A plot branded as potentially the worst terrorist attack in Australia's history has been foiled in a dramatic series of pre-dawn arrests.
Police say that the four men taken from their homes in the southern city of Melbourne yesterday were plotting to launch a suicide shoot-out at a Sydney army base.
The men are said to have links with Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, a hardline Islamist youth group which has recently succeeded in recruiting Muslim youths overseas and is said to have ties to al-Qa'ida.
Melbourne Magistrates' Court was told that the men were arrested after police discovered plans to mount a martyr attack on the Holsworthy army base on the outskirts of Sydney. The prosecution alleged that the men intended to open fire on Australian soldiers and keep shooting until they themselves were killed or captured. Their aim was to become martyrs, the court heard.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd emphasised the gravity of the plot. "This is a sober reminder that the threat of terrorism to Australia continues," he said.
But he defended Australia's continued involvement in the war in Afghanistan, the presumed motive for the planned attack.
"If we are to deal with the treat of terrorism at its various levels we must be dealing with where the terrorists are training," he said. "We must be dealing with those who support them."
One of those arrested was later charged with conspiring to plan a terrorism-related offence. Nayef El Sayed, 25, refused to stand before a magistrate, insisting that his religious beliefs forbad him from standing for any man except God. A fifth suspect is already in custody on another matter.
Fears of an imminent terrorist attack appear to have prompted the police to raid the Melbourne homes yesterday. Intelligence sources said the mission, planned as "punishment" for Australian military involvement in Muslim countries, was believed to be well advanced. Police said further arrests were expected.
Investigators said that some Australian citizens had travelled to Somalia to seek approval for their plan. And federal agent David Kinton told the court that text messages had revealed that one of the men had carried out a recce on the military base to assess security. "I stalked around - it is easy to enter," one of the messages read.
Another text indicated that the would-be terrorists' geographical understanding may not have been extensive. "Can you give me the address of Australia and the name of train station?" the message asked.
But while the intercepted calls might have exposed some flaws in their travel knowledge, Australian authorities last night said they believed the men's intentions were deadly serious.
The acting commissioner of the Federal Police, Tony Negus, claimed, "We have disrupted an alleged terror attack that could have claimed many lives."
Mr Negus said the planned action could have been the most serious attack on Australian soil.
Those held yesterday were Australian citizens of Somali or Lebanese descent, aged between 22 and 26. Their arrest left Melbourne's Somali community baffled.
Mohamed Baaruud from the Somali Advocacy Action Group said, "We are all shocked. Our community came to Australia about 17 years ago when the civil war started in Somalia. It took us a long time to recover from the trauma that we have experienced in our country of origin and start a new life."
While many Australians have fallen victim to overseas terrorism such as the Bali bombings, there have been few attacks at home. The last was a bombing near Sydney's Hilton Hotel in l978.
However, Australia has been a keen supporter of western military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan and has introduced tough anti-terrorism laws at home to counter the threat from extremists.
In the past year seven men have been jailed for their role in a plot to attack major sports events in Australia.
Extremist world view: Al-Shabaab
What is al-Shabaab?
A fundamentalist militia born from the wreckage of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia over two years ago, al-Shabaab literally means "The Youth" in Arabic. Its fighters, thought to number more than 20,000, first harassed Ethiopia's occupying forces until they left the country late last year and are now attempting to topple the Western-backed government in Mogadishu.
What are its aims?
The group is demanding an even stricter interpretation of Islamic tenets than the sharia law President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed has imposed. They dismiss the government as a Western stooge regime and have engaged in public executions and mutilations in the areas they control.
Is it linked to al-Qa'ida?
Al-Shabaab shares an extremist world view with al-Qa'ida and its operations have attracted an unknown number of foreign jihadists to its ranks. However, its aims remain local and threats to neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia relate to their involvement with Somalia. Washington backed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in 2006 on the grounds that the Islamic Courts Union was supposedly sheltering al-Qa'ida operatives. However, that occupation was a disaster and spawned the far more extreme al-Shabaab militia.
Does al-Shabaab carry out operations abroad?
Not previously. But links between Shabaab militants and the large Somali diaspora – such as that in Australia – could become a threat. Shirwa Ahmed, a US citizen of Somali origin, became America's first known suicide bomber, blowing himself up in Somalia last year after becoming radicalised in his hometown of Minnesota. Other ethnic Somalis are under investigation in the US and there is evidence of a recruitment drive among expat Somalis. Until now this has not included attacks outside the Horn of Africa.
Daniel HowdenReuse content