BIG READ: Forever 'accused terrorist who owned bookstore'

HIS is a cautionary tale for young men romanticising foreign conflicts.

Omar Succarieh once aspired to join the police force. Instead, those who might have been his colleagues were responsible for locking him in a stark high-security prison cell for 24 hours a day. All because he was accused of funding a terrorist organisation in Syria.

With just one window looking out to a brick wall and floor-level vents allowing stilted conversations with other prisoners in solitary confinement, he took two to three showers a day to lessen the boredom.

But those 90 days with barely another soul to connect with gave Omar plenty of time to reflect on how he came to be there, grasping a copy of the Koran for company and guidance.

Arrested just before the G20 leaders summit in Brisbane in 2014, the father of three had been under intense surveillance from Australian Federal Police for a year.

On September 10, 2013, his younger brother Abraham Succarieh had left Australia to support opposition forces in the Syrian conflict, specifically militant Islamist groups who sought to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state under Sharia law.

About five months before that, their younger brother Ahmed left Australia for the same part of the world, 14,000km from where they grew up in Queensland.

Authorities believe Ahmed died in a suicide truck bomb attack that killed 35 soldiers near the Syrian city of Deir al Zor on September 11, 2013.

Soon after, Omar became a person of interest and his Australian passport was cancelled on security grounds.

Police made it clear to him that supporting the Syrian war, financially or through other aid, was against Australian law under the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act.

Omar ignored their warning.

He wanted to keep his other brother Abraham's presence in Syria secret.

Omar used a covert mobile telephone, subscribed to in a false name, to talk to Abraham and other Australian Muslims fighting in Syria.

They also used Skype, messenger services and other social media to communicate with them.

The brothers talked in guarded or cryptic terms to disguise the true meaning of their discussions, inserting codes to avoid identifying places, people and opposition groups.

 

From his home in Brisbane's south where he lived with his wife and three children, Omar involved himself in the foreign conflict by proxy and vicariously.

In total, Omar channelled US$43,700 to his brother Abraham and three other foreign fighters through his network of family and friends in Lebanon.

His network would hold and safeguard the money until a safe border crossing enabled Abraham or his friends to collect it and return to Syria.

In intercepted telephone calls, Omar tells Abraham he has organised "stuff" to send him but he talks in code, referring to the cash as sweets and referring to the weight (18kg and 700g of sweets meaning $18,700).

That amount was transferred through a Lebanese Australian man's bank account but another US$25,000 arrived via plane when another of Succarieh's friends was going on a family holiday to Lebanon.

It would take more than a month before the second lot would make its way through family members, including their mother Fatima, for its collection.

Both times, Omar tells his brother the money is to be split between him and his three Australian friends.

"The sweets is for, for the people that we know, as spending ...The sweets it's for the people we know to eat," he says.

The brothers also talked in code about the prospect of other Australian Muslims travelling to Syria to join with those already there.

Omar helped raise $7705 for another man, who cannot be named while his matters are still proceeding through the courts, to join his brother in the war-torn nation halfway around the world.

When the money disappeared from the account it was being filtered through, Omar employed standover tactics to get it back.

All his efforts were in vain. Police were, of course, listening to it all.

The man turned up at the airport to find his passport already cancelled.

Omar knew his brother and three other Australian Muslims were living in an area of military activity in Syria, near the Lebanese border, and would engage in armed patrols.

He knew they would, if necessary, engage in conflict with Assad regime forces.

Omar sent the money knowing Abraham and his associates would use it as they saw fit, to help sustain them and enable them to remain in Syria with the intention of engaging in armed hostilities.

Omar believed he, and other Muslims, had a religious duty to fight against those who sought to oppress Muslims.

The Sunni Muslim's fundamentalist views meant he too supported the overthrow of the Syrian government and the establishment of an Islamic state under Sharia law instead of democratic rule.

Commonwealth prosecutor Lincoln Crowley told Brisbane Supreme Court this week the fact Omar remained here in Australia did not lessen his criminality.

"(Omar) believed it was his religious obligation and duty to fight with the opposition in Syria by whatever means available and where, as in his case, he was unable, or unwilling, to contribute to that fight with his body on the battlefield, he believed he was compelled to fight with his money and with the support he could provide from Australia," he said.

