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Arrest Of ISIS Suspect In Rural Town Puts Australia On Edge

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YOUNG — On a rural road about two hours’ drive from the nearest major city, the small Australian town of Young has long been known for cherries and little else. But in recent years, the once largely white, working-class community has seen a steady influx of Lebanese Muslim families, many who say they have relocated from Sydney for a better and safer life.

Among them are members of the Zahab family. Now one of them, Haisem Zahab, a 42-year-old electrician, is accused of using the internet to try to help the Islamic State develop a guided missile. Officials suspect that some of his relatives traveled to Syria to join the extremist group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The allegations about the Zahab family have rattled many residents of this town, who have long taken pride in its peaceful multiculturalism. They have also stoked some of the worst fears about homegrown links to terrorism in a country that is grappling with immigration policy and labor shortages.

“One argument developing is that Muslims cannot be trusted, they are all bad, and with so many in our town, it was only a matter of time before trouble raised its head,” Craig Thomson, editor of The Young Witness, the local newspaper, wrote in an opinion column after Mr. Zahab’s arrest. “The other point put forward is that hatred is not the way to handle this situation and one man’s actions should not condemn the entire town’s Muslim population.”

The case is playing out as Australia contends with the same nationalist, anti-immigrant forces that helped propel Donald J. Trump to the American presidency and that prompted voters in Britain to approve a withdrawal from the European Union. Visiting Australia last year, Mutuma Ruteere, the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, condemned Australian politicians as engaging in “xenophobic hate speech,” and likened the country’s mood to nationalist ideologies brewing in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Zahab was arrested, with his family present, in a raid at his property in Young on Feb. 28. He was accused of researching and designing a long-range guided missile and laser warning device for use by Islamic State militants.

Mr. Zahab’s extended family had been under investigation for 18 months, and officials suspected that some of his relatives had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State and had sent money from the sale of their Sydney home to terrorists in Syria. A police report detailed how investigators believed the family had moved money to the Islamic State.

“Family members had access to a significant amount of funds in an Australian bank account and were suspected of using international travel cards and a computer consulting company based in the Middle East to remit funds out of Australia for the use and benefit of Islamic State in Syria,” the report said, adding that members of the family were believed to have already traveled to Syria to become members of the terrorist group.

Mr. Zahab was charged with foreign incursion offenses, which are antiterrorism statutes that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. After Mr. Zahab’s arrest, police officers spent days searching his 10-acre property, using metal detectors and digging up the yard in search of evidence.

Mr. Zahab is no stranger to law enforcement, having pleaded guilty previously to drugs and firearms charges. He is linked to a business called Oz Survival Gear, which is registered to the address that was raided by the police. The company sells items such as Swiss Army knives and flashlights, and it proclaims that “a knifeless man is a lifeless man.”

Mr. Zahab was known as something of an outsider who rarely interacted with the local Lebanese Muslim community. But his arrest has sent some Muslim residents of Young into hiding, people in the community said.

Young’s council administrator, Wendy Tuckerman, said that Mr. Zahab’s arrest should not taint the rest of the community, which has “a rich multicultural history.”

Muslim families first moved to the area more than two decades ago to work on cherry farms. John Barton, who was a real estate agent when some of the first Muslim families came to Young, remembers them buying several properties with orchards, and he has since watched those families grow and settle in.

“They’ve got shops in town — coffee shops, a new kitchen shop, and the younger ones work in the big stores like Woolworths,” Mr. Barton said. Local Muslim residents turned a former drive-in movie theater into a mosque, and they opened an Islamic school last year. “They’ve added to the culture of the town,” Mr. Barton said. “It’s a very friendly community.”

David McCabe, a local lawyer who has represented Muslim slaughterhouse workers in the area, said some of the families who relocated to Young did not want their children to grow up with the gang mentality fostered in parts of Sydney.

“Once they got to 15 to 17, they thought they’d lost control of them in western Sydney,” Mr. McCabe said. “And they thought they’d have a better chance of controlling them in the country.”

But Clarke Jones, an expert at Australian National University on terrorism and radicalization, said that Young’s remoteness may have made it an attractive spot for hiding efforts to support foreign terrorist groups.

“Young was probably chosen as a destination because it’s out of the radar of the usual police attention of Melbourne and Sydney,” Dr. Jones said.

Dr. Jamal Rifi, a Muslim community leader in Sydney, called it unfortunate that the actions of one man could taint Australia’s Muslims.

“That is symptomatic of what exactly’s been happening in the last couple of years — when the actions of a small number like this Young man” discredit “the Australian Muslim community at large,” he said.

“It is a phenomena that’s been happening across Australia,” he added.

Mr. Zahab’s arrest comes as Australians have been on heightened alert. The terrorism threat level in the country was elevated to “probable” in September 2014, and since then there have been four attacks tied to terrorism in Australia. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that a dozen more have been foiled and that more than 60 people have been charged as a result of counterterrorism operations across the country.

Of particular concern to many Australians is the rise in the number of terrorism suspects born and raised in the country. About 100 Australians are believed to be fighting with or engaged in terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, according to the Attorney General’s Department. The government is working to strengthen laws to prosecute returning foreign fighters.

In recent days, Mr. Turnbull, who has seized on Mr. Zahab’s arrest as “yet another reminder of the enduring threat we face from Islamist terrorism,” has ramped up his language, declaring his country’s objective is to kill Islamic State fighters.

“Our goal as far as those who serve with Daesh in the Middle East is to kill them,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Let me be quite frank — that is our goal.”

But Dr. Jones, the terrorism expert, cautioned against vilifying a whole community based on the actions of one person.

“The more than 70 odd families that are there are hardworking, productive members of the Young community,” he said.

“It is important that we acknowledge that the scope of the arrest is limited to the actions of one individual,” Mrs. Tuckerman said. – The New York Times

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