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Australia's secret war inside the ISIS caliphate


Ben Mckelvey

Sydney, NSW: Hachette, 2020

Paperback   352pp   RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Roger Buxton, March 2022


This is about more than Australia’s secret war inside the ISIS Caliphate. If the connection between the War Against Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Islamist inspired terrorist acts in Australia were not always obvious, this book shows how they were linked.

Events in Afghanistan and Iraq led to concern and growing paranoia among some young Islamic men living in Australia. Inspired by online Islamist propaganda or by radical prayer groups such as the one run by Abdul Benbrika, they conspired to carry out attacks in Australia, assisted others to leave to fight with ISIS or went overseas to fight themselves. Fearing that terrorist attacks were about to take place, the police arrested 22 men in Operation Pendennis in October 2005, but this did not completely prevent acts of random terror. The Lindt café siege in Sydney and the unprovoked murder of Curtis Chang in front of the NSW Police Headquarters occurred later and are described here.

The historical developments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria leading to the evolution of the ISIS Caliphate from Al Qaeda in Iraq are set out as well as the involvement of both the Australian Defence Force and Islamist fighters from Australia.

The Australian Defence Force involvement is described through the experiences of members of Number 2 Commando including Ian Turner, Cameron Baird and Nathan Knox, some of whom survived while others did not. The descriptions of battle and its aftermath are disturbing (to the extent that suggested support services are included on the last page), and some are downright chilling. The reported rivalry between the Commando and the SAS Regiments, and the sometimes lack of a collegiate spirit between experienced and new members of Commando units are surprising.

The Commandos were fighting a war against a brutal and merciless enemy, and we should be thankful that there were Australians who called themselves ‘shooters’ and who were eager to ‘get into it’. The commandoes were very effective fighters, but the effects of battle and its devastating aftermath took, and continue to take, a heavy toll in damaged lives and suicide.

The final chapters deal with the war against Islamic State after it had swept through Anbar Province in northern Iraq, driven out the Yazidis and threatened Baghdad itself. A Special Forces Advisory Team in Erbil worked with the Peshmerga but the book concentrates on the Commando involvement with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), an elite unit that recaptured Mosul in house to house fighting, losing more than half its strength in doing so.

The type of war fought against ISIS may or may not be repeated, but reading this disturbing book gives some idea of modern war against a ruthless enemy determined to either win or die and prepared to destroy the city it is defending in the process. Perhaps more importantly, it shows its effect of the war on the men who fought it.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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