Friday, August 12, 2005

Aussie jihadi - the story unfolds 

Two days ago I reported on the story of a new terror tape aired by a Mid East TV channel, where a masked gunman harangues the West with an Australian accent. The story was true, but the direct quotes I used were not - some readers got the Crocodile Hunter/Crocodile Dundee jokes, some didn't.

Meanwhile, the story is developing:
Former army private Mathew Stewart has emerged as the chief suspect in the hunt for the masked terrorist with an Australian accent.

Stewart left home four years ago to fight alongside Osama bin Laden and has not been seen since.

Australian Federal Police officers immediately identified Stewart as the probable hooded figure who appeared in a terror video aired on Arab TV this week.
I'm eagerly awaiting now how Australian tabloids will christen our latest jihadi. Mat the Rat? Mudjahedin Mat? Al Qaeda Stew? Mooloolaba Muj? (Mooloolaba is a little town on the Sunshine Coast, 100 km north of Brisbane, where Stewart comes from).

The story how he got there is quite bizarre:
Private Mathew Stewart was patrolling the streets of Dili, East Timor, in 2002 when he was confronted with the full horror of live combat.

The quiet soldier and keen surfer from Queensland's Sunshine Coast stumbled upon the almost unrecognisable body of a Dutch journalist killed by militia.

Financial Times reporter Sander Thoenes, 30, had been shot in the chest and badly beaten. According to his comrades, Stewart was deeply traumatised by the discovery, his first encounter with death on the front line.

He was discharged from the army's 2nd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment for psychological reasons a short time later, sending him into a spiral of depression and self-doubt.

While other East Timor veterans looked for a change of lifestyle back home, Stewart began fixing his sights on the war unravelling in Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks on New York the previous year.

Furious at his perceived mistreatment in the Australian army, Stewart began making plans to fight for the other side.
It's ironic (in that grim sense of irony) that being traumatized by seeing a dead body would send a person on a sure path of seeing even more dead bodies, but it's doubly ironic that Private Stewart's turning point in life came in East Timor. It was the Australian intervention there in 2000 that guaranteed East Timor's transition to independence after a quarter of a century of a bloody Indonesian occupation costing 200,000 Timorese lives (a staggering one third of the entire population). Coincidentally, Australia's role in wrestling this small Catholic nation from under the domination of Muslim Indonesia has been cited by Osama bin Laden himself as one of the reason why Australia is now in Al Qaeda's sights.

I won't be surprised if there is more to this story, though, than just a traumatized and disgruntled ex-serviceman.

And if true, then it's yet another nail in the coffin of the intelligence community excuse that "it was impossible to infiltrate Al Qaeda". If an Australian soldier, with no apparent background in Islam, can walk off the street and sign himself up with the Terror Inc, then so could have any CIA infiltrator. Whether such asset inside Al Qaeda would have proven valuable in practice, particularly considering the risk of the mission, is another matter.


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