Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
The rise of Australia's most senior man in Al Qaeda -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

SABRA LANE, PRESENTER: A young Australian man has become such an important figure in al-Qaeda that Washington has officially named him a global terrorist and is targeting him for killing or capture. While most of the world focuses on the brutal Islamic State, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch has been quietly waging an often successful war of its own. Central to its fight is Abu Sulayman, one of the group's most senior authorities. So how did a young Sydney preacher become so important to al-Qaeda so quickly? Dylan Welch with this exclusive report.

DYLAN WELCH, REPORTER: In war-ravaged Syria, al-Qaeda and its allies bombard the regime-controlled village of Kinsaba.

In Syria, al-Qaeda is called Jabhat al-Nusra. After days of bitter fighting, it celebrates victory.

JABHAT AL-NUSRA MEMBER (subtitle translation): Come to the revolution! The mujahideen on the Syrian and Turkish borders have liberated the town of Kinsaba!

DYLAN WELCH: There to share the victory is one of Jabhat al-Nusra's most senior advisors, Sheikh Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir. He's a key propagandist and religious advisor and he's from Sydney.

THOMAS JOSCELYN, TERRORISM ANALYST: A guy like Abu Sulayman is the type of thing that I worry about because he was not really well-understood or well-known to Western intelligence officials until his emergence in Syria and he's fluent - he's a fluent English speaker, which means he can advocate for their cause in the Western world and this combination is very potent.

ABU SULAYMAN, SHEIKH: (Inaudible) jihad has been fighting for decade for the return of an Islamic state.

DYLAN WELCH: How did a Sydney street preacher become such a big wheel within one of the world's most shadowy jihadi groups? And did Australian security agencies miss vital clues that he was already affiliated with al-Qaeda when he was living in our midst?

THOMAS JOSCELYN: If he was really al-Qaeda in Sydney before he relocated to Syria, it raises questions about the scope of al-Qaeda's network in the West. This is the type of cat-and-mouse game that's been played since 9/11 and you can see that clearly the West still has blind spots about the scope of al-Qaeda's network.

ABU SULAYMAN: Let's look at these people who sought their honour in America. And what did America do after they used them and abused them? They tossed them to the side as if they meant nothing.

DYLAN WELCH: Abu Sulayman was born Mostafa Mahamed in Egypt in 1984. His family moved to Sydney's southern suburbs when he was a baby.

By the time he was a teenager, 9/11 had changed the world forever. He began mixing with some of Australia's most fundamentalist preachers.

One of the men he studied under was Sheikh Abu Adnan, seen here auctioning a flag associated with the terrorist group Islamic State. Another teacher was a Sheikh Feiz Mohammed, who ran the Global Islamic Youth Centre in Sydney's south-west.

FEIZ MOHAMMED, SHEIKH: Look at our situation! Look at the people around us! We are the most humiliated nation on the face of this Earth!

DYLAN WELCH: He also became close to Bilal Khazal, a convicted terrorist with deep and abiding links with al-Qaeda's leadership.

REPORTER: The CIA report says he was in Afghanistan in '98 and affiliated there with al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden.

DYLAN WELCH: Australian police had evidence that when Khazal returned to Sydney in the early-2000s, he became a key facilitator for other men who longed to take up the call to global jihad.

?: You'd have to say they were extremely dangerous and the reason why they were extremely dangerous is because they were charged, either pleaded guilty or got convicted for conspiring to commit an act of terrorism within this country. So they are exceptionally dangerous.

DYLAN WELCH: Sulayman was studying Islam in Oman when the raids occurred and police didn't think he was involved in the plot.

By 2011, the war in Syria had begun and Abu Sulayman had returned to Australia. For the first time, he took up the jihadi cause publicly.

ABU SULAYMAN: With the falling of these corrupt regimes, placed in power by the corrupt West, the Umna has started to realise what he learned in (speaks Arabic), that these people, these animals, are not looking for their best interests!

DYLAN WELCH: He was a compelling speaker who made often emotional orations.

ABU SULAYMAN: (Becoming emotional) Allah will fulfil his promise in full.

DYLAN WELCH: In late 2012, Abu Sulayman took a decisive step in his journey towards jihad. ASIO was watching as he bought a ticket for the Middle East. But they didn't have the evidence to stop him and so he left for Syria. Australian authorities had missed a crucial chance to foil Sulayman's ambitions to take up al-Qaeda's cause.

He arrived at a pivotal moment with Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State locked in a bitter power struggle. Within months, he was elevated to a senior position within al-Qaeda.

THOMAS JOSCELYN: When he relocated to Syria in 2013, he immediately became part of al-Qaeda's elite mediation effort to try and bring the Islamic State back together with al-Nusra Front. You don't get selected for this role unless you're very important in al-Qaeda's ranks.

DYLAN WELCH: US-based terrorism analyst Thomas Joscelyn believes Abu Sulayman's rapid rise through al-Nusra's ranks points to him having had strong links to the terrorist organisation even before he went to Syria.

THOMAS JOSCELYN: In some of the earliest videos that al-Nusra Front put out starring Abu Sulayman, he showed that he had clear knowledge of al-Qaeda's international structure. He knew the details about how al-Qaeda's organised in a way that only a fully-made member of the organisation would really know.

JULIE BISHOP, FOREIGN MINISTER: I have listed Australian national Mustafa Mohamed. He's facilitated violent terrorist acts and through social media has solicited funding and lured vulnerable young people, including from Australia, to become terrorist fighters.

DYLAN WELCH: Since then, Sulayman's notoriety in Western intelligence circles has increased. In May this year, the US designated him a global terrorist.

THOMAS JOSCELYN: This reflects that the fact the US Government and all of its intelligence agencies certainly view him as a very senior member of the organisation. Usually when an al-Qaeda terrorist is designated it means the US Government is hunting them, it means that the US Government thinks that this is somebody who is important enough not just to be designated, but also to be killed or captured and I wouldn't be surprised if US officials are hunting Abu Sulayman right now.

SABRA LANE: Dylan Welch reporting.