On the afternoon of July 29, 2017, members of the New South Wales Joint Counter Terrorism Team arrested four men. This was not unusual; counterterrorism raids have been common in Australia for over three years. Ever since former Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s September 2014 global call to arms, Australia had experienced a rapid succession of terror plots that were often unsophisticated efforts involving knives and firearms. However, this time, as new security measures at airports delayed passengers for hours and details began to emerge of hidden explosive devices and a plan to produce poisonous gas, it quickly became clear that the authorities were dealing with a suspected plot that was dramatically different than earlier ones.
After two of the suspects were charged on August 4, Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan and New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner David Hudson held a joint press conference. They outlined a plan for terror that was more ambitious than any of Australia’s earlier Islamic State plots and that differed significantly from other Islamic State plots in Western countries. The police alleged that the suspects had hidden an explosive device in a meat grinder and tried to place it on an Etihad airplane flying from Sydney to Abu Dhabi. After that failed, the suspects allegedly tried to build a chemical gas device, intending to kill a large number of people in an enclosed place.
This article examines the alleged plot and the implications of its distinctive features: how it was organized, the targets, and the intended weapons. In doing so, it highlights potential changes in the Islamic State’s external operations approach and how the threat to the West has evolved.