Three years after Mathew Stewart , his family held a small, private wake. It was premature.
In November, after a decade-long investigation, the Australian federal police moved to issue an arrest warrant for the Queenslander, on charges of joining al-Qaida linked militants and fighting in the Syrian civil war.
News of the warrant application, contained in federal police documents , is the first official recognition that police believe what has been widely suspected: that Stewart made his way in 2001 from Malaysia to Afghanistan, joined the Taliban and took up arms against western and Afghan government troops.
Files from Operation Kenilworth – the AFP’s investigation into Stewart – also say he gave a 2006 interview from a Taliban hideout to a Turkish journalist, in which the former Australian soldier detailed the substance abuse and mental illness that preceded his conversion to extremist Islam.
Stewart was among the first peacekeepers on the ground in East Timor when Australian-led troops intervened there in 1999. His platoon encountered “dead bodies in the gutters, limbs, people who had been scalped”, an army colleague recalled in 2005. They were also the first to encounter the badly mutilated body of 30-year-old journalist Sander Thoenes, who had been kidnapped days earlier. “At the end of the day we received a grand total of zero counselling,” his colleague said.
The six-month tour shattered the 23-year-old. Back in Brisbane, Stewart was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, declared unfit for service and discharged in 2001. Less than a month later he was in .
“Hamza” was how Stewart introduced himself to Adem Ozkose, a Turkish journalist, when they met around December 2006. In a loosely translated interview in the police files, Stewart tells a familiar story of a chequered youth redeemed by religious zealotry.
“I spent my life [having] fun … doing all kinds of immorality,” he told Ozkose. “Cocaine is addictive. After a while I did that … to the point of losing my mind.”
Stewart said he was living on the streets at his lowest point, when he experienced a fear of the afterlife “so intense that I cannot express [it] in words ... Since then I started going to church and reading the Bible.”
A sermon eventually inspired him to join the military and fight in East Timor. “But still I had no peace of mind. I hated the army and Australian society,” he said. “In addition, Christianity had started to become ridiculous to me. I was looking for something different to find peace.”
In the interview he said his path to Afghanistan began with a picture of the that he encountered online. “[In] Khattab’s gaze I saw the peace of mind I do not see in any human being,” he said.
It sparked a passion for Islam that he felt was not shared by Brisbane’s Muslim community, which had “fallen to pursue the pleasures of the world”.
He instead sought out the Taliban, making his way to Afghanistan via Iran, making contact with the militants in Herat, a border city, and converting to their austere brand of Islam soon after.
The federal police file on Stewart was opened in April 2005, after a masked, wild-eyed Australian surfaced in an al-Qaida video threatening to bomb and kill westerners. Investigators continued building a brief of evidence against him throughout 2006 but the trail appears to have run cold until 2009.
That year, three people with possible information about Stewart came to the attention of police, and at least one was interviewed for two days. Officers also considered seeking a control order on Stewart and discussed the possibility of issuing a warrant for his arrest.
They also believed in October 2009 the Mooloolaba man could soon be home. His last known location was Waziristan in Pakistan, at the time the site of clashes between the Islamabad government and local militia groups.
“[It is] possible Mr Stewart may come to the notice of the Pakistan army – as a civilian, refugee or combatant – during their offensive action,” investigators noted.
Ozkose’s account of his interview with Stewart (billed as “perhaps the most interesting story ever heard”) featured in his 2010 book, Hitchhiking to Heaven, about Muslim converts.
By 2011 Stewart was still believed to be living in southern Waziristan, but surfaced again in October last year, with the al-Qaida linked al-Risalah magazine.
In the propaganda piece, “Usama Hamza al-Australi” identified himself as a former Australian soldier from Queensland now working as a trainer with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s proxy militia in .
The AFP documents say: “Many of the details provided by the individual in this interview corroborate facts about Mr Stewart already known by the AFP. The person depicted in the images also match that of Mr Stewart.”
Three days later, an AFP ministerial briefing says the police believe “there is sufficient information to apply for a first instance arrest warrant for Mr Stewart”.
The briefing highlights two possible charges: joining a terrorist organisation and entering a foreign country with the intention of engaging in a hostile act.
Stewart’s family was contacted by Guardian Australia but declined to comment.
The AFP declined to confirm whether the warrant against Stewart had been issued, citing “operational reasons”.