Musa Cerantonio is an Australian Islamist preacher who has inspired numerous foreign fighters to join jihadist groups in Syria. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), Cerantonio is “an outspoken cheerleader for ISIS”Joseph A. Carter, Shiraz Maher, and Peter R. Neumann, “#Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, April 2014, 2, http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ICSR-Report-Greenbirds-Measuring-Importance-and-Infleunce-in-Syrian-Foreign-Fighter-Networks.pdf. and one of two English-speaking “spiritual authorities” influencing Westerners to fight abroad.Joseph A. Carter, Shiraz Maher, and Peter R. Neumann, “#Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, April 2014, 82, http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ICSR-Report-Greenbirds-Measuring-Importance-and-Infleunce-in-Syrian-Foreign-Fighter-Networks.pdf. Australian police arrested Cerantonio and five others in May 2016 for allegedly preparing to sail to Indonesia with the intent of reaching Syria to join ISIS.Michael Safi and Josh Robertson, “Musa Cerantonio among men arrested after allegedly trying to sail to Indonesia,” Guardian (London), May 11, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/may/11/musa-cerantonio-among-men-arrested-after-allegedly-trying-to-sail-to-indonesia; “Leader of Australia's ‘tinnie terror’ plot jailed for 7 years,” Reuters, May 3, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-security-court/leader-of-australias-tinnie-terror-plot-jailed-for-7-years-idUSKCN1S90OH. In 2019, Cerantonio pled guilty to plotting violence in a foreign country and was sentenced to seven years in prison.Rohan Smith, “Leader of ‘tinnie terror’ plot Robert Cerantonio jailed over 2016 plot,” News.com.au, May 3, 2019, https://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/courts-law/leader-of-tinnie-terror-plot-robert-cerantonio-jailed-over-2016-plot/news-story/11ae7412dd3b4a329bf5f027e805a634. In June 2021, Cerantonio renounced ISIS and acknowledged his responsibility in fomenting violent extremism.David Hurley, “Tinnie terrorist renounces ‘evil’ wrongs in prison letter,” Herald Sun (Southbank), October 10, 2021, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/tinnie-terrorist-renounces-evil-wrongs/news-story/13a949f65b3870d5407e789cabb4afb7.
Before his arrest, Cerantonio had long corresponded with ISIS fighters through social media.John Safran, “Musa Cerantonio: Muslim convert and radical supporter of Islamic State,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 17, 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/musa-cerantonio-muslim-convert-and-radical-supporter-of-islamic-state-20150116-121c8s.html. He frequently used social media to call for the assassination of U.S. leadersShiv Malik and Michael Safi, “Revealed: the radical clerics using social media to back British jihadists in Syria,” Guardian, April 15, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/15/preachers-spiritual-cheerleaders-social-media-syria-london-university. and praise jihadists in Syria.
In 2013, Cerantonio hosted the English-language show “Ask the Sheikh,” in which he answered questions on sharia (Islamic law) from viewers around the world. The program aired on the Saudi satellite network Iqraa, and was available in Austria, Africa, Asia, the U.S., and Europe.“Australian Islamist Musa Cerantonio Glorifies Jihad, Supports Jabhat Al-Nusra In Syria,” Middle East Media Research Institute, March 11, 2013, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/7070.htm.
Cerantonio moved to the Philippines in 2013John Safran, “Musa Cerantonio: Muslim convert and radical supporter of Islamic State,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 17, 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/musa-cerantonio-muslim-convert-and-radical-supporter-of-islamic-state-20150116-121c8s.html; Alex White, “Hate cleric Musa Cerantonio had been a Catholic,” Herald Sun, July 11, 2014, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/law-order/hate-cleric-musa-cerantonio-had-been-a-catholic/story-fni0fee2-1226986227281. where he used YouTube to call for jihad and praise ISIS, according to the Philippine police who deported Cerantonio in July 2014.“Philippines deports Australian Islamic preacher,” Associated Press, July 24, 2014, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/philippines-deports-australian-islamic-preacher. Australian authorities have called Cerantonio’s social media posts “offensive and disturbing” but said they do not violate Australian law.Matt Siegel, “Australian Islamist returns home to surveillance, not jail,” Reuters, July 22, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/23/us-australia-islamist-idUSKBN0FS04S20140723. His Twitter and Facebook accounts have been shut down but many of his videos remain on YouTube.
