Inside Australia’s most extreme Islamist group
“This nation [Muslims] should know that it was […] created to spread Allah’s religion and lead the nations, and this could only be achieved by Jihad for the sake of Allah!”
These words were not said somewhere in the war ravaged Middle East by a supporter of ISIS or other extremist groups. They were not whispered in a dark room, hidden from public sight. This call for holy war, or jihad, was voiced loud and clear to a large crowd in a Sydney mosque just a few months ago.
My investigation has found that an extreme terrorist-supporting group of preachers has been operating inside Australia’s major cities for two decades, spreading hate, open antisemitism, anti-Western sentiments and separatism, potentially inciting new generations of terrorists. All this is done out in the open, and in public – and the nature and activities of this dangerous group must be well known to Australian authorities.
The organisation referred to is called “Ahl As-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah” ( أهل السنة والجماعة , The family of the way of the Prophet, the Sunnah, and his Companions), or ASWJ. It is regarded as the most radical Muslim group in Australia, and is an Australian branch of an international fundamentalist Salafi organisation. It was launched in 1985 by Jordanian-born Melbourne resident Sheikh Mohammed Omran (whose work was the subject of a previous AIR expose titled “Jihad in the suburbs” by Naomi Peled in 2005). According to ASWJ’s religious views, all Muslims must adhere to the ways practised in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers – as they interpret them.
The aim of the organisation is to preach in mosques, spread its message online and through books and texts sold in its bookshops, and to actively convert Muslims to follow its version of Islam. Through its centres in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia, ASWJ offers lectures, social support, charities, annual trips to the holy city of Mecca to perform the Haj pilgrimage and more. ASWJ preachers teach in several Muslim academic institutes in Australia and are popular guest speakers, with their lectures recorded and shared with thousands of people online and on social media.
ASWJ states on its website that it has “gained a lot of trust and respect from the community due to its firm adherence to the principles of Islam and its freedom from external political interference. It is an independent body free from any governmental influence both financially and ideologically. It is this ‘no strings attached’ policy that has allowed the Sheikhs of ASWJ to speak with a sense of freedom not shared by many other organizations.” As will be shown through this investigation, that freedom is often used by ASWJ to advance hate, undermine social harmony and incite terror.
A rich history of links to terror
Ties between ASWJ operatives and individuals involved in terrorism were well known from the outset. In 1993, the founder of ASWJ, Sheikh Omran, was linked with an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell based in Spain. A year later he hosted in Australia his friend Abu Qatada, a prominent British Al-Qaeda supporter deported to Jordan in 2013. Abu Qatada, as well as Osama bin Laden, were featured in the popular online magazine Nida’ul Islam (Call to Islam), published by the Islamic Youth Movement, which is also associated with Omran.
Omran and the ASWJ have also been associated with Al-Qaeda-linked Australian terrorists Jack Thomas, Ahmad Kalek and Shane Kent. No wonder that in 2001 Omran labelled Bin Laden “a good man”, blamed the CIA for building Bin Laden as a force to be reckoned with and advanced the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 terror attacks were “orchestrated by someone within the American Government or helped by them.” He also said he would “dispute any evil action linked to Bin Laden. Again, I don’t believe that even September 11 – from the beginning, I don’t believe that it was done by any Muslim at all, or any other activities.”
According to one of his followers during that period, Omran’s students were all “willing to strap themselves up” to become suicide bombers. Indeed, in November 2005, nine Melbourne men were charged with terror-related offences. These men attended an ASWJ prayer hall in Brunswick and later started following the extreme cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika, convicted for his role in masterminding a plot to blow up Melbourne’s landmarks in 2004. More recently, ASWJ was associated with Sydney’s Street Da’wah preaching group, some of whose members have fought with ISIS in Syria. One of them was Mohammad Ali Baryalei, a recruiter for ISIS in Australia, killed in Syria in 2014. In recent years (and more so after his son, Ayman, died in Syria in 2013 while allegedly on a humanitarian mission) Omran has apparently retreated from public sermons and repositioned himself as a humanist, avoiding extremism, according to some newspaper reports.
Omran’s second-in-command was Sheikh Abd al-Salam Zoud. Despite reportedly leaving ASWJ in 2014, Zoud seems to have remained a key figure and influential ideologue of the organisation up until today. He received a fundamentalist Wahhabi education at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The Australian reported in 2015 that there were fears in the Muslim community that Zoud was being groomed as the next Grand Mufti of Australia after he attended a dinner with the current Grand Mufti, Ibrahim Abu Muhammad. In the end, Zoud was not elected to the role.
