Australia arrested four people today in anti-terror raids that foiled a Somali-linked suicide plot to storm a military base, in what police said would have been the country's worst extremist attack. About 400 police descended on homes around Melbourne, netting four men of Somali and Lebanese descent aged in their 20s who are expected in court later, senior officers said. The men are accused of plotting to attack a military barracks with automatic weapons, police said, adding that members of the group had previously travelled to Somalia to fight in the anarchic African nation's Islamist insurgency.
"The alleged offenders were prepared to inflict a sustained attack on military personnel until they themselves were killed," said Tony Negus, acting chief commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. "The men's intention was to go into these army barracks and to kill as many people as possible.... This would have been, if it had been able to be carried out, the most serious attack on Australian soil," he added.
Police said a 25-year-old man from Melbourne's Glenroy area had been charged with "terrorist-related" offences but refused to give further details. They said the three others arrested were still being questioned along with a fifth man aged 33 who was already being held on an unrelated matter. The prime minister Kevin Rudd said the arrests were a "sobering" reminder of the threat of terrorism but refused to contemplate withdrawing Australia's 1,550 troops from Afghanistan.
"The sobering element of today's development is the reminder to all Australians that the threat of terrorism is alive and well, and this requires continued vigilance on the part of our security authorities," Mr Rudd said. Mr Negus said the group had links with Somalia's al Qa'eda-inspired Shebab insurgents, adding it had been seeking a "fatwa" to justify its actions. "Members of the group have been actively seeking a fatwa or religious ruling to justify a terror attack on Australia," he said.
A core group of some 150 police has been investigating the planned attack since January in a "massive physical and electronic surveillance operation", Mr Negus added. "Police will allege that the men were planning to carry out a suicide terrorist attack on a defence establishment within Australia involving an armed assault with automatic weapons," he said. Police said the extremists were targeting Sydney's Holsworthy Barracks and had also been seen carrying out surveillance work at other bases.
Holsworthy, which sprawls across a large swathe of Sydney's southwestern outskirts, is home to thousands of troops including a major anti-extremism unit. The arrests come after Australian Islamic convert Shane Kent last week admitted plotting to kill thousands of people in an attack on a major sport event in Melbourne. Eight members of Kent's extremist cell have already been jailed over plans to bomb the 2005 Australian Football League Grand Final, which attracted a crowd of 92,000, in Australia's biggest terror trial.
Remy Ven de Wiel, defending ringleader Abdul Nacer Benbrika, had argued the defendants were not terrorists but young men following a self-styled sheikh who "couldn't organise a booze-up in a brewery." Australia, which was also involved in the Iraq war, has never been hit by extremists on its own soil. But it has lost lives in attacks abroad, including 92 on Indonesia's resort island of Bali in 2002 and 2005 and three in last month's Jakarta hotel blasts.