Born Robert Cerantonio to an Irish-Catholic family, Cerantonio converted to Islam when he was 17 years old.Melissa Hills, “‘You CAN go to paradise even if you are killed by a woman’: Aussie hate preacher dismisses ISIS fears of ‘virgin-less heaven’ if they are killed by Kurdish female fighters,” Daily Mail, November 7, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2825314/Australian-hate-preacher-posts-new-extremist-messages-online-telling-fighters-Paradise-die-Islamic-faith.html. Cerantonio is an aficionado of Islamic history. In particular, he enjoys retelling the story of “when the Muslims fought Dracula,” the death of Ottoman leader Muhammad al-Fateh at the hands of Vlad the Impaler. He married a Filipino woman, Joan Montayre, who remained in the Philippines after he was deported in July 2014. He also has two daughters from a previous marriage to a Lebanese woman in Australia.John Safran, “Musa Cerantonio: Muslim convert and radical supporter of Islamic State,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 17, 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/musa-cerantonio-muslim-convert-and-radical-supporter-of-islamic-state-20150116-121c8s.html.
Cerantonio has been largely quiet on social media since he returned to Australia. In January 2016, media reports revealed that he was maintaining an Instagram account under an alias after he posted a picture of himself at the Vatican holding a black flag with the Arabic for “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is the messenger of Allah.” The picture was reportedly up to four years old. Cerantonio largely posted pictures of himself on the account, according to reports. As of April 2016, he reportedly had 127 followers on Instagram and followed 178 accounts, mostly belonging to ISIS supporters.Candace Sutton, “Australian jihadi extremist returns to social media preaching with photo holding Islamic flag outside the Vatican to promote view that 'Christians don't deserve churches,’” Daily Mail, January 6, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3387835/Australian-jihadi-extremist-returns-social-media-preaching-photo-holding-Islamic-flag-outside-Vatican-promote-view-Christians-don-t-deserve-churches.html;
“Pro-ISIS Australian Cleric Musa Cerantonio Active on Instagram,” MEMRI, April 8, 2016, http://cjlab.memri.org/lab-projects/tracking-jihadi-terrorist-use-of-social-media/pro-isis-australian-cleric-musa-cerantonio-active-on-instagram/.
Australian federal police arrested Cerantonio and four other Australian men on May 10, 2016, on the suspicion that they were planning to sail to Indonesia. The group had towed a seven-meter boat for at least 31 hours from Melbourne to Cape York in Queensland when police arrested them. The group reportedly bought the boat in Melbourne, and it appeared to be at least 30 years old. It was the first known attempt by would-be foreign fighters to leave the country by boat, according to Attorney General George Brandis.Michael Safi and Josh Robertson, “Musa Cerantonio among men arrested after allegedly trying to sail to Indonesia,” Guardian (London), May 11, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/may/11/musa-cerantonio-among-men-arrested-after-allegedly-trying-to-sail-to-indonesia;
Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, “Islamic preacher Musa Cerantonio among five arrested over alleged plan to join Islamic State,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, May 11, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-11/preacher-among-five-arrested-over-alleged-plan-to-join-is/7403344.
According to Australian police, the five were “very committed” to getting to Syria.Paul Farrell, Melissa Davey, and Joshua Robertson, “Police foil alleged jihadi plot to sail dinghy from Australia to Indonesia,” Guardian (London), May 10, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/may/11/police-foil-alleged-jihadi-plot-to-sail-dinghy-from-australia-to-indonesia. Arrested with Cerantonio were Kadir Kaya, Shayden Thorne, Paul James Dacre, and Antonino Granata. All five had previously had their passports revoked.Michael Safi and Josh Robertson, “Musa Cerantonio among men arrested after allegedly trying to sail to Indonesia,” Guardian (London), May 11, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/may/11/musa-cerantonio-among-men-arrested-after-allegedly-trying-to-sail-to-indonesia. Ten search warrants were issued in Melbourne and Queensland in connection to the investigation.Australian Associated Press, “Men charged over alleged terrorism boat plot to be extradited to Melbourne,” Guardian (London), May 16, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/may/16/men-charged-over-alleged-terrorism-boat-plot-to-be-extradited-to-melbourne. Shane Patton, deputy commissioner of the Victoria police, labeled the five a “security interest” and police investigated their intentions to become foreign fighters in Syria.Michael Safi and Josh Robertson, “Musa Cerantonio among men arrested after allegedly trying to sail to Indonesia,” Guardian (London), May 11, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/may/11/musa-cerantonio-among-men-arrested-after-allegedly-trying-to-sail-to-indonesia. Cerantonio and the other four men were charged with “making preparations for incursions into foreign countries for the purpose of engaging in hostile activities.” The charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.Agence France-Presse, “Five face terror charges over Australia-Syria boat plan,” Telegraph (London), May 15, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/15/five-face-terror-charges-over-australia-syria-boat-plan/. On May 27, 2016, police arrested a sixth conspirator, Murat Kaya, Kadir Kaya’s older brother. The older Kaya had intended to travel with the group but had pulled out prior to their departure.“6th Australian charged in boat terror plot,” Anadolu Agency, May 27, 2016, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/6th-australian-charged-in-boat-terror-plot/579446.
