Did Somalia’s al-Shabaab Plan to Attack the Australian Military?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 27

Federal Police after arrests in Melbourne on August 4, 2009

Operation Neath, one of the largest counterterrorism operations in Australian history, culminated in a series of early morning raids in Melbourne on August 4. The four men arrested were all Australian citizens of Lebanese or Somali descent and apparently part of a larger group of 18 individuals under observation by police (The Australian, August 4). In a press conference on the day of the arrests, police laid out their central charge that the men were “planning to carry out a suicide terrorist attack” on an Australian military base using “automatic weapons” in “a sustained attack on military personnel until they themselves were killed.” According to police, some individuals in the plot had been to and presumably trained in Somalia, and had sought a “fatwa” (religious ruling) that would authorize them to carry out attacks in Australia. [1]

Four men (Saney Aweys, 26, of North Carlton; Yacqub Khayre, 22, of Meadow Heights; Nayef El Sayed, 25, of Glenroy; and Abdirahman Ahmed, 25, of Preston) were arrested in the raids, while a fifth man (Wissam Mahmoud Fattal, 33) was already in custody on unrelated charges. Police were apparently alerted to the cell late last year after individuals at a local mosque reported the increasingly extremist rhetoric of one of the plotters. Telephone wiretaps were obtained and the security services soon overheard discussions between a key plotter and individuals in Somalia. The Australian plotter appeared to be seeking assistance for individuals to go and train with al-Shabaab in Somalia (The Australian, August 4). Reports indicate that two men apparently did go and train, one of whom (believed to be Walid Osman Mohamed) remains in Somalia, presumably training or fighting with the Somali Islamist fighters. The other man, Yacqub Khayre, is alleged to have returned to Australia on July 14, having obtained a “fatwa” or legal ruling from Somalia authorizing a terrorist attack in Australia (Australian Associated Press, August 27).

Telephone intercepts released by police during a bail application hearing revealed Saney Aweys telling an individual believed to be a Somali cleric, “They [the accused] know where they can get them [the guns]. Then they want to penetrate the military forces stationed in the barracks. Their desire is to fan out as much as possible … until they would be hit [by defensive fire]. Twenty minutes would be enough for us to take out five, six, ten, eight, whatever Allah knows.” In a later conversation between Nayef el Sayed and Wissam Fattal, Fattal says, “We are doing something very terrific for Allah. We are working together on a great monstrous thing and we will need to persevere.” Fattal and El Sayed are alleged to be the central figures in the plot, with El Sayed apparently acting as a local recruiter for al-Shabaab, while Fattal was seen by police scoping out the Holsworthy Military barracks in New South Wales, the cell’s presumed target (The Australian, August 25). Located outside of Sydney, Holsworthy is one of Australia’s largest military bases.

However, police also admitted during the hearings that they had so far uncovered no actual weaponry during their searches of properties related to the case (The Australian, August 25). Furthermore, there was some suggestion during the bail hearings that police may have relied on a covert “civilian” agent within the group to obtain information. While defense lawyers did not pursue this avenue of questioning during the bail application, they did state they would pursue it during a later trial (The Age [Melbourne], August 26). It was unclear how much the apparent leak of the story to The Australian newspaper prior to the arrests would affect the trial. Australia’s Federal Police have vowed to carry out a thorough investigation. [2]

The bail applications by El Sayed, Khayre, and Aweys were all rejected, with the judge assessing the men as a “serious flight risk” and the charges against them serious enough to warrant continued detention. The men’s lawyers used the opportunity to complain about the manner in which their clients were being detained, likening them to “Guantanamo Bay-like conditions” (AAP, August 27).

At least partly in response to the alleged plot, the Australian government officially announced that it was listing al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization on August 21. The proscription of the group means that it will be an offense “to be a member of, associate with, train with, provide training for, receive funds from, make funds available to, direct or recruit for al-Shabaab.” [3]

While it has been involved in military and intelligence operations in the global struggle against Islamist extremist groups, mainland Australia has thus far mostly been spared the threat of home-grown terrorism. Australians have been targeted abroad, however, most notably in the 2002 Bali bombings in which 88 were killed. More recently three Australians were among those killed in the July 17 attack in Jakarta. At home there have been fewer such plots, with the cell around radical preacher Abdul Nacer Benbrika (who was incarcerated for 15 years along with six followers earlier this year) proving an exception to the rule (Herald Sun [Melbourne], February 3). A 2007 investigation codenamed Operation Rochester investigating possible links between Australia’s 16,000 strong Somali community and international terrorism apparently dissipated after nothing was found (The Australian, August 4).

Two days after the arrests, al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.k.a. Shaykh Ali Dheere) issued a statement dismissing reports that the detainees were in any way members of al-Shabaab, claiming the men were arrested solely because they were Muslims (Dayniile, August 6). One suspect, Wissam Mahmoud Fattal, took the opportunity of his appearance before a magistrate to shout denials of his involvement. “You call us terrorists – I’ve never killed anyone in my life…Your army kills innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel takes Palestinian land by force” (BBC, August 31). Though a magistrate has allowed the case to continue, defense lawyers are disputing the quality of the evidence. One proclaimed, “There was no imminent terrorist attack,” while another insisted, "Not only is there an absence of compelling evidence, there is an absence of any evidence” (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, August 27; AAP, August 27).

Given the complexity of a case like this – Australian security services indicated that links to the plot extended as far as Kenya, Somalia and the United Kingdom – it is unlikely that the men will face court for at least another year or more, meaning most information on the group will remain outside the public domain. While international press speculation has focused on the apparent link with al-Shabaab, it is unclear exactly why the Somali group would rather abruptly decide to target Australia. While the Royal Australian Navy has deployed an ANZAC class frigate, HMAS Toowoomba, off the Horn of Africa as part of Australia’s contribution to coalition efforts against international terrorism and piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Australia is neither the only nor the largest contributor to the operation. [4]


1. “Joint AFP/Victoria Police transcript,” August 4, https://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/Victoria%20Police%20Online%20News%20Centre%20-%20Joint%20AFP_Victoria%20Police%20Transcript.pdf
2. “AFP Investigation into Media Leak – Operation Neath,” August 5, https://www.afp.gov.au/media_releases/national/2009/afp_investigation_into_media_leak_-_operation_neath
3. Joint media release by the Australian Foreign Ministry and Attorney General, “Listing of Al-Shabaab as a Terrorist Organization,” August 21, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2009/fa-s090821.html
4. Australian Government Department of Defense, September 1, https://www.defence.gov.au/our_people/wa/20090901/

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