In the year 2000, while in Malaysia, Zoud had a meeting with the Indonesian preacher Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, the group behind the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. In 2014, Bashir publicly pledged his allegiance to ISIS. When he met Zoud, Bashir was accompanied by Jack Roche, later convicted of plotting to blow up the Israeli embassy in Canberra in 2000, for which he served nine years in prison.
Omran was briefed by Bakar’s people on Roche’s plot, and he objected to it and even alerted the authorities.
In 2005, it was reported that Zoud received a call from Zaky Mallah, who was afterwards convicted of threatening to kill an ASIO officer. Mallah sought Zoud’s blessing to become Australia’s first suicide bomber, to travel to Lebanon and to kill non-Muslims. Zoud claimed he refused to grant Mallah such permission.
Zoud was also in contact with Willie Brigitte, serving time in a French prison for plotting terror against nuclear and army facilities in Sydney. Zoud is reported to have presided over Brigitte’s wedding to Australian Melanie Brown, who was recruiting operatives in Australia for a terrorist attack. In 2011, Zoud was included in a terror alert list circulated by the American embassy in Canberra.
Another ASWJ leader is Feiz Mohammad, who currently holds the title of Emir for the organisation. Initially Omran’s student, he gave Roche his video camera to film the Israeli embassy in Canberra in preparation for his planned attack. After fleeing to Lebanon and Malaysia, Mohammad returned to Australia and opened an Islamic centre in Auburn, later officially named ‘ASWJ Auburn’.
Several of Mohammad’s followers were connected to terror. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 2013 Boston Marathon bomber, was following, ‘liking’ and sharing lectures on social media by Feiz Mohammad. Mohammad’s student, Australian Ahmad Elomar, was arrested in Lebanon for terrorism related offences, while another student, Wassim Fayad, who labelled Bin Laden a “Soldier of God”, lashed a Sydney man 40 times for drinking alcohol, which is forbidden by Islamic Shari’a law.
Feiz Mohammad’s ‘Global Islamic Youth Centre’ in Liverpool, Sydney (opened in 2000) was raided by the Australian Federal Police for selling his books and DVDs, which included calls for Muslims – children and adults – to wage “jihad martyrdom” and sacrifice their lives to wage war against the West. He became notorious for his call to behead right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders (“This Satan, this devil, this politician in Holland”).
His views and actions led then PM Kevin Rudd to openly say to Mohammad (while he was outside Australia) “Do not return to Australia, you are not welcomed here”. Former US vice presidential candidate and Senator Joe Lieberman labelled Mohammad one of the “virtual spiritual sanctioners” who use the internet to offer religious justification for Islamic terror.
Jihad to free Jerusalem and Antisemitism
When it comes to Israel and to the Jews, ASWJ preachers dispense with all pretence of moderation. Feiz Mohammad in 2007 called Jews “pigs that will be killed at the end of the world”, while arguing that they “have got the most extreme racial pride in them. They say that every single non-Jew is a slave created to serve the Jews … Their time will come like every other evil person’s time will come.”
Similarly, the charismatic ASWJ preacher Mohammad Doar explained in Nov. 2017 with regards to “Al-Quds” (Jerusalem), that the Muslims today “are disgraced by the most disgraced nation, the Jews.”
Another young preacher, Abu Bakr Zaoud, exposed his antisemitic prejudices in February of this year while discussing an Islamic story about a Muslim from the time of the Prophet Muhammad who was a slave to a Jewish owner and had asked to be released. The Jewish owner asked for 300 palm tree seedings to be planted in exchange for the slave’s freedom. But Zaoud adds, implying that Jews love money, that “because he is a Jew, [he also demanded:] bring me 40 ounces of gold.”
The true antisemitic and pro-jihadist predispositions of ASWJ leaders were particularly apparent following the decision of American President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in Dec. 2017. Leading the charge was Abd Al-Salam Zoud himself. In an emotional sermon given at the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney in the same month, Zoud called the decision “despicable” and talked at great length, occasionally raising his voice, of the importance of Al-Quds [the Muslim name for Jerusalem] and Palestine to the Muslims. He then called on all Muslims to unite and wage Jihad with “body” and money to free Jerusalem:
“For the sake of Palestine, the Martyrs poured their blood and invested their souls for cheap in her sake! For the sake of Palestine there were many sacrifices in a row […] The events have proven old and new that the attack on Jerusalem by the occupiers of our brothers in Palestine will not stop, or our holy places and lands will not be returned to us, unless by Jihad in the sake of Allah! This nation should know that it was not created to enjoy the joys of this world and not to belong to someone else, but it was however created to spread Allah’s religion and lead the nations, and this could only be achieved by Jihad for the sake of Allah!”