The Brothers Behind Bars Facebook page has called for donations to pay for the legal fees of Cerantonio and his four alleged co-conspirators. The group’s goal is to “provide community support for incarcerated Muslims in Australia.”Brothers Behind Bars, Facebook page, accessed May 17, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/Brothers-Behind-Bars-883478791762874/?fref=nf. Radical British preacher Abu Haleema also uploaded a YouTube video chastising Australian imams for “remaining silent” while Cerantonio is “oppressed” by the Australian government.“Muslim Prisoners || Musa Cerantonio || Abu Haleema @3Abu11H,” YouTube video, 3:54, posted by Abu Haleema Media, May 15, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SztvKSMtmxs.
In February 2019, Cerantonio and his five co-conspirators pled guilty to engaging in conduct in preparation for hostile activities in a foreign country. Dacre, Granata, and Kadir Kaya were each sentenced to four years in prison, Justice Michael Croucher said the four men would not have been involved if not for the “charismatic” Cerantonio.Emma Younger, “Influential Philippines plot ringleader not stereotypical Islamic extremist, court hears,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, March 15, 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-15/robert-cerantonio-phillipines-incursion-boat-plea-hearing/10905442; Agence France-Presse, “‘Tinnie terrorists’ jailed in Australia for Philippines boat plot,” Yahoo News, February 22, 2018, https://news.yahoo.com/tinnie-terrorists-jailed-australia-philippines-boat-plot-083357281.html; “Australian judge jails extremist for Philippines boat plot,” Associated Press, May 3, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/8d99f6084e414c3bb2f459501bdb2bd0. Murat Kaya was sentenced to three years and eight months.Agence France-Presse, “‘Tinnie terrorists’ jailed in Australia for Philippines boat plot,” Yahoo News, February 22, 2018, https://news.yahoo.com/tinnie-terrorists-jailed-australia-philippines-boat-plot-083357281.html. Cerantonio and Thorne also pled guilty but were not sentenced at the same time.Agence France-Presse, “‘Tinnie terrorists’ jailed in Australia for Philippines boat plot,” Yahoo News, February 22, 2018, https://news.yahoo.com/tinnie-terrorists-jailed-australia-philippines-boat-plot-083357281.html. Thorne was sentenced a week later to three years and 10 months in prison.Karen Percy, “Melbourne man sentenced over plot to support Muslim militants in the Philippines,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, February 26, 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-26/shayden-thorne-sentenced-to-jail-over-foreign-incursion-plan/10851518. On May 3, 2019, Cerantonio was sentenced to seven years in prison with a minimum non-parole period of five years and three months.Rohan Smith, “Leader of ‘tinnie terror’ plot Robert Cerantonio jailed over 2016 plot,” News.com.au, May 3, 2019, https://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/courts-law/leader-of-tinnie-terror-plot-robert-cerantonio-jailed-over-2016-plot/news-story/11ae7412dd3b4a329bf5f027e805a634. Due to time already served since their arrests in 2016, most of the conspirators were released under government restrictions in 2020. Murat Kaya was released on parole in January 2020.Kelsey Wilkie and Australian Associated Press, “Notorious 'tinnie terrorist' will walk free from jail TODAY after less than four years behind bars despite his ‘continued contempt towards non-Muslims and extremist ideology,’” Daily Mail (London), January 22, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7918199/Notorious-tinnie-terrorist-Murat-Kaya-walk-free-Melbourne-jail-TODAY.html. Thorne was released that March.Frances Bell, “Convicted terrorist Shayden Thorne can use Zoom, computers for study, court rules,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, August 17, 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-17/convicted-terrorist-shayden-thorne-gets-relaxed-court-order/12567230. Granata was released that May.Jack Paynter and Caroline Schelle, “Antonino Alfio Granata accused of breaching control order,” Australian (New South Wales), December 2, 2020, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/breaking-news/tinnie-terrorist-antonino-alfio-granata-accused-of-breaching-control-order/news-story/7c6c22f276406fc1980aa3cb6543df9e. Kaya and Granata were re-arrested in November 2020 for parole violations related to cellphone usage. The court ruled the violations were “not sinister.”George Moore, “Convicted tinnie terrorists back in court,” 7News, December 1, 2020, https://7news.com.au/news/crime/tinnie-terrorist-murat-kaya-granted-bail-c-1683755.
