A jihadist and his disciples

Convicted terror plot ringleader Abdul Nacer Benbrika wanted to wage violent jihad on Australians, and so recruited a small band of malleable lost souls on whom he imprinted his own warped and bloodthirsty interpretation of Islamic law.
ABDUL Nacer Benbrika went on hunger strike while in jail. Not over his incarceration, the terror charges he faced or the food – but over the removal of his Islamic books from his cell. In May, guards at the Metropolitan Remand Centre took about 120 books from him because they were seen as a fire hazard. Benbrika starved himself for a week until authorities agreed to buy him electronic copies of the Arabic texts.
Benbrika argued that he needed the books to be able to instruct his lawyers during his trial and to advise the other 11 men accused of being part of his terror group. He said in an affidavit tendered to the court: “Throughout the trial I have generally done four to six hours of work each night after lockdown referring to these books. I work on Islamic concepts discussed in the recorded conversations or relevant to issues in the trial. Often I research and answer questions to assist my co-accused.”
For Benbrika, it was crucial that he not lose his place as the self-appointed religious authority for this group of young Muslim men; he had so long been their expert on the theology of terror.
Benbrika was this week convicted of leading an organisation fostering terror in the pursuit of violent jihad, and other counts. Six of his followers were convicted on terror charges, four were acquitted, and no verdict was reached for one man.
Benbrika has described himself as an aeronautical engineer who never managed to find work in his profession after coming to Australia from Algeria in 1989. Here he assumed the status of sheikh, or religious leader, and the rewards for him were obvious; nothing like young acolytes to boost one’s self-esteem.
Hints about why some of his followers took up fantasies of heroic action in the name of Allah can be gleaned from evidence at their trial.
Abdullah Merhi, who was only 19, had recently lost his father and might have briefly found a replacement in the middle-aged sheikh. Like most of the others, he was seeking spiritual meaning and purpose.
The group’s initial focus was the sheikh’s classes in Islamic doctrine. The jury concluded that was where the involvement ended for four of the men. Defence lawyers pointed out that several accused were not shown to have ever been present when violent jihad was talked about.
Some talked to Benbrika of how they longed to make a great mark on the world, or wanted to escape the domestic grind of marriage and children that would otherwise be their fate.
Convicted member Amer Haddara, now 28, was secretly recorded telling Benbrika: “Another phase is beginning. This is what I can see. And I have been running away from it. I don’t want it. This is having responsibility, having children and the like.”
Haddara said he did not want the headache: “I thought ‘finish’. I will escape the whole thing altogether.” The prosecution later argued that he was alluding to escape through martyrdom.
What the young men all definitely shared was a longing to be an authentic Muslim. One of the accused, Shane Kent, was a convert to Islam. The others were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs – the children of migrants in a new, secular land – who were preoccupied with how to be a real Muslim man: what rules should they obey, what goals should they adopt, how should they live their lives?
Using his own seductive take on international politics and Muslim identity, Benbrika nurtured in them a view of the world that would lead them, Pied Piper-like, into the dock at Australia’s largest terror trial.
Benbrika must have seemed to his young followers to be “the real thing”. He came from a Muslim country, wore a long, flowing beard and a kaftan, and was more comfortable with Arabic – the language of the Koran – than English.
He taught that the Muslim “ummah”, or international community, was being treated unjustly in places such as Palestine and Chechnya. So it was the duty of all Muslim men who were not old or infirm to fight jihad to shake off Western domination.
He told fellow Islamic community leader Samir Mohtadi that Australia was “a land at war” with Muslims as it had troops in Iraq.
Mohtadi had asked to meet Benbrika to warn him against any acts of violence in Australia. Mohtadi told the court: “I said if he intends to kill anyone in this country, he will imprison our Muslim sisters, basically, and he would be killing innocent people and . . . it will be devastating for the Muslim community and the non-Muslim community.”
Benbrika told Mohtadi that the rumour he was planning terrorism “is nothing but a lie”.
Benbrika was an absolutist and a perfectionist, passionate about his own interpretation of Islamic belief (the prosecution was at pains to point out that it did not suggest for a moment that Benbrika represented the true face of Islam). When follower Majed Raad (who was acquitted) brought him a book on Islam that Benbrika thought heretical, Benbrika berated him and then burst into tears.
Benbrika’s definition of jihad was single-minded and military. He said: “The real meaning of jihad is fighting the enemy of Allah . . . There is only one meaning in the Koran, which means fighting the kuffr (unbelievers).”
Benbrika believed that when one was on the path of right, all actions were righteous. He was asked by one man during a philosophical debate, wouldn’t it be hard to cut the throat of a woman? Benbrika answered, in his broken English: “Not hard . . . I swear to Allah it’s not hard. Why is it hard? That is why you have to do it and you’re happy. Why? Because Allah allowed it to you. You must consider like this, think like that. You understand? Allah is giving you the right.”
Benbrika had seven children in his small house in Dallas, but he set aside one room as a study lined with hundreds of books on Islamic jurisprudence. He talked with assurance and in obsessive detail about what the authorities said was halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden) under Islam.
He had rules for everything from what prayers to say before going to the toilet to how to make the heavenly most of martyrdom as an Islamic fighter, or mujahideen.
In one conversation he told Izzydeen Atik: “If your intention is good and you die with some sin as a mujahid, Allah willing, the first blood that comes from you, you will be forgiven all your sin except one: if you owe money to people. That is something that stick . . . that is why, before you die, leave a will.”
