Cameron Stewart, in The Australian, 21 September 2011
THE nation’s two largest terror cells were linked by a common spiritual leader, joint terror training camps and close friendships between extremists in Melbourne and Sydney. After a Victorian judge yesterday threw out a second round of charges against convicted terrorists, it can be revealed that self-proclaimed Muslim cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika was considered the central figure and the driving force behind both cells in Melbourne and Sydney. The groups’ targets were to have included a terrorist strike on the 2005 AFL grand final between the Sydney Swans and the West Coast Eagles, Melbourne’s Crown casino during Grand Prix weekend in 2006 and Sydney’s Lucas Heights nuclear reactor.
Benbrika, who is currently serving a minimum 12 years in jail for leading a terrorist organisation, was recorded telling one of his followers: “If we want to die for jihad, we have to have maximum damage. Maximum damage. Damage their buildings, everything. Damage their lives. To show them, we’ll have to be careful.”
The close links between the two extremist groups – potentially the most deadly in Australia’s history – can be revealed for the first time after the Victorian Supreme Court yesterday threw out new charges against four members of the Melbourne cell and lifted 21 supression orders that had blanketed names and evidence from the twin trials in Melbourne in 2008 and Sydney in 2009.
Judge Terry Forrest rejected a proposed second trial for the four men, Benbrika, Aimen Joud, Fadl Sayadi and Ahmed Raad, who were charged with conspiracy to do acts in preparation of a terrorist act, as an abuse of the court process. All four had already been jailed for most of their criminal conduct and if found guilty, would not receive “significant additional terms of imprisonment”. “While I have found that this second prosecution was commenced in good faith, I consider the objective effect of trying each accused a second time is oppressive,” Justice Forrest said.
The lifting of the supression orders, which had obscured from public view the shared purpose and co-operation between the groups, means that the full extent of Benbrika’s network of extremist followers can be exposed. In 2009, Benbrika and five of his Melbourne followers were found guilty of being members of a home-grown terrorist cell plotting to wage violent jihad on Australian soil. In Sydney, five men from a NSW cell were jailed last year for terrorism offences. From August 2008 until yesterday, the links between this group and the Victorian group were suppressed.
Counter-terrorism investigators established that the two groups of men in Melbourne and Sydney were linked by a common following of Benbrika, a 50-year-old, Algerian-born, Muslim cleric who arrived in Australia in 1989. He became a self-proclaimed sheik and attracted disaffected young Muslims to his brand of violent extremism. Members of both the Melbourne and Sydney cells frequently visited each other. In March 2005, several members from each cell met at a rural property in western NSW, where they conducted target practice and other activities alleged to have been connected with terror-related training.
A court also heard that members of the Melbourne cell planned to assist members of the Sydney cell in obtaining laboratory equipment intended for use in making explosives.
Despite the judge’s decision yesterday to put a permanent stay on the new charges, Attorney-General Robert McClelland praised the efforts of counter-terrorism agencies in foiling a planned terror attack by Benbrika and his Melbourne followers. “As a result of the work of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies and the CDPP in relation to this matter, these men along with five others were convicted and jailed for terrorism-related offences in 2008,” Mr McClelland said.
“It is clear that this investigation and subsequent successful prosecution thwarted a potential terrorist attack on Australian soil. Each of the four accused has already been convicted and sentenced for other serious terrorism offences, including being a member of a terrorist organisation. The community can be assured that law-enforcement and intelligence agencies will continue to work hard to keep our communities safe from terrorism.”
During the Sydney trial, the court heard that members of the Sydney cell had stockpiled chemical explosives. Some of the Sydney group frequented a prayer hall in Sydney’s west, where they embraced the notion that Islam was under attack and that it was their duty to defend it. Police bugged two members of the Sydney cell discussing how they needed to get fit in order to “shoot some motherf . . kers”. One member of the Sydney cell claimed to have been inspired by the London bombings in July 2005.
In Melbourne, 12 men were charged in late 2005 and early 2006 following a massive joint ASIO, Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police operation codenamed Pendennis, which gathered 16,400 hours of electronic surveillance and bugged 98,000 telephone calls. The court heard that Benbrika had tried to obtain up to 500kg of explosives made from ammonium nitrate fertiliser from an undercover police officer and some of his followers had tried to buy guns, including AK-47 assault rifles. The Melbourne trial involved 482 secretly recorded conversations and telephone intercepts involving the 12 accused