SYDNEY – Australia's government was trying to confirm reports that an Australian teenager was among a group of suicide bombers from the Islamic State movement that struck Iraq's embattled Anbar province.
The Islamic State group claimed in an online statement that it used foreign fighters from Australia, Belgium, Syria and Uzbekistan in Wednesday's attack, in which at least 13 suicide car bombs exploded almost simultaneously in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, killing two soldiers and wounding eight. One photo that was posted featured a white van driving down a dusty street, alongside an image of a young man who closely resembles 18-year-old Australian Jake Bilardi sitting behind the wheel.
"I can confirm that we're seeking to independently verify that he was part of this suicide bombing attack," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Thursday. "The news appears very grim, but we are seeking to independently verify it."
The British press labeled Bilardi the "White Jihadi" in December after images of him armed with a rifle in front of Islamic flags appeared on social media sites.
The teen left his home in the southern Australian city of Melbourne in August and headed to the Middle East. Bishop said he had been on Australia's radar for several months, and in October, she canceled his passport on the advice of the country's security agencies.
Last year, the Australian government passed sweeping counterterrorism legislation that made it easier for officials to cancel the passports of people they suspect of engaging in extremism. The law also makes it a crime for Australians to visit certain terrorism hot spots overseas.
"If these reports are confirmed, this is another tragic example of a young Australian being lured to a senseless and violent death by a brutal terrorist organization that is intent on imposing suffering and misery not only in Iraq and in Syria, but beyond," Bishop said.
Bishop would not comment on an unsourced report by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that said Bilardi had left a series of homemade bombs in his Melbourne home before leaving for the Middle East. The ABC reported that Bilardi's family found the devices after he left and alerted authorities, who then began tracking his movements overseas.
Victoria state police later said in a statement that they first learned about Bilardi when he was reported missing in late 2014. While searching his home, police found chemicals that could be used to construct an explosive device — but no actual devices were found.
At least 90 Australians are currently fighting with and supporting terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, and more than 20 have already been killed, Bishop said. They are among about 100 whose passports have been canceled to prevent them joining militants or from returning home.
More than 30 fighters have returned to Australia and at least 140 people in Australia are actively supporting extremist groups, according to the government.
Two Australia-born brothers aged 16 and 17 were stopped at Sydney Airport last week on suspicion they were heading to join Islamic State fighters.