Since September 11, 2001, Australians have been warned that an attack on Australian soil by al-Qaeda or its allies is probable, if not inevitable. In October, ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organization) released its 2004/05 annual report, which warned of the risk of “home grown” terrorists.
Despite evidence of networks, training and preliminary planning for terrorist attacks in Australia before and after 9/11, several raids and waves of anti-terrorist legislation, only one person—Jack Roche—has been convicted of terrorist offences in Australia to date. This has led some in the country to speculate that the domestic terrorist threat was exaggerated. But the thwarting of a terrorist plot in its late planning stages in early November shows that the threat is very real.
Early on November 9, State and Federal police raided dozens of properties in Melbourne and Sydney, arresting 17 men and seizing large quantities of alleged precursor chemicals, laboratory equipment, instruction manuals on the production of the explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), and maps and photographs of potential targets.
One suspect, Omar Baladjam, was shot in the neck after firing at police outside a Sydney mosque. An eighteenth suspect, Melbournian Izzydeen Atik was arrested in Sydney on November 11, apparently on a liaison visit. Police and political leaders in both States declared that the operation had foiled an imminent attack of enormous magnitude.
The group was under close surveillance by ASIO and Federal and State police for at least 16 months, with hundreds of hours of conversations recorded. Several of the Melbourne suspects were targeted in raids in June 2005.
It is alleged that those arrested in both States constituted an unnamed terrorist organization led by a 45 year-old from Melbourne, Abdul Nacer Benbrika (aka Abu Bakr). Benbrika had previously called Osama bin Laden a “great man” and claims to support the aims of Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) .
Benbrika came to Australia from his native Algeria on a temporary visa in May 1989. He eventually obtained Australian citizenship, claiming that he faced persecution if he returned to Algeria. Respected Sheikh Fehmi Naji al-Imam provided him with a reference letter, but now says he regrets doing so.
In Australia, Benbrika followed a trajectory of increasing radicalism. He fell into the orbit of radical Melbourne Sheikh Mohamed Omran, and was apparently inspired by Abu Qatada, whom Omran brought to Australia on a speaking tour in 1994.
Benbrika determined to become an Islamic scholar, but instead of studying jurisprudence at a recognized Islamic University, he taught himself, largely cut off from the wider community. He began preaching at Omran’s Brunswick mosque, attracting a small following. A number of those arrested in Melbourne in the recent raids are known to have attended the Brunswick mosque.
Several years ago, Benbrika broke away from Omran, taking the most violent, radical elements of the congregation with him. Later, he was able to extend his influence into New South Wales, creating a second cell.
Benbrika’s Sydney cell achieved an advanced stage of planning much more quickly than his Melbourne cell, and was much more diverse, even though Benbrika had been recruiting for longer in Melbourne. This suggests a broader, more experienced and well-connected network already existed in Sydney. It is therefore worthwhile to analyze the two cells separately.
At least seven of the Melbourne suspects are the children of Lebanese immigrants, and some began practicing Islam only 18 months ago (see addendum at end of this article). Most are tradesmen and laborers. Some have previous police records for minor crimes, and two of the suspects—Hany Taha and Izzydeen Atik—allegedly operated a “car rebirthing” operation to raise funds for the group.
The Melbourne suspects allegedly used a Kinglake property and various commercial hunting properties for paramilitary training. Only convert Shane Gregory Kent (aka Yasin) is thought to have trained abroad. In mid-2001, he allegedly trained at a Jaish-e-Mohamed camp in Pakistan before proceeding to al-Qaeda’s al-Faruq camp. He was accompanied by another Australian convert, “Abu Jihad,” who is believed to have been the main informant against the Benbrika group.
It has been alleged that Melbourne suspects were filming the Australian Stock Exchange and Flinders Street Station, Melbourne’s landmark central train exchange. During the November raids, officers reportedly found maps of Casselden Place, the Melbourne headquarters of the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Immigration. In addition, the prosecution claims that Abdulla Merhi was recorded asking Benbrika for permission to become a suicide bomber.
The men arrested in Melbourne have been charged with membership of a terrorist organization, except Benbrika who has been charged with leading a terrorist organization. In addition, a number of minor property crime charges have been laid.
Although the evidence suggests an intention to conduct terrorist attacks against major landmarks, the Melbourne group made little progress. However, they maintained close contact with the Sydney suspects by telephone and through regular visits.
In conversations recorded before the raids, the Melbourne cell members reportedly complained that the Sydney cell was ahead of them in planning an attack. An increase in the frequency of these inter-state communications was apparently the trigger for the raids in Melbourne and Sydney .
The Sydney raids turned up hundreds of liters of chemicals, laboratory equipment, 165 detonators, 132 digital timers, batteries, firearms and ammunition. The suspects’ homes also contained al-Qaeda literature and bomb-making manuals . Chemical suppliers have told the media that they tipped off the authorities about several attempts to purchase large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, acetone, hydrochloric and/or sulphuric acid and hexamine, which can be used in explosives . It appears the suspects were turning the Sydney house into a bomb-making factory.