Omar told a psychiatrist he was the "victim of a conspiracy largely related to the government's desire to appear strong on security in preparation for the G20" when he was thrown into solitary confinement for three months.

When asked whether Ahmed had been killed in a suicide bomb, Omar smiled but did not answer.

After authorities dropped the terrorism charges last month, Omar pleaded guilty to two counts of preparing for and giving money for incursions into a foreign state.

Those charges relate directly to providing money and manpower to his brother Abraham in Syria.

Now, two years since his arrest, he says he has changed and wants to help guide other wayward young Muslim men.

In a letter tendered at his sentencing hearing, Omar says he now understands the magnitude of his "careless" and "reckless" actions.

He says he is completely remorseful and fears the terror label will stick despite charges being dropped.

"I will forever be known as the accused terrorist who owned the bookstore. A punishment within a punishment," he wrote.

 

Omar promised to change and follow the moderate religious beliefs of the broader Muslim community in Australia instead of looking to the internet for guidance.

The court heard the legislation was originally created partly to keep up with international obligations to prevent mercenary types from engaging in armed hostilities overseas or helping foreign activities in Australia through financial or other means.

But the legislation has since evolved to an anti-terrorist policy to deter people from heading overseas to support foreign conflicts, or supporting them from afar in Australia, as well as a means to prevent terror attacks on our shores.

There is no suggestion Omar ever supported, encouraged or considered any terrorist activity in Australia.

In contrast to the secretive man whose ideological and religious beliefs motivated him to fund armed hostilities in Syria, his family describe him as genuine, funny and a great dad.

Omar is known as a man who adores his kids, especially his little girl.

His wife Razan says he's one of those dads who makes his little girl feel like a princess every day and that she can rely on him forever.

And the kind of dad his boys could look up to and talk to like a friend, especially when it came to their shared loves of technology, cars and sports.

But he can no longer tuck them into bed every night and read them a story.

Nor can he take them to the park or watch a movie as a family unit.

While no longer in solitary confinement, Omar has already missed out on more than two years of his children's lives while in jail.

It will likely be another year before he can feel their warm embraces again, having been ordered to serve a minimum three years of a 41/2 year jail term.

It is this, he says, that is inspiring him to be a better person, someone who will cooperate with authorities in future.

He has turned to imams (religious leaders) in his Muslim community for support and plans to work with them to help young men who are romanticising foreign conflicts and to work to prevent radicalisation.

"His experience, if shared, could be a very good lesson for the other young men who may romanticise foreign conflict," Islamic Council of Queensland youth coordinator Ali Kadri said in a character reference.

In handing down her sentence, Justice Roslyn Atkinson said she hoped Omar's time in custody had been a time of reflection and insight.

"Your community would be well served if you adopt an approach of working towards the good of other people and in a charitable spirit," she said.

"You had had a lifetime, until recently before your arrest, of solid hard work where you've contributed through that hard work and also through charitable activity.

"Those things bode well for your future."

If this man believes his cautionary tale can steer our misguided youth onto the right path - his next chapter could be radically different to the last.

- ARM NEWSDESK

WHO IS OMAR SUCCARIEH?

HE is the fourth child in a family of six.

The 33 year old has been married for 10 years and has three children, aged nine, six and three.

 

'ENTREPRENEUR': Omar Succarieh after his arrest on September 10, 2014.
'ENTREPRENEUR': Omar Succarieh after his arrest on September 10, 2014. DAN PELED

The Succarieh family migrated from Lebanon to Australia in 1972, though they regularly returned to their homeland.

Omar's father Massoud worked as a panel beater and drove taxis. His mum stayed at home looking after the children.

His parents lived in 11 different houses in addition to making extended trips to Lebanon.

Raised on the southside of Brisbane, Omar went to Upper Mt Gravatt Primary School and McGregor High School.

He was a keen sportsman - particularly cricket, basketball and rugby league - and describes himself as a popular person who got on well with his peers.

But he was expelled for fighting in Year 10 and then went to Mr Gravatt High School.

He was again expelled and eventually finished year 12 at Runcorn Secondary School.

On his version of the story, Omar got in trouble trying to defend other pupils from bullies.

He started a Justice Diploma at TAFE but gave up the course when he found out traffic infringements would make him ineligible to join the police force.

He now describes himself as an entrepreneur, having started a kebab shop at age 19 and a fruit and vegetable shop at age 20.

