Note how Hegghammer and Roche are determined to minimize the ideological component of Wenham’s involvement with jihad groups, saying he just wanted to hang with the blokes. But Wenham himself puts it succinctly: “I wanted to be a good Muslim and I said yes.” Why did he think joining jihad groups would make him a good Muslim? This point is essential to understanding the motives and goals of jihad terrorists, and what leads Muslims to join such groups, but Hegghammer and Roche apparently pass over that in silence.
“The past visits a would-be jihadist,” by Sally Neighbour in The Australian, November 6:
A MAN’S quiet life in Norway ended when details of his old life were revealed.
FOR a man wanting to leave his past behind, the town of Tromso in northern Norway must have seemed the perfect place.
Situated 350km north of the Arctic Circle, deep in the land of the midnight sun, Tromso is about as far away from Australia as you can get, which was just fine by Andrew Ibrahim Wenham.
“Nobody really knew that I lived in Norway, I didn’t want them to,” the 46-year-old former Perth roof-tiler and would-be jihadist tells Focus. “I thought that whole story had been laid to rest.”
But Wenham always knew his past would catch up with him; and so it did, when details of his former life in the global jihadist movement were splashed across the front page of the local newspaper in the remote town where he has lived quietly for the past eight years.
“Muslim leader involved in terror network,” the front-page banner headline blared. In a town of 60,000 where reindeer sled races are held in the main street in winter, it was big news.
“It’s like opening an old wound,” Wenham told a journalist from the paper, Nordlys, which broke the story last month.
It recounted Wenham’s involvement in the late 1990s with the Australian branch of the militant group Jemaah Islamiah; his 2000 training in a JI camp in The Philippines; the attempt by JI operations chief Hambali, mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, to recruit him for a terrorist operation in Australia; and his friendship with fellow JI adherent Jack Roche, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bomb the Israeli embassy in Canberra and served 4 1/2 years in jail.
To those who have closely followed the movements of Australia’s small crop of home-grown jihadists, the essential elements of the story were familiar.
Wenham’s role was revealed by Roche after his arrest in 2002 and during his trial in 2004, while Wenham’s military training was described in a 2005 book written by the Malaysian who ran the JI training camp, Mohamed Nasir bin Abas.
From an Australian perspective, the most intriguing part of the yarn was that Wenham had effectively vanished after leaving for Yemen in 2001. Now, here he was in Norway at the centre of a public furore over a new Saudi-funded mosque proposed by the Islamic centre run by his wife.
While the expose provoked some alarm in Tromso, a leading Norwegian terrorism specialist injected a note of reason into the debate.
“Wenham is not a terrorist or an Al-Qa’ida sleeper agent. If he had al-Qa’ida sympathies, he would have acted on them by now, or at least left a trail of suspicious behaviour or political statements,” says Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, who specialises in the study of violent Islamism.
As Hegghammer points out, Wenham’s activities occurred before September 11, before JI embraced terrorism, and before Hambali became an infamous terrorist.
As with so many others like him, Wenham was basically an accidental jihadist swept up by ideological zeal, whose actions before 2001 took on a far more sinister significance in the post-September 11 world.
“Wenham’s story is a classic case of socially driven radicalisation,” Hegghammer writes on the website Jihadica, which carries commentary and analysis on the global jihadist movement.
Hegghammer says Wenham personifies the “bunch of guys” theory, propounded by former CIA officer turned leading US terrorism analyst Marc Sageman, which has become a maxim of modern counter-terrorism study.
It holds that the camaraderie, trust and bonding that occurs in militant cells is a critical element in the process of radicalisation.
This assessment is corroborated by Roche, who recalls his friend Wenham as “a likable person” who simply liked “knocking around with blokes”; and by Wenham’s own account to this newspaper.
As Wenham tells it, he was born in Britain and moved to Australia with his family aged three, settling in Sydney. In his teens he developed a passion for skydiving, later becoming a parachute instructor and travelling the world in search of ever more exotic skydiving locations. “I was addicted to adrenalin,” he says. He completed about 1200 jumps.
On a parachuting trip to Sweden in his early 20s he went on to Norway to see the midnight sun and there met the woman he would marry, Sandra Moe. They converted to Islam together when Wenham was 31.
“I was brought up a Christian, went to Christian schools, but when you look at Christianity there’s a lot of unanswered questions that don’t seem to make sense, so that drew me away from it,” Wenham tells me. “When I discovered Islam it seemed to answer all my questions. It made sense.”
In the late 90s, in search of the right place to bring up a family, Wenham and his wife moved to Perth. There he found a new mosque and a new group of friends, a cohort of Muslims led by two Indonesian brothers, Abdul Rahim and Abdul Rahman Ayub, leaders of the fledgling Australian branch of JI. On weekends they gathered to play paintball war games in the bush.
Asked now what drew him to the group, Wenham replies: “Basically it was the paintball, I was so addicted to paintball, I was crazy about it.” Why? “The adrenalin.” When the Ayubs suggested he go to The Philippines for militant training, he jumped at the chance.
“It was another adventure, travelling to another country,” Wenham says.
“It was said in the group that you had to train and be fit. They asked me to go to Malaysia and The Philippines on a training camp to prepare for jihad to defend Muslim countries. To me it sounded OK. I wanted to be a good Muslim and I said yes.”
Wenham did six weeks of training in JI’s jungle camp in Mindanao in 2000. On his way home he stopped off in Malaysia to meet JI leader Hambali, with whom he stayed for two days. Wenham says they had no further contact and he learned only later that Hambali had asked the Ayubs to send him to Afghanistan to help plot a terrorist operation. His friend Roche went instead.
Wenham says he was shocked on learning of Roche’s involvement in an al-Qa’ida plan to bomb the Israeli embassy and reported it to a senior Muslim cleric in Perth, Mohammed Omran, who in turn reported it to JI leader Abu Bakar Bashir, who had it stopped….
“His subsequent silence about his past is obviously somewhat foolish but perfectly understandable,” Hegghammer notes. “In the witch-hunt that followed 9/11, many Muslims in the West had their lives ruined for less serious sins than Wenham’s….
“Wenham has been an exemplary citizen during his time in Tromso,” Hegghammer says….
[Wenham] says he now tells young men in his congregation that acts such as suicide bombing are wrong. “I tell people this is not part of our religion. A lot of people have the wrong understanding, they think this is acceptable, whereas killing innocent people, [the prophet Mohammed said] if you kill one person, it’s like killing the whole of mankind.”
Yes, that’s Qur’an 5:32, not a statement of Muhammad, and Wenham did not quote 5:33, so I’ll gladly supply it here: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”