It started with a local news story: two teenagers from western Sydney, Fadi Zraika and Abraham Zreika, allegedly lit fireworks in December, despite the state-wide fire ban, sparking a small grass fire in Guildford.
The Daily Telegraph ran a photograph of them leaving court, noting that one of them “laughed” and “filmed reporters on his mobile phone”.
Within hours of the Telegraph story going to print, a number of international alt-right media outlets were linking the teenagers’ actions to Islamic terrorism and blaming ISIS for the bushfire crisis.
The alt-right news cycle
Prominent far-right anti-Islam activist Tommy Robinson’s site TR News published an article on January 7 under the heading “Muslim Man Accused of Starting Fire Laughs at Court”.
The story included a sentence alleging that “in November, ISIS encouraged followers to ‘ignite fires’ as a means of ‘waging jihad’, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute”. Similar links were drawn in articles on US alt-right sites like Right Journalism and Gateway Pundit.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has been accused of posing “as a research institute when it’s basically a propaganda operation” in favour of furthering Israel’s political agenda. Nonetheless, mainstream media outlets, including The New York Post, reported MEMRI’s claims in November last year.
Going big on social media
It didn’t take long for these ideas to break into the Twittersphere. Far-right Australian YouTuber Avi Yemini seems to have been the first to link the teenagers’ actions to ISIS terrorism.
On January 7, Yemini posted a link to the Robinson news story with the caption “only a month after ISIS encouraged followers to ‘ignite fires’ as a means of ‘waging jihad’”, along with the sarcastic phrase “but cLImAte chANgE”.
When Crikey questioned Yemini on whether he thought the bushfire crisis was linked to ISIS, he said “I don’t think it’s linked to ISIS. But it’s just as likely climate change”.
Yemini didn’t respond to Crikey’s questions about whether he thought the two teenagers’ actions are associated with ISIS, or the suggestion that his tweet may have given readers the idea that jihadist arson could be at play in Australia.
Similar tweets started popping up across Twitter, and the Facebook page “I’ll Stand by Tony Abbott” shared the Robinson article.
An international conspiracy
On the morning of January 8, prominent alt-right commentator Stefan Molyneux — who has over 400,000 followers on Twitter — tweeted an article alleging ISIS ordered its followers to set forest fires. He included the comment, “Hey Australia!”
He promptly retweeted The Daily Telegraph’s original article about the two teenagers leaving court.
An article in The Australian posted the same afternoon armed climate denialists with claims that more than 180 alleged arsonists had been arrested since the start of 2019. The claim fuelled a disinformation campaign which has since been debunked by authorities.
For some, allegations that arsonists had been arrested across the country was just further evidence that jihadi terrorists were behind the country’s bushfire crisis.
Tweets started popping up about the Guildford grass fire using the hashtag #FireJihad, which has appeared since at least 2013 on posts attempting to trace some of the world’s most devastating fire seasons — such as the 2019 California season — back to Islamic terrorists.
Right-wing lobby group Rite-On took to Facebook to explicitly accused the teenagers of “domestic terrorism” with followers calling for their deportation.
Some Twitter users blamed the pair for Australia’s entire bushfire season, accusing them of killing dozens of people and destroying homes.
The conspiracy has since broken into Australia’s academic circles. Dr Augusto Zimmermann, a legal scholar who previously lectured at Murdoch University, updated an earlier Facebook post, titled “Islamic State Encourages Muslims to Set Fires in Australia” to include the Telegraph’s article and photos of the two teenagers.
The post opened with a question: “Does anybody seriously believe that these fires across Australia have all started simultaneously and naturally?”
Additional reporting by Jack Berkefeld.