“With my martyrdom operation drawing closer, I want to tell you my story, how I came from being an Atheist school student in affluent Melbourne to a soldier of the Khilafah preparing to sacrifice my life for Islam in Ramadi, Iraq. Many people in Australia probably think they know the story, but the truth is, this is something that has remained between myself and Allah (azza wa’jal) until now.”
Thus opens what appears to be one of the last in a series of blog posts written by Jake Bilardi, an 18-year-old Australian who died last Wednesday after driving an explosives-laden vehicle into a position held by the Iraqi Security Forces’ Eighth Brigade.
Immediately afterwards, fighters for the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, uploaded images of Bilardi embarking upon his suicide operation, and he was identified as the unnamed teenage fighter who has, in recent months, been variously dubbed the “baby-faced mujahid” or the “emo jihadi.” Since his identity became public, questions have abounded as to how a young and educated man like him could end up on the other side of the world fighting for ISIS, a group that routinely engages in the most abhorrent of war crimes.
In January 2015, a blogger calling himself Abu Abdullah al Australi (meaning he came from Australia) started writing a series of posts entitled “From the Eyes of a Muhajir [Immigrant].” It is impossible to identify the author definitively but he claims to be an 18-year-old convert from Melbourne. The blogger also claims to have recently “register[ed] for a martyrdom operation” in Ramadi, Iraq, the city in which Bilardi—also known as Abu Abdullah al-Australi among ISIS supporters—is said to have died.
Safe to say, this “anonymous” blogger was Bilardi or meant to be identified as him.
A perusal of the site, which has since been taken offline, gives us remarkable insight into what seems to be a truly atypical journey to jihadism. Its content ranges from theological justifications for ISIS’s myriad crimes to accounts of what “coming face-to-face with the enemy” felt like: “It’s not very often that you’re [sic] next door neighbour has snipers and doshkas [heavy machine guns] aimed at your house but on the frontline in the city of Ramadi, this is a common sight.”
Most interesting is a lengthy post published on January 13, 2015, entitled “From Melbourne to Ramadi: My Journey,” an essay that, the author claims, tracks his radicalization in Australia. It is interesting to note the differences between Bilardi’s claimed experiences and those of others who have spoken of their paths to extremism. Indeed, if we take him at his word, he did not follow any of the usual, most well-trodden paths to jihadism.
Initially, he writes of how, “as an Atheist of only 13-years-of-age,” he was already keenly interested in international politics. He talks of how his exposure to stories of injustice all over the world, things like the Israel-Palestine conflict—“the ultimate David and Goliath story”—left him wanting to learn more so he could fulfill his ambitions of becoming a “political journalist” and perhaps, one day, help to resolve them. Before long, though, he had recognized that there was no resolution to the world’s ills, that the “system of lies and deception” upon which the modern world was built could only “be destroyed by violent revolution,” a struggle in which he would “likely be killed.”
From this point on in the essay, his trajectory is clear. Religion, specifically Islam, soon stopped being “a political interest.” Instead, he realized, it was “the truth [that he] had been circling around for years.” Before long, he “couldn’t help but make strong associations between the speech of Allah (azza wa’jal) and the chaotic scenes around the world today,” and, eventually, after a few bungled attempts to travel to Syria, he “made contact with a brother online” who promised to help him, and succeeded in doing so. Once he had arrived in the lands controlled by ISIS, he writes, he signed up to the martyrdom register. A few months later, reports of his death emerged on Twitter.
While there is no clear-cut mold for those who are vulnerable candidates for jihadist recruiters, if there was one, Bilardi would have broken it. At least he would have done, if we were to believe his account. His presentation of his path to suicide not only makes it seem easy to follow but alluring, too—the only way to bring rapid change to the global system of injustice.
However, it all seems too easy. Perhaps, he wrote what he did for exactly this reason. Perhaps, in his framing of his seamless metamorphosis from educated atheist to committed jihadist, he was trying to present the idea that anyone can be radicalized to the ISIS cause if they believe in the imperative for political change strongly enough. Perhaps, then, this was not just a diary, but an advertisement for ISIS, too.
Of course, it will be impossible to gauge the veracity of the claims made in this blog. Time will not tell. However, to ascribe to it too much credibility, to take its eloquently stated arguments as sacrosanct, would be a dangerous thing indeed. After all, no one writes a pro-ISIS blog without an agenda.