and impressionable young people.”
The government has said that around 100 Australian nations are fighting with ISIS on the ground, while a further 150 supporters are cheering them on from the antipodean bleachers. On March 3, the government announced that it would send another 300 troops (on top of the 150 already in place) to join the fight against extremism by training local forces in the attempt to gain back land won by ISIS.
Abbott’s heated rhetoric has earned him rebuke from opposition politicians in the past. “We cannot give in to hatred, division and prejudice,” Labour-party leader Bill Shorten said last September, censuring several Coalition members who hoped to ban head-coverings.
Earlier in March, an 18-year-old Australian ISIS recruit reportedly blew himself up in Iraq. Abu Abdullah al-Australi, formerly Jake Bilardi, deposited materials for making explosive devices at his family’s Melbourne home before he set off for Syria. He planned to use the stashed goods to carry out attacks in Australia, should his Middle Eastern itinerary get interrupted. At the time, Bustle noted that “appointing the 17-year-old Australian to speak on behalf of ISIS is a clear attempt to attract other young and impressionable teens like him, who might be enticed by the seemingly powerful position Elmir holds.”
The strategy seems to be working. Also in March, a picture of a Caucasian schoolboy sitting between two ISIS fighters appeared online. The teenager was identified as an 18-year-old from Melbourne. At the time, Abbott said, “Too many Australians, it seems, are being brainwashed online.” In February, an ISIS recruit from Australia spoke of his escape from the group, after he witnessed the killing of Western prisoners. “A lot of people when they come they have a lot of enthusiasm about what they’ve seen online, what they’ve seen on YouTube,” he told CBS. “They see it as something a lot grander than what the reality is — it’s not all military parades or victories.” But the renegade is the odd one out in a sea of fresh recruits.
Last October, another Australian runaway appeared on an ISIS video: 17-year-old Abdullah Elmir from Sydney addressed Abbott, saying that jihadists would persevere until the black flag of ISIS flew above every nation. Dressed in fatigues, Elmir — who had disappeared last June — announced to camera:
To Tony Abbott, I say this. These weapons that we have, these soldiers, we will not stop fighting…We will not put down our weapons until we reach your lands and until we take the head of every tyrant and until the black flag is flying high in every single land, until we put the black flag on top of Buckingham Palace, until we put the black flag on top of the White House.
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