In the same spirit, Zoud depicted Palestinians throwing stones at Israelis as heroes, describing them as “the youth of the rock […] carrying the pebbles and the dirt of their country. And they signed with their blood a diploma of a new generation which does not believe in fear!”
Referring to the Islamic tradition as depicted in the stories about the prophet Muhammad, his companions and other historical and religious figures, Zoud also cited a controversial Muslim tradition that says that in Palestine “the Jews will be killed by the Muslims as they hide behind the stones and the trees! […On judgment day] The Messiah will kill the Dajjal [the evil figure in Islamic eschatology] and his Jewish followers.”
Zoud offered his own distorted version of history, focusing on denying any ties between the Jews, Jerusalem and their homeland. He claimed that Jews have no rights in Jerusalem because they became infidels and the right to the land belongs to those who hold the true religion. Since the Canaanites preceded the Jews in Palestine, argues Zoud, the latter have no religious or historic rights there and the land will return to the Muslims. Zoud also maintained that when they met in 1896, the Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Hamid II warned the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl: “I cannot sell even one foot of Palestine because it is not mine, but it however belongs to my people! My people reached this empire with their blood and we will cover it with our blood… and it [Palestine] will be divided only over our dead bodies!”
Receiving special praise from Zoud was early 20th century Palestinian terrorist Izz al-Din al-Qassam – whose name is notoriously used by Hamas’ terrorist apparatus the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He describes how Al-Qassam managed with little resources: “to buy ammunition and guns for the Jihad warriors! Al-Qassam was able to topple the beds of the Jews for a full period of seven years!”
Other ASWJ preachers addressed the issue of Palestine and Jerusalem even before Trump’s decision. In July 2017, Abu Bakr Zaoud started his sermon by “condemning in the strongest terms […] the Zionist Jewish oppression against our brothers and our families in Palestine, and more recently and more specifically, the oppression that has occurred last week in Palestine in which three Palestinians were murdered in the early hours of the morning of Friday.” Zaoud was referring to a terror attack on the Temple Mount a few days beforehand, where three Arabs from the Israeli Arab town of Um-Al Fahm, armed with guns and pistols, shot dead two Israeli Druze policemen and injured another police officer and were later killed by the Israeli police.
Later in his sermon, Zaoud determines that “this whole conflict is not just a Palestinian issue […] nor is it just an Arab issue. This is an Islamic issue, this is the problem of all the Muslims to deal with, and for all of us to work together with full effort and determination in restoring this blessed land and brining it back to the hands of the Muslims.” Referring to Salah al-Din al-Ayoubi, who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the 12th century, Zaoud tells his audience: “This is exactly what we need to do, if we want to restore Beit Al-Makdis [Jerusalem’s Temple Mount] back in the hands of the Muslims” from the hands of “Zionist Jews”.
A few months later, in late Oct. 2017, ASWJ held a special day of lectures dedicated to “Al-Quds in the Time of Salah al-Din”. Zaoud was again invited to talk, explaining to the audience that his heart was bleeding “because of the fact that Jerusalem is occupied, and the Israelis are inside; the Zionists, they have their own agenda and their own evil plans to do whatever they want to do with it”.
At the same conference, Mohammad Doar used the platform to call on all Muslims to act together to free Jerusalem. Without naming them, Doar was implying that Jews and the West conspire together: “Don’t they call it the Arab-Israeli conflict? These are titles they have made so that they can divert our hearts away from Al-Aqsa. They do not want us to remember that it is a matter of deed and it is a matter of Islam.”
On a separate occasion, while speaking on “The virtues of Al-Aqsa”, Doar stressed that “the doors of Al-Aqsa become closed by those who illegally occupy its land. They have no problem in closing its doors whenever they please and in opening its doors whenever they please. And humiliating and attacking its worshippers.” He also claimed that Al-Aqsa was Muslim “since the beginning of creation” – again as part of the false narrative that rejects any connection between Judaism and Jerusalem.
