Australian police said on Tuesday they had arrested four people after foiling a Somali-linked suicide plot to storm a military base in what would have been the country’s worst extremist attack.
About 400 police swooped on homes around Melbourne, netting four Australian men of Somali and Lebanese descent who were allegedly planning to attack a Sydney army barracks with automatic weapons.
“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 the men, aged in their twenties, had links with Somalia’s Shebab Islamists and members of the group had previously travelled to the anarchic African nation to fight in the insurgency there.
Nayef El Sayed, 25, appeared in court charged with helping prepare an armed attack on the Holsworthy army base in western Sydney.
Prosecutors asked for further time to interview the other three men arrested, while a fifth man detained earlier was also being questioned.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the arrests were a chastening 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,” Rudd said.
New South Wales police commissioner Andrew Scipione, whose jurisdiction includes the Holsworthy base, said the attack was believed to be imminent.
“I’m not sure of the timing other than to say than it was likely imminent,” he told reporters. “That was part of the reasoning behind in moving like we have.”
Negus said a core group of some 150 police had been investigating the planned attack since January in a “massive physical and electronic surveillance operation.”
He said the group had been seeking a “fatwa”, or religious edict, to justify its actions, without giving further details.
“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,” Negus said.
Police said the group had also been spotted carrying out surveillance at military sites other than the sprawling Holsworthy base on Sydney’s outskirts, which is home to thousands of troops including an 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 sports 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 in Australia’s biggest anti-terrorism trial.
Remy Ven de Wiel, defending ringleader Abdul Nacer Benbrika, had argued the self-styled sheikh “couldn’t organise a booze-up in a brewery.”
Australia, which was also involved in the Iraq war, has never been hit by Islamic extremists on its own soil, although four people died in bombings at the Hilton hotel in Sydney and Melbourne’s Turkish consulate in 1978 and 1986.
It has also 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.