The jury’s verdicts suggest Benbrika was also what academics call “a terrorist entrepreneur”.
Professor David Wright-Neville is co-founder of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University. He gave evidence at the plea hearing last year for Atik, who pleaded guilty to terror charges.
Wright-Neville said a terrorist entrepreneur “fishes around the margins of society for alienated, disenfranchised and angry people, gives them a sense of meaning, gives them a sense of community, often gives them a sense of direction; (he is) a charismatic figure who coheres the group . . . and exercises significant authority.”
He said terrorists typically passed through a long period of becoming withdrawn from wider society, which they blamed for their own problems. They begin to mix with a small group of like-minded people with whom they share their frustration and humiliation, and their anger “intensifies very quickly”.
He argued that religion was not a causal factor but could help hold a group together: “Religion becomes a way that the political entrepreneur can manipulate (and) instil a common ideology.”
In Benbrika’s group, some of the structures were based on Islamic principles. Benbrika told the men that their zakat, or alms tax – a charitable donation that is one of the five pillars of Islam – could be paid into the group fund, or sandooq. From several, he accepted a bayat – a pledge of loyalty to him as the amir, or commander – the prosecution alleged.
In Benbrika’s Islam, his own teachings were to be accepted without question and texts were to be read literally. He was asked about a verse from the Koran that says, “If you punish the enemy . . . then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted.”
Benbrika said this meant: “They kill our kids. It’s our right, according to the verse you read, to take out revenge.”
Benbrika’s strictures were often softly spoken, sometimes almost whispered, but delivered with great emotional intensity. At times he cajoled, persuaded and reassured; at other times, he laid down the law like an Old Testament prophet, refusing to tolerate disobedience or doubts. He declined to accept a pledge of loyalty from Atik because Atik had disregarded one of his orders.
Many covertly recorded conversations were linked by prosecutors to war-like rhetoric in CDs, guerilla training videos and documents that made up “a common jihadi library” that was said to have helped shape the men’s thinking.
Several CD images were of the beheading of Western hostages by masked Muslim terrorists. Others showed individuals being killed in military encounters, with voice-overs saying: “They knew he was a Muslim, so they slit his throat,” or “They ripped his entire eye out. He was only five and he was a Muslim . . . was that enough for you?”
Songs called nasheeds had lyrics about a triumphalist Islam: “We used to own this world for centuries . . . then look what happened to us when we forgot jihad.”
A discussion that mentioned a catapult, according to lead prosecutor Richard Maidment, SC, related to a document that glorified the attack on the World Trade Centre. The document referred to texts and history to justify indiscriminate killing in the pursuit of jihad.
Maidment said the logic was that “in battles long gone by, one of the weapons used was a catapult, and you can’t direct a catapult accurately enough to just kill an individual or group of individuals who you can identify. So, because it was OK to use a catapult in those battles, then it’s OK to use a weapon which can kill indiscriminately (today)”.
Benbrika could be pernickety about his interpretation of the finer points of Islamic law. Some of his group suggested setting up a scam to raise money by taking out loans they never intended to pay back.
Benbrika initially agreed but took back his original fatwa, or ruling, after consulting the decisions of sheikhs overseas. He declared the idea un-Islamic because it involved a promise to pay interest – even though the whole point of the scam was that no interest would actually be repaid. But he “authorised” members of the group to steal and strip cars and use credit cards fraudulently.
On one hand, Benbrika heaped coals on the fire of his followers’ burning resentment about the political treatment of Muslims around the world. On the other, he offered them relief from that frustration, with dreams of heroism on earth and eternal glory in heaven if they would harness that anger to violent jihad.
But Benbrika firmly rejected suicide as forbidden, and he condemned martyrdom for no good political cause.
Shoue Hammoud (among the acquitted) asked once whether a victory for Allah was a necessary element, “or can I just martyr myself and go to heaven? Quick way to paradise?”
Benbrika said: “Martyrdom is easy. You go to the kuffr (unbelievers) and say, ‘shoot me’. So what? That’s not what we want. We want victory.”
Benbrika expected “victory” to come at a terrible cost, to his closest followers as well as to the world around them. In February 2005, he was recorded as saying: “Everyone has to prepare himself . . . to die or to be jailed. Allah knows best . . . We want to die for jihad. We do maximum damage, maximum damage. Damage their buildings with everything and damage their lives just to show them. That’s what we waiting for.”
Police swooped before the men got to that point. Their lawyers later argued that they would never have reached it.
Benbrika had spoken of possible capture. He told some of the men that if prosecuted they should plead youth, or marriage and family, so they did not get long jail terms.
At their sentencing by Justice Bernard Bongiorno, the other convicted terrorists will find out whether that was one of many pieces of very bad advice they received from Abdul Nacer Benbrika.
Karen Kissane is law and justice editor.
· The case began with a tip-off to police in 2004 alleging Benbrika and others were planning a terrorist attack. Police set up surveillance.
· The main evidence was 482 conversations between the men, covertly taped using listening devices (a total of 16,000 hours taped by police) and telephone intercepts (98,000 calls taped by police). Only 143 hours were played to the jury.
· The investigation was done by a joint taskforce of Victoria Police, Australian Federal Police and ASIO officers.
· More than $25 million has been spent investigating, prosecuting and defending the men.
· Benbrika and four others face other terror charges in trials due to start from next year.

First published in The Age.