After working in sales at Harvey Norman, he went on to buy an aluminium skirting business he ran for six years.

Omar ran a Lebanese restaurant for a year before opening The Islamic Bookstore and Islamic Centre as a charity project for the local Muslim community.

He had hoped to on-sell it to a Muslim non-government organisation.

He says he made most of his money, though, from fixing cars and buying and selling houses.

CHARACTER WITNESSES

"I feel that Omar can not only get through this situation he is in, but come through the other side as an absolute asset to the Muslim and Australian community. He possesses such a sincere drive to counsel others, now equipped with perspective, I can think of no one more capable or with more potential than Omar." Robert Maestracci, youth worker at Slacks Creek Mosque Australian Unity Centre

 

Associates of Omar Succarieh, including mosque youth worker Robert Maestracci (right), arrive at Brisbane Supreme Court.
Associates of Omar Succarieh, including mosque youth worker Robert Maestracci (right), arrive at Brisbane Supreme Court. AAP

"I am a director of Youth Connect, which is a new body designed to help youth stay on the right path. Normally these young boys in danger of radicalisation they do not want to work with anybody. With Mr Succarieh, I believe we have a person whose story will show the young men that he has learned from his mistakes. His story can be used to stop other young men who may stray from the right path." Imam Akram Buksh, Australian Centre for Unity, Slacks Creek Masjid

"He has assured me that he will not isolate himself and ignore the advice from the established religious scholars. I have strong reason to believe that upon his release he has a potential of becoming a positive example for other young men who may have committed such offences." Imam Mirza Muhammad Uzair Akbar, Holland Park Mosque

"All my life I have known Omar to be generous. Omar is a genuinely good person and big-hearted. He likes to do selfless acts. It is a real source of satisfaction for him. The best way to describe him is other people being happy makes him happy. Omar has many great qualities including being a great dad to his kids, being very active in helping the community, especially the disadvantaged people who are most in need." His brother Joseph Succarieh

"Omar is my only family in Australia and my best friend and the love of my life. Not only did Omar provide for our little family, he also worked hard so we could send money to my family in Lebanon who are financially poor. If people want to know the true Omar they just need to see him through the eyes of his children. Omar's incarceration has taken a heavy toll on our family." Wife Razan Soukarie

MAKING SENSE OF THE SYRIAN CONFLICT*

THE civil war in Syria involves President Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government fighting against numerous opposition forces seeking to overthrow them.

For more than five years, the Syrian government had tortured, shot, bombed and gassed its own people with impunity, resulting in almost 500,000 dead and 11 million displaced.

At the time Omar Succarieh committed his offences, the civil war and armed conflict in Syria had been going for some time with numerous groups and organisations involved in armed hostilities.

 

A Syrian man holding a girl as he stands on the rubble of houses destroyed by Syrian government forces air strikes in Aleppo, Syria.
A Syrian man holding a girl as he stands on the rubble of houses destroyed by Syrian government forces air strikes in Aleppo, Syria. Uncredited

Nationalism and sovereignty motivated some of those opposition groups that sought to remove the Assad regime in favour of democratic rule within Syria.

Others were motivated by more fundamental religious and ideological beliefs, seeking to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state under Sharia law.

Prescribed terrorist organisation Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) was one opposition group with the latter goal.

JN was an Al-Qaeda affiliated, militant-Islamist group that entered the Syrian conflict in late 2011.

It was operating as the Syrian wing of the Iraq-based militant jihadist group, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).

ISI had itself begun as an organisation allegiant to al-Qaeda but later established a self-proclaimed caliphate and identified itself as an entity distinct from al-Qaeda.

With expansion into Syria, ISI eventually become known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Over time a dispute emerged between JN and ISIL.

By April 2013, ISIL had expanded its operations in Syria and attempted to subsume JN.

JN refused to submit to ISIL's control and instead reaffirmed its allegiance to the al-Qaeda and the aim to establish an al-Qaeda run Islamic caliphate.

The ensuing discord, or fitna, eventually led to open conflict and armed hostilities between members of JN and ISIL within Syria.

Succarieh knew or believed his brother Abraham and the other Australians with him in Syria were associating with JN or other Islamist opposition groups and that they shared his religious ideology and support for establishing a state under Islamic law.

* Paraphrased from submissions made in the Succarieh case about the conflict



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