Almost all the Sydney suspects have been charged with conspiring to manufacture explosives in preparation for a terrorist attack , a charge that did not exist until four days before the raids. The Federal Government passed an emergency amendment to the Crimes Act after being briefed by ASIO and the Federal Police about the possibly imminent attacks. The amendment triggered accusations that the government was using the terrorist issue as a smokescreen for its contentious industrial relations laws, despite the fact that the opposition leader and relevant State Premiers were briefed and supported the change.
It was felt the amendment was necessary because the Act, as it stood, could be read as requiring the prosecution to prove the specific details—such as the intended date and target—if the alleged attack.
This is not to say that authorities had no idea what targets the suspects might have been considering. In December 2004, three of the Sydney suspects (Mazen Touma, Mohamed Elomar and Abdul Rakib Hasan) were apprehended by police within the 1.6km exclusion zone around Sydney’s Lucas Heights nuclear reactor. A padlock on a gate leading to the reactor’s reservoir had been cut. Laskar-e-Taiba agent Willie Brigitte, deported in October 2003, had also considered an attack on the reactor. Although Lucas Heights is a small, medical research reactor that poses negligible risk, the suspects’ presence at the site raises disturbing questions about the group’s intentions.
While the Melbourne suspects give the impression of being a group of hot-heads who in some cases joined the plot because their friends and relatives did, the Sydney suspects are generally older and more experienced. Several were trained by Laskar-e-Taiba or have been connected with suspected terrorist operatives in the past.
Khaled Sharrouf’s family was close to Willie Brigitte and the Australian he married. Sharrouf’s brother-in-law, Mohamed Ndaw, was extradited to his native Senegal in 2004 on security grounds.
Abdul Rakib Hasan allegedly set up three safe houses for Brigitte in Sydney. In July 2005 he was charged with two counts of lying to ASIO about his close contact with Brigitte. Hasan was also named as a key player in a series of alleged terrorist training camps in the Blue Mountains. These were run by Malaysian man Asman Hashim, who also set up training camps for Jemaah Islamiyah in the Southern Philippines .
Another alleged terrorist training camp was discovered in the NSW Southern Tablelands in 2000, after neighboring farmers reported explosions and automatic gunfire. Three of the four owners of the property are brothers of another of the men arrested in the Sydney raids, Mohamed Ali Elomar. The brothers told police that the property was used by Sydney’s hardline Islamic Youth Movement, but only for hunting trips .
The arrests and resulting evidence from the November 8 raids support the view that a terrorist attack on Australian soil is a real possibility. They also demonstrate that Australian security agencies have learned important lessons since 2000, when ASIO failed to return calls from would-be terrorist Jack Roche. The enhanced effectiveness of Australian security agencies considerably reduces the likelihood of success for any future terrorist plot in Australia.
The presence of a largely home-grown terrorist organization in Australia may be seen as part of an international trend towards the self-recruitment of terrorists. However, the uneven development of plots in Sydney and Melbourne demonstrates that training, experience and international connections continue to be important factors in determining whether, and how quickly, a terrorist organization can make the transition from intention to capability.
1. Nick McKenzie, Suspect claims ASIO surveillance unjust, The 7:30 Report, August 4, 2005.
2. Cameron Stewart and Natalie O’Brien, Blizzard of chatter set alarms ringing, The Australian, November 9, 2005.
3. The Sydney Cell: What Police Allege, The Age, November 15, 2005.
4. Simon Kearney and Natalie O’Brien, Chemical supplier in tip-off to hotline, The Australian, November 10, 2005.
5. Omar Baladjam’s charge sheet differs because he shot at police and was allegedly involved in the procurement of prohibited firearms.
6. Nick Leys, Butcher is not a stranger to ASIO, The Australian, November 9, 2005.
7. Paul Daley, The Terror Trail, The Bulletin, November 22, 2005.
Abdul Nacer Benbrika, 45 Algerian, spiritual leader
Fadal Sayadi, 25 Lebanese parents
Ahmed Raad, 22 Lebanese parents
Ezzit Raad, 23 Lebanese parents
Abdulla Merhi, 20 Lebanese parents
Aimen Joud, 21 Lebanese parents
Amer Haddara, 26 Lebanese parents
Hany Taha, 31 Lebanese parents
Shane Kent aka Yasin, 28 Convert, trained with al-Qaeda
Izzydeen Atik, 25 Arrested in Sydney, November 10
Omar Baladjam, 28 Father and wife Indonesian
Abdul Rakib Hasan, 34 Bangladeshi. Connected with JI and Brigitte
Mirsad Mulahalilovic, 29 Bosnian convert
Khaled Sharrouf, 24 Family connections with Brigitte
Khaled Cheikho, 32 Trained with Laskar-e-Taiba
Mustafa Cheikho, 28 Trained with Laskar-e-Taiba
Mohamed Ali Elomar, 40 Trained with Laskar-e-Taiba
Mazen Touma, 25 No information available