Australian police arrested four men linked to a hardline Somali group today, charging them with planning a commando-style suicide attack on a military base and underlining that the country remains a target for Islamists.
The four were arrested during dawn raids on 19 properties across the southern city of Melbourne after a seven-month investigation involving Australia’s national security agency ASIO. A fifth man, in custody on other matters, was also being questioned.
The four men, aged between 22 and 26, were Australian citizens from Somali and Lebanese backgrounds, police said.
Police said they had links to al Shabaab, a militant Islamist group that controls much of lawless Somalia. Analysts say the group, which has links to al Qaeda, has been recruiting from among Somalia’s vast diaspora.
The first to appear in court, named as Nayef el Sayed, was formally charged with conspiring to attack an army base.
Officials said Australia’s terrorism warning alert level would remain at medium, where it has been since 2003, but Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned against complacency.
“The sobering element to emerge from today’s development is the reminder to all Australians that the threat of terrorism is alive and well,” he said in Cairns.
While Australia has never suffered a peacetime attack on home soil, more than 90 Australians have been killed in bomb attacks in Indonesia since 2002.
Acting Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus told reporters that those arrested had been planning a suicide attack, using automatic weapons to storm a suburban Sydney military base and kill those inside.
“The men’s intention was to actually go into the army barracks and to kill as many soldiers as they could until they themselves were killed,” he said.
“We believe the men were linked with al Shabaab in Somalia,” he said, adding that police have not ruled out further arrests.
Al Shabaab has vowed to rule the majority Muslim nation by a hardline interpretation of Islamic law, and has dug up Sufi graves, forced women to wear veils, closed down movie halls and cut off limbs for theft.
Analysts say al Shabaab, which means “the youth” and figures on the United States’ terrorism list, has recently had success recruiting from among the Somali diaspora and other Muslims abroad.
Australia “remains a gold-medal target”
Australia has gradually tightened anti-terrorism laws since the September 11, attacks on the US. It has been an active participant in hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, where over 1000 Australians are currently serving with foreign forces.
Security analyst Carl Ungerer said the arrests proved that Australian security agencies remained vigilant against attacks, and that Australia remains a prime target for groups linked to al Qaeda, which is blamed for the September 11 attacks.
“The arrests this morning clearly show that Australia remains a gold-medal target for international terrorism,” Ungerer, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Reuters.
“What is suggests is we remain high on the list of those who are either al Qaeda or affiliated with al Qaeda, or have bought into its rhetoric of this Salafi jihadism.”
Rudd said today`s arrests were not linked to deadly bombings at two luxury hotels in Jakarta last month that killed three Australians.
Police said they had worked with international agencies over the raids, but refused to say who tipped them off.
Police had cordoned off a house in Melbourne’s northern suburbs and set up a tent, and were seen carrying out boxes of evidence in the quiet suburban street.
Pic: Somalia al Shabaab insurgents