On July 29, 2017, an Australian counterterrorism operation foiled the most serious Islamic State plot the country has ever faced. Two brothers in Sydney, guided by Islamic State operatives in Syria, had tried to bomb an Etihad plane flying from Sydney to Abu Dhabi carrying 400 passengers. They also tried to build a chemical weapon to disperse lethal gas against members of the public. (a)
It was not only the ambitions to murder hundreds of people that made the plot so serious, but how close it came to completion. The plot had begun in January 2017 and progressed undetected for over six months before Australian authorities were alerted to it by an international intelligence partner on July 26, 2017. In response, the New South Wales Joint Counter Terrorism Team began an investigation named Operation Silves, leading to the arrests of four suspects three days later. Two of the suspects, Khaled Khayat and Mahmoud Khayat, were charged with conspiracy "to do acts in preparation for a terrorist act" and would later be convicted. (1)
The plot gained international attention. Terrorist plots remotely guided by instructions from Islamic State operatives in Syria (often referred to as virtual planning or cybercoaching) were not new, but this time, there was a new element. (2) The Islamic State had provided direct logistical support by mailing the Khayat brothers a partially constructed bomb, something not seen in earlier plots. Moreover, the Islamic State had rarely targeted aviation in Western countries and was not known to have used chemical weapons outside of Syria and Iraq. (b) Security agencies across the world took notice of the plot's innovations.
Khaled Khayat and Mahmoud Khayat's trials came to an end on December 17, 2019, resulting in the release of detailed new information. This article draws on the newly available information to revisit Operation Silves. (3) The article first provides background on the four key plotters, before providing a detailed account of the plot's development. It then details the plot's disruption and aftermath, before identifying where the plot sits in relation to the broader jihadi terror threat facing Australia. The article then identifies what the 2017 Sydney plane plot reveals about the evolution of the Islamic State's external operations in light of information about subsequent plots, by contextualizing three of its distinctive features: the targeting of aviation, the attempted creation of a chemical weapon, and remote guidance combined with the direct provision of logistical support.
Background to the Plot
There were four key plotters behind the planned attack, two based in Sydney and two based in Syria. The Sydney-based plotters were the brothers Khaled Khayat and Mahmoud Khayat, who were born in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. They grew up in a large family--their parents had three daughters and nine sons--before migrating to Australia many years before the plot began. (4)
Khaled, the eldest of the 12 Khayat siblings, was born on November 29, 1967. (5) At a young age, he fought in the Lebanese army during the civil war, which he later said was because he "hated the Shia." (6) He also worked as a builder in Tripoli before migrating to Australia in 1988 where he worked in various jobs requiring manual labour and practical skills, including as a "panel beater, spray painter, meat wholesaler, butcher and ... handyman." (c) By the time the plot began, Khaled was married and had fathered four children who were in their 20s. Mahmoud, the youngest of the 12 Khayat siblings, was born in 1985. (7) He migrated to Australia in the mid-2000s (8) and similarly worked in several different jobs, including as a spray-painter and a meat worker. (9) Mahmoud married the sister of Khaled's wife and fathered two children. (10)
The other two plotters were based in Syria. One was Tarek Khayat, another brother of Khaled and Mahmoud. Tarek was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, around 1970 (d) and worked in the family construction business like many of the Khayat siblings. (11) On top of this work, he also became a sheikh and by the 2010s was regarded as a significant jihadi figure in Lebanon. (12)
Throughout 2013 and 2014, Tripoli experienced violent clashes tied to the civil war in Syria, particularly between residents of the Alawite neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen and the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh where the Khayat family lived. (13) These clashes often involved local branches of Syria-based groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. (14) On several occasions, Sunni jihadis directly confronted the Lebanese military, and Tarek Khayat took part in one such confrontation in October 2014 that resulted in three days of violence and dozens of deaths. (15) Tarek Khayat's precise role, or what group he was part of, is unclear, though some reports say he was already a senior Islamic State commander. (16) He avoided being killed or captured in the battle, and soon fled to Syria. He took his three sons--Abdulla, Mohamed and Abdul-Rahman--with him as well as his nephew Ziad. (17)
