Australian terror suspects 'sized up nuclear reactor'

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The Independent Online

Members of two alleged terrorist cells arrested in Australia last week may have been planning to target the country's only nuclear reactor, according to court documents.

Three of the 18 men now in detention were stopped by police while driving near the Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney last December. They claimed they were in the area to ride a trail bike, but all gave different accounts of their movements when interviewed separately, police allege in a fact-sheet submitted to the court. It was later established that a security lock at the complex had recently been cut.

Seventeen men were arrested in dawn raids on homes in Sydney and Melbourne. An 18th man was detained a few days later. All have been charged with plotting to carry out terrorist acts or belonging to a terrorist organisation.

The authorities claim they foiled a potentially "catastrophic" attack by the men, whose spiritual leader was allegedly a Muslim preacher in Melbourne, Abdul Nacer Benbrika.

In a controversial move last week, prosecutors persuaded Sydney's Central Local Court to suppress details of the evidence against eight of the suspects. After challenges by media organisations, the fact-sheet was released yesterday.

Police allege that some of the men attended military-style "jihad training camps" in the Outback, and were attempting to stockpile bomb-making materials, including detonators, digital timers, batteries and hundreds of litres of chemicals.

During the raids, police say they seized machetes, samurai swords, firearms, ammunition, and books, videos and DVDs on terrorism. A computer memory stick contained instructions in Arabic for making triacetone triperoxide (TATP), an explosive.

Police claim that, during a meeting with three of the men last February, Mr Benbrika told them: "If we want to die for jihad, we have to have maximum damage. Damage to their buildings, everything. Damage their lives to show them." The conversation was recorded during police surveillance.

Mr Benbrika told them they had to seek their parents' permission to participate in jihad, saying: "If your mother says no jihad, then no jihad." Two days later, police allege, one of the suspects, Mazen Touma, duly approached his mother. Her response is not documented.

Ian Smith, executive director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which runs Lucas Heights, said he had been advised by police last year that the reactor was not regarded as a credible target.

He told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio that trail and mountain bike riding were popular activities in the bushland near Lucas Heights, where radioactive medical supplies are made. No electricity is generated.

Police allege that they found two dozen bottles of hydrogen peroxide solution - which can be combined with other chemicals to make explosives - on public land behind the home of one suspect, Khaled Sharrouf. Mr Sharrouf was arrested in October after trying to steal six digital timers and about 130 batteries from a hardware store.

Another man, Abdul Rakib Hasan, tried to buy laboratory equipment and a 100-litre cooler that police claim was destined to be used to store chemicals. Two other suspects visited an auto parts wholesaler to buy large quantities of brake fluid and sulphuric acid, but were challenged by the manager, who informed them that it was a "highly volatile mix". He requested their business details, after which they left and did not return.