SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is confronting what authorities say is a growing threat from homegrown Islamist radicals and fears a new danger is about to rumble over the horizon - would-be militants hooking up with biker gangs.
Islamism and organised crime are already mixing, said retired New South Wales Assistant Police Commissioner Clive Small, and the new gang members use radical Islam as a justification for joining.
“You can have a person who says I‘m in it (a gang), I‘m selling drugs, because Australia’s a bad place and we need to raise money to take over,” Small told Reuters.
“So you’ve got this rationale which justifies almost anything you want.”
More than 800 police were involved in counter-terrorism raids in Sydney and Brisbane in September, which authorities said thwarted a plot by militants linked to the Islamic State to behead a random member of the public.
Last month, Australia passed laws aimed at preventing youngsters going to fight in Iraq and Syria, where scores of Australians have joined militant groups, and is on high alert for attacks at home by radicalised Muslims.
Convicted murderer and Brothers 4 Life gang boss Bassam Hamzy adopted the mantle of radical Islam behind bars while ordering his gang to join forces with the Bandidos Motorcycle Club in a bloody drug war, media said.
The new link between radical Islam and bikers is partly a consequence of Australia’s changing demographics.
More than a quarter century ago, when Mark “Ferret” Moroney joined the Finks Outlaw Motorcycle Club, members were like him: tough, covered in tattoos and, like much of Australia at the time, white.
The gangs have since been transformed by an influx of members of Middle Eastern origin, some of whom do not even ride motorcycles.
“It changed the clubs’ style a little bit. In the Mongol Nation you must have a motorcycle to be a member or to hang around,” Moroney, who defected from the Finks in 2013 to become national president of the rival, all-white Mongol Nation, said.
“Some other clubs are a bit lax with that rule,” the soft-spoken Moroney, with a shaved head, bulging forearms covered in tattoos and the word “Mongols” inked across his neck, said in a rare interview at the club compound.
Biker gangs now have strong family and cultural ties to the very communities police worry are harbouring potential radicals.
“Those who are involved in criminal activity, what I‘m worried about is they bring with them skill sets, contacts, ability to source materiel that may not be readily available in religiously extremist groups,” New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas said.
“There is a wall, to some extent, between profit-driven criminality and extremism and I guess our concern is ‘what happens if that wall fades or dissipates.'”
In the 1990s, crime groups run by the children of Lebanese immigrants took control of Sydney’s notorious Kings Cross neighbourhood and alliances were forged with bikers, who police say are heavily involved in narcotics and extortion.
As the syndicates expanded into Sydney’s majority Muslim western suburbs, young men were needed to bolster the ranks, said Detective Superintendent Deborah Wallace. Biker gangs had no choice but to open to non-whites.
Traditionally, these recruits went through a long probation before becoming a full member but the “Nike Bikies” - so called for eschewing leathers and Harley Davidsons for designer jeans and Mercedes sedans - were in high demand.
Pumped up on steroids and flush with cash and guns, they would often defect from one biker club to a rival, unheard of in earlier days, sparking conflict.
“They were their muscle. And what’s happened since is that lack of loyalty is causing a whole lot of problems,” Wallace said.
Those problems included drive-by shootings, fire bombings and a 2011 brawl at Sydney airport that left one biker dead.
Outside the Mongols’ clubhouse in a Sydney industrial park around a dozen motorcycles gleam in the sun. Inside, behind a thick steel door watched over by security cameras, dozens of burly members drink beer and eat chicken smothered in gravy from grease soaked white boxes.
To Moroney, who denies involvement in criminal activity, the shift in biker culture reflects changes in society. Middle Easterners have larger families than white Australians, he said, and they bring relatives with them into the clubs.
“If you’ve got 40 relatives compared to an Australian, who’s got five, more people are going to come,” he said.
But Kaldas, an immigrant from Egypt, sees worrying patterns.
In 2005, police thwarted a plot to blow up a nuclear power plant in New South Wales with rockets allegedly stolen by an army major, who sold them to a biker gang, which sold them to a Lebanese organised crime group, which sold them to radical Islamists.
“For me, that was a classic example of the profit driven criminality and the religiously or jihadi motivated sort of violence working together,” he said.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel