MELBOURNE– Australian police arrested four men they said were linked to a Somali militant group on Tuesday, accusing them of planning a suicide attack on an army base and raising fears the al Qaeda-linked rebels were seeking targets outside Africa.
The four were seized in dawn raids on 19 properties across Melbourne following a seven-month investigation involving several forces and Australia's national security agency ASIO.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the arrests showed the threat of terrorism is alive and well. But officials said Australia's terrorism warning alert would remain at medium level, where it has been since 2003.
It is the latest high-profile terrorism case that the country's police and intelligence agencies have uncovered.
Australia's biggest terrorism trial ended in February when Muslim cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika was jailed for 15 years for leading a cell that planned to bomb a 2005 football match in Melbourne. Altogether, 12 people were jailed over the plot.
Australia has gradually tightened its anti-terrorism laws since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. It is believed to be a target mainly because it has more than 1,000 military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Essentially, what these people are about is changing Western foreign policy, said Clive Williams, terrorism analyst at Macquarie University. In the case of the U.S., it is support for Israel in particular. In the case of Australia, it is things like our deployment to Afghanistan.
The four detained men were aged between 22 and 26 and were all Australian citizens with Somali and Lebanese backgrounds. Police said they were linked to Somalia's al Shabaab group.
Analysts say hardline Islamist al Shabaab, which is on the U.S. State Department's terrorism list, has links with al Qaeda and has recently had success recruiting from the Somali diaspora and among other Muslim youths abroad.
Acting Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus told reporters the suspects had planned to storm a military base in suburban Sydney with automatic weapons.
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.
Police said they had worked with international agencies on the raids, but declined to say who tipped them off.
One man, Nayaf El Sayed, 25, was charged with conspiring to plan or prepare a terrorist act. He did not enter a plea or apply for bail, and he refused to stand for the magistrate before he was remanded in jail to reappear in court on October 26.
He believes he should not stand for any man except God, Sayed's counsel told the hearing.
Police were granted extra time to question three others: Saney Aweys, Yacqub Khayre and Abdirahman Ahmed. A fifth man, in custody on other matters, was also being questioned and police have not ruled out more arrests.
Prosecutors told Melbourne Magistrate's Court they had evidence some of the men had taken part in training in Somalia and at least one had engaged in frontline fighting in Somalia.
They said police had evidence including phone conversations, text messages and surveillance footage, including of one suspect outside suburban Sydney's Holsworthy army base.
The court heard the men planned to seek a fatwa, or religious ruling, to support an attack on the base.
In Mogadishu, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told reporters the turmoil in their chaotic nation was to blame.
We are sorry if Somalis who fled their homes because of the insecurity then cause trouble in other countries, he said.
Islamic leaders in Australia, worried about a backlash, called for calm on Tuesday, saying the overwhelming majority of Australia's 340,000 Muslims condemned violence.
Australia has not suffered a peacetime attack on home soil since a bombing outside a Sydney hotel during a Commonwealth meeting in 1978 that killed three people. But 95 Australians have been killed in bomb attacks in Indonesia since 2002.
Under Australian anti-terror laws, authorities can detain a suspect for a prolonged period of time without charge, with court approval, while they investigate a case.