In October 2021, Australian media reported Cerantonio had written a letter to a friend that past June renouncing “Islam and jihadist extremism.”David Hurley, “Tinnie terrorist renounces ‘evil’ wrongs in prison letter,” Herald Sun (Southbank), October 10, 2021, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/tinnie-terrorist-renounces-evil-wrongs/news-story/13a949f65b3870d5407e789cabb4afb7. Cerantonio wrote he felt “terrible” knowing he influenced others to “dedicate themselves to tyrannical death cults.”David Hurley, “Tinnie terrorist renounces ‘evil’ wrongs in prison letter,” Herald Sun (Southbank), October 10, 2021, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/tinnie-terrorist-renounces-evil-wrongs/news-story/13a949f65b3870d5407e789cabb4afb7. According to the letter, Cerantonio had spent a large amount of time reading and researching while in prison and undergone a “religious and ideological belief since mid-2019.”David Hurley, “Tinnie terrorist renounces ‘evil’ wrongs in prison letter,” Herald Sun (Southbank), October 10, 2021, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/tinnie-terrorist-renounces-evil-wrongs/news-story/13a949f65b3870d5407e789cabb4afb7. In the letter, Cerantonio referred to ISIS as “suicidal maniacs” and a “death cult.”David Hurley, “Tinnie terrorist renounces ‘evil’ wrongs in prison letter,” Herald Sun (Southbank), October 10, 2021, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/tinnie-terrorist-renounces-evil-wrongs/news-story/13a949f65b3870d5407e789cabb4afb7. Cerantonio wrote he had “something of a duty to clean up the mess to which” he contributed.David Hurley, “Tinnie terrorist renounces ‘evil’ wrongs in prison letter,” Herald Sun (Southbank), October 10, 2021, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/tinnie-terrorist-renounces-evil-wrongs/news-story/13a949f65b3870d5407e789cabb4afb7.
In a March 2022 piece for the Atlantic, journalist Graeme Wood revealed he had been the recipient of Cerantonio’s 2021 letter renouncing ISIS. According to Wood, Cerantonio also renounced Islam and became an atheist and reader of renowned atheist and author Richard Dawkins—though Cerantonio has said he still disagrees with Dawkins in several areas. In Wood’s account, Cerantonio reached his conclusion about Islam while studying the Quran in prison. He focused on a figure in the 18th chapter of the Quran called Dhu-l Qarnayn, “the two-horned one.” According to Wood, Cerantonio noted similarities between Dhu-l Qarnayn and a fabulized version of Alexander the Great in Aramaic, which he later determined the Quran had plagiarized. Cerantonio wrote to Wood, “Realizing that Dhu-l Qarnayn was not at all a real person but was rather based on a fictional account of Alexander the Great instantly left me with only one possible conclusion: The Quran was not divinely inspired.”Graeme Wood, “Why an ISIS Propagandist Abandoned Islam,” Atlantic, March 31, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/deprogramming-isis-supporters-jihadi-extremism/629433/. Cerantonio told Wood ISIS’s murderous activities were consistent with what he knew of Islamic teachings, but the Alexander plagiarism failed intellectual tests.Graeme Wood, “Why an ISIS Propagandist Abandoned Islam,” Atlantic, March 31, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/deprogramming-isis-supporters-jihadi-extremism/629433/. After abandoning Islam, Cerantonio began using his English name, Robert. While serving the remainder of his sentence, he has also met with other jihadists in prison to help deprogram them. Wood reported Cerantonio has had some success but his own deprogramming—based on in-depth readings using multiple translations—is not easily replicated because of the time, patience, and level of education necessary to reach the same conclusions as Cerantonio.Graeme Wood, “Why an ISIS Propagandist Abandoned Islam,” Atlantic, March 31, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/deprogramming-isis-supporters-jihadi-extremism/629433/.
- Extremist entity
- Type(s) of Organization:
- Insurgent, territory-controlling, religious, terrorist, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations:
- Islamist, jihadist, pan-Islamist, Salafist, takfiri
- Preacher, recruiter, propagandist
ISIS is a violent jihadist group based in Iraq and Syria. The group has declared wilayas (provinces) in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the North Caucasus. ISIS has also waged attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Belgium, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Tunisia, and Kuwait.
Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.
On October 27, 2018, domestic terrorist Robert D. Bowers carried out an anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He fired on congregants as they gathered for worship, killing 11 people and wounding six others.