Tarek Khayat spent several years fighting in Syria for the Islamic State, and by 2017, he was based in Raqqa alongside the man who would become the most important figure in the Sydney plane plot. (18) This man, the fourth plotter, was never referred to by name during the trials in Australia. He was only referred to as the "Controller," and the Sydney-based plotters do not appear to have known his real name. However, investigative reporting in Denmark revealed his identity as Basil Hassan, a jihadi figure wanted by international authorities since 2013. (e)
According to reporting by the Danish public broadcaster DR, Basil Hassan was born in the Danish town of Askerod on May 24, 1987, shortly after his family migrated from Lebanon. (f) In high school, he mixed with people who would later become known as members of Denmark's jihadi circles. In 2007, a friend of his was convicted for his involvement in what was known as the "Glostrup cell," a suspected bomb plot that developed as part of a wide jihadi network straddling Denmark, Sweden, and Bosnia, which was sometimes referred to as "al-Qaida in Northern Europe." (g) That same year, Hassan was admitted into an engineering degree program, which he graduated from in 2010, then undertook further courses that developed his technical skills. (19) By 2011, he had become increasingly active in Denmark's jihadi networks and was under attention from the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (DSIS). (h)
On February 5, 2013, Basil Hassan allegedly attempted an act of violence himself. The target was Lars Hedegaard, a 70-year-old Danish author and vocal critic of Islam. Wearing a postman's jacket, a man believed to be Hassan knocked on Hedegaard's front door, armed with a handgun. The assailant fired at Hedegaard's head, but missed, and then fled after the gun malfunctioned. (20) Hassan fled Denmark afterward and was soon being hunted by Danish and international intelligence services. (21)
Details on Hassan's movements after this point are unclear, but it appears he traveled to Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria. (22) He was soon working for the Islamic State and was believed to be playing a major part in their international drone acquisition program. (i) Through several supporters in Denmark, including an old school friend, Hassan allegedly arranged the purchase of commercial drones and equipment. (23)
Turkish Police arrested Basil Hassan at Istanbul Airport on April 14, 2014, on his way back to Denmark. (24) The Danish government requested his extradition, but were informed in October 2014 that he had been released. (25) Danish authorities feared that his release had been part of a prisoner swap with the Islamic State, in exchange for 49 Turkish hostages, which Turkey denied. (26) Hassan returned to Syria and allegedly continued to use his engineering skills and Danish contacts to help develop the Islamic State's drone program.
Operating from the Islamic State's capital Raqqa, Hassan had ambitions for large-scale international attacks. According to reporting by Danish public broadcaster DR, Hassan had a particular interest in targeting aircraft and was part of a team that used operatives in Turkey and the Maldives to ship packages containing hidden explosives to countries across the world, including Qatar, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as an experiment to test their screening systems. (27) On November 22, 2016, the U.S. State Department listed Basil Hassan as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, describing him as an "external operations plotter for ISIL." (28) Jason Blazakis, the Director of the Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office at the time, later stated that, "Hassan is one of the most dangerous people we've ever designated at the Department of State." (29)
Basil Hassan was able to engineer the plot in Australia through the family connections of Tarek Khayat who, as noted above, was by 2017 also based in Raqqa. Just as Hassan had allegedly reached back to associates in Denmark to help acquire drone components for the Islamic State, Tarek Khayat reached out to two of his brothers who had had migrated to Sydney years earlier, Khaled and Mahmoud.
There was also a third Khayat brother living in Sydney, Amer Khayat, but the family had little contact with him. (30) Amer had struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, using methamphetamines from 2011 to 2016. (31) He had been married and had two daughters, but the marriage had fallen apart some years before the plot. (32) Khaled and Mahmoud "disapproved of him because he drank, went clubbing, gambled and was gay which they regarded as bringing shame on the family." (33) Amer initially had no connection to the plot, but Khaled and Mahmoud would reach out to him in mid-2017 and manipulate him into playing an unwitting role.
While Amer was estranged, Khaled and Mahmoud remained in close contact...