“Do you want to speak?”
In late December last year, Jake Bilardi – the Melbourne teenager who ran away to fight with Islamic State – got in touch with me via a direct message on Twitter.
I’d been doing research for a documentary and had come across a profile that appeared to be that of an Australian Islamic State supporter in Iraq. He went by the name of Abu Abdullah and said he was a convert who used to frequent the Hume Islamic Youth Centre (HIYC) in Melbourne.
At the time of the interview, I was unable to confirm the identity of “Abu Abdullah” or whether his claims were credible. It was only this week when his name and identity were revealed that I realized “Abu Abdullah” was Jake Bilardi.
“Abu Abdullah” told me to send him my list of questions, and he would decide whether or not to answer them. I pushed to speak on Skype or by phone, but he said the internet was too slow and mobile wasn’t possible – written answers only.
At that time, late December 2014, he said he’d been in Iraq for four months. We now know that he’d dropped out of high school, despite being a good student, to become a jihadi.
Around 90 Australians have joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq according to the Attorney General’s Department.
Jake wouldn’t tell me how he got there, but mentioned he took a “different route to most people”. In a move that is becoming more popular with would-be jihadis, he’d deliberately maintained a low profile so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. He told me that he’d left Australia without telling anyone, and had only contacted his family once he arrived.
I asked him what role he had taken on there, and he replied that he was a “regular soldier of the Islamic State.”
I wanted to understand why he had left the peace and security of Australia to join the fight. He told me he was there because he believed it was an “obligation in Islam to leave the land of kuffar (non-believer) and it is also an obligation to fight for the sake of Allah”.
It’s an answer that mirrors that of other jihadis who are enamoured with a radical interpretation of Islam that they say obligates them to migrate to a land ruled by sharia law. At the moment they believe that this place is the caliphate declared by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Syria and Iraq.
Jake Bilardi told me that he converted to Islam two years ago. His main source of information about the religion was the Internet and books (his family are atheists) but once he converted he “learnt from brothers and sheikhs”. He wouldn’t name them, citing the backlash against controversial preachers like Australian Musa Cerantonio and American Ahmed Musa Jibril.
Again, his story is not unfamiliar in jihadi circles, where knowledge about the religion is hand-picked from sources outside more formal Islamic learning centres.
Before he converted Jake said he was already unhappy in Australia.
“Before I was Muslim I hated the democratic system and the foreign policy of Australia,” he told me. He was “always interested in politics and so had been drawn to the situation in Iraq and Sham and Afghanistan and other lands for many years”.
Like others who have travelled there before him, he didn’t originally support Islamic State. He claims it was a deeper understanding of religion that changed his mind, but it’s hard not to wonder about the influence of Islamic State’s slick social media campaigns that promise a sense of adventure, brotherhood and belonging.
I asked him why he thought IS was making threats against Australia.
“Australia chose to go to war with Islam and the Muslims and they will forever be targeted for this and I'm proud of those who have acted in Australia and I hope to see more in the near future. Australian planes are killing our women and children, we can never forgive that,” he told me.
In the days since Jake’s full name has been revealed, his family and friends have faced intense media and public scrutiny – many have expressed shock, sadness, and a desire for him to come home to his family.
His mother died in 2012, shortly before he converted. It makes me wonder how his father and siblings must feel – with the risk of losing another family member, this time to a faraway conflict.
When I asked him whether he was worried about the impacts of his actions on them back here in Australia - he quickly shut the conversation down. “I don’t want to discuss that,” he wrote.
The most disturbing part of our conversation was when I asked about his future plans. He told me that he was prepared to pay the ultimate price for IS, by carrying out a suicide attack that would “kill a large number of enemy soldiers.”
“I’ve already signed up, when my turn comes, I go…I’m not nervous, I’ve been waiting a long time” he said.
There are now unconfirmed reports that Jake Bilardi has carried out a suicide attack.
If true, he joins the 20 or so Australians who have already died in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. He will have left behind a grieving family, a community fearful of losing their sons and daughters to the same cause, and a government scrambling to find solutions.