SYDNEY: In Kings Cross, this city’s bawdy, alcohol-infused red-light district, Mohammad Ali Baryalei once patrolled the sidewalk outside the Love Machine club, his basso voice luring customers in, his muscle keeping the unwanted out. For a time, the police said, his was a world of prostitutes, drugs, gangs and gambling.
But a few years ago, Baryalei, the son of Afghan refugees who settled in the suburbs of Australia’s most multicultural city, embraced radical Islam and traveled to Syria, where he resurfaced as a lieutenant of the extremist Islamic State. This month, the authorities here said, he was recorded on a phone call instructing a young Australian to carry out what the police described as a “demonstration killing” of a random person in Sydney.
Analysts and policymakers have debated whether the Islamic State has the ambition or the reach to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks in the West. Baryalei’s phone call, from 9,000 miles and a world away from the Australian continent, suggests one answer. It is one of the few known instances of the Islamic State attempting a terrorist act outside its home base in the Middle East.
The intercepted call set off the largest counter-terrorism operation in Australian history, resulting in the arrest of a 22-year-old Sydney man, whom Baryalei is said to have asked to carry out a beheading on camera. Addressing Parliament afterward, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that it showed that “a knife, an iPhone and a victim” were the only ingredients needed for a terrorist attack.
Days later, an 18-year-old man stabbed two counter-terrorism officers outside Melbourne, Australia’s second-most-populous city, before one of the officers shot and killed him. The police described the man as a “known terror suspect” who had been seen carrying an Islamic State flag at a local shopping center.
The two incidents have been the subject of sensational news coverage and have prompted fear and outrage here about Australia’s apparent status as the top source for foreign fighters in Syria outside the Middle East and Europe. They have also driven home concerns in Australia, and across the West, about the Islamic State’s ability to send foreign fighters back to their home countries undetected to commit terrorist attacks or use their ties to home to organize attacks from afar.
Intelligence officials say that about 70 Australians are fighting as members of the Islamic State, typically disaffected young Muslim men from immigrant families. But it is not those on the battlefield that most worry the authorities in Australia. The government says it has also canceled the passports of more than 100 other Australians to stop them from traveling – for fear that they have been recruited by the militants – and put about 150 residents under surveillance. Some of them are former fighters who have returned from Syria in recent months.
The numbers are fairly significant given Australia’s relatively small population of 23 million. By comparison, an estimated 100 Americans are believed to have joined the Islamic State, and as many as 500 British citizens are said to be with the group.
Some who have been recruited in Australia are second-generation Lebanese, the children of refugees from the civil war in the 1970s who resettled here. Many of these families built successful businesses in construction and other industries and reside in spacious suburban homes in neighborhoods of western Sydney that are predominantly Muslim. Their middle-class profile is unusual given the more desperate conditions in the Middle East or Europe from which many militants have been recruited.
One Muslim community leader in Sydney, Dr. Jamal Rifi, a general practitioner, said a feeling of isolation from the rest of Australia pervades many Muslim neighborhoods despite their economic successes. The Muslim population in Australia has climbed nearly 70 percent since 2001, to about 500,000, but most Muslims live in neighborhoods with few non-Muslims.
“Muslims feel more exposed because of the concentration of Muslims in small communities,” he said.
Public concern about the Islamic State’s ties to Australia have been amplified by photographs that have been posted on the Internet and splashed across local newspapers of an Australian man and a 7-year-old Australian boy in Syria, each holding up severed heads, apparently from victims of the Islamic State.
Rifi identified the man as Mohamed Elomar, a second-generation Lebanese who once lived in Sydney. Elomar’s father, who runs a thriving construction firm, was ashamed of his actions, Rifi said, and donated $10,000 to a recent barbecue event intended to show Muslim support for the Australian way of life. More than 7,000 people attended the event, which Rifi organized.
But it is the case of Baryalei, 33, the former bouncer, who once had a bit part in an episode of an Australian television drama, that has captured the most attention. Law enforcement officials describe him as the highest-ranking Australian fighting with the Islamic State.
“He had the appearance and reputation of a tough guy who handles problems at the nightclub door,” said Clive Small, a former assistant commissioner of police, who has discussed the case with investigators. But underneath, he was angry “about the world and his family, cheesed off about things and was ripe for the picking” by militants.
Baryalei’s grandfather was a poet and a second cousin to Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, according to an investigation by “7.30,” a current affairs program for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. The family fled Afghanistan in 1981 during the war with the Soviet Union months after Baryalei was born, then lived in India before being assigned to a refugee center in a desolate part of western Sydney when Baryalei was 7.
The young boy had a tumultuous relationship with an abusive father, suffered from bouts of depression as a teenager and performed poorly during a brief stint at a well-to-do Roman Catholic secondary school, the ABC report said. He eventually graduated from a government high school and drifted to Kings Cross, where the clubs and brothels are largely controlled by owners of Middle East origin.
Love Machine, squeezed between the Vegas Hotel and the Bada Bing Nightspot, is one of the most notorious, a 24-hour joint that Small described as offering “what you want, when you want it.” Prostitution is legal in this part of Australia, and a sign at the door touts “explicit content live sex acts.”
How Baryalei went from Love Machine to the Islamic State remains unclear. But at some point after 2009, the police said, he joined a group that signs up young Muslims to preach near university campuses and around shopping centers. A video posted on YouTube in 2012 shows him with a heavy beard and white skull cap, smiling broadly and handing out leaflets as he tried to win converts on a busy street in downtown Sydney.
Baryalei’s initial contact with the militants appears to have been Hamdi AlQudsi, 40, a Sydney man arrested in December on charges of recruiting and helping seven Australian men travel to Syria. According to court documents filed by the police in the case, Baryalei traveled to Syria in April 2013 and was in regular phone contact afterward with AlQudsi, telling him about a deadly battle in one call.
Baryalei told his mother and sisters that he was studying abroad.
“He is very friendly, very outgoing,” his sister said from the gated home of a friend in Quakers Hill, a diverse suburb where Baryalei grew up. “What they are saying about him is totally out of character.” She said the family practiced a moderate form of Islam and asked not to be identified by name because of intrusive news coverage.
The police said Baryalei acted as AlQudsi’s go-to man on the border between Turkey and Syria, arranging at one point to put up recruits at a four-star hotel in Antakya, a town on the Turkish side of the border.
Among the recruits believed to have been handled by Baryalei was an Australian-born American citizen and his wife, the daughter of a wealthy Lebanese restaurant owner in Queensland, on Australia’s Gold Coast. The police said both were killed during fighting in Aleppo, Syria, this year. More than a dozen Australians have been reported killed in fighting in Syria.
Baryalei’s phone call this month prompted the authorities to raid more than a dozen homes in suburban Sydney. Abbott, the prime minister, quickly introduced stiff new legislation that would give the police and intelligence agencies greater powers of surveillance and detention, measures that critics condemned as overkill.
Rifi warned that the heightened monitoring of Muslim men could fuel further radicalization. There was little to fear, he argued, from those who have returned to Australia after spending time with the Islamic State. Most of them are lying low and have “de-radicalized themselves,” he said. “These people are all shell shocked.”