Befriending non-Muslims “leads to hell”
ASWJ leaders promote extremist and exclusionist views that are very problematic in a multicultural liberal society like Australia. In a video posted online, ASWJ Sydney activist Sheik Jamil Al-Biza verbally attacked believers of the rival sect of Islam, the Shi’ites, shouting for the destruction of these “dogs of the nation”.
Meanwhile ASWJ preachers strongly advocate separatism amongst Muslims in Australia, calling on them to distance themselves from non-Muslims. They do so using strong language and loud voices, speaking fluent English and constantly quoting in Arabic verses from the Qur’an or stories about the Prophet and his companions (Hadith), warning about the perils of not following their words.
Abdel Salam Zoud went on the record in 2001 (in a lecture available online) with a warning for Muslims who emigrated to Australia and other Western countries which he defined as “Bilad al-Kufar” (the land of the infidels) based on his Salafist views. What is the danger Zoud was warning against? That children of Muslim emigrants might stray from Islam, forgetting the Arabic language because they are influenced by the “Jews, Christians and the pagans”.
His colleague Feiz Mohammad said in 2005 to a crowd of more than 1,000 men at the Bankstown Town Hall that women are to be blamed for being raped because they wear revealing clothes “to tease man and appeal to his carnal nature.” In 2008, he compared modern Western society to “a stinking toilet” and defined it as satanic. Yet, somewhat sanctimoniously, Zoud complained in one of ASWJ’s past publications that Muslims “feel marginalised by our society.”
The newer generation of ASWJ preachers closely follow the teachings of their leaders. In April 2017, Mohammad Doar cautioned young Muslims (April 2017), particularly girls, not to befriend non-Muslims, since any friendship that is not built on the fear of Allah “is only going to lead to hell”. His colleague, Nassim Abdi, urged Muslims last year to refrain from listening to music and called on women to cover their ears in public.
Feiz Mohammad said in 2016 that it was a major sin for Muslims to attend non-Muslim events like New Year’s Eve celebrations. “Is it part of the Shari’a? Are we allowed to entertain ourselves with celebrations that are built on non-Muslim concepts?”, he asked rhetorically. Young preacher Abu Bakr Zaoud, in his Lakemba mosque lecture titled “Warning, Christmas Has Arrived!!!” (available online), sends the same message of avoiding any non-Islamic celebrations.
Opposing Terror Laws
With its past robust contacts with various terrorism suspects, it’s no surprise that ASWJ has continuously opposed Australia’s anti-terrorism capabilities depicting them as essentially anti-Muslim.
Since 2002, the ASWJ has voiced various reservations regarding Australia’s anti-terrorism Laws, but its 2009 submission to Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee Inquiry into the Anti-Terrorism Law Reform Bill is possibly the most revealing. In it, ASWJ calls for the repealing of most elements of the law, such as sedition offences, the offence of “possessing things connected to terrorist act”, and in particular, “association with a terrorist organisation or its members” defined by ASWJ as “incredibly vague and far reaching”.
It is also evident that ASWJ is no fan of ASIO, possibly as a result of its constant interaction with Australia’s internal security organisation. This could be the reason behind the request in its 2009 submission to repeal ASIO’s “compulsory questioning powers”. Like other Salafi movements around the Muslim world, ASWJ sees many Western values, including democracy and human rights, as contrary to Islam. Yet, its submission did not shy away from arguing anti-terror laws are “undemocratic” and called for a complete abolition of “the system banning ‘terrorist organisations.’” It also requested changes to the legislation regarding the collection of funding for terrorist organisations via religious channels. Needless to say, none of these suggestions were adopted by the Senate Committee.
As Western societies like Australia have learnt from recent history, radicalism, extremism and incitement to hatred and terrorism are not simply unpleasant but dangerous. This is because such ideologies pose a genuine threat to our way of life, security and stability by leading to organised and “lone wolf” violence.
The guise of religious piety cannot be allowed to justify actively disseminating such ideas and recruiting more believers to adhere to these precepts without challenge or scrutiny. The extremists of ASWJ deserve to be scrutinised, marginalised and challenged on every front and never given legitimacy as genuine representatives of the bulk of the Australian Muslim community. Meanwhile, hopefully Australian authorities are closely monitoring ASWJ and are ready to deal with any breaches of law the group either commits or incites.
Dr. Ran Porat is a researcher at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.