Seventeen suspected terrorists rounded up in raids across Sydney and Melbourne allegedly planned to wage a holy war against Australia using hundreds of litres of explosive chemicals.
Detectives have had the group under surveillance since last June but decided to take them down after they ordered large stockpiles of chemicals.
In a day of dramatic developments:
One suspect, 28-year-old Omar Baladjam was gunned down by police outside a Sydney mosque after allegedly shooting an officer in the hand as he tried to flee.
A court was told the group was about to launch an attack to kill “innocent men and women in Australia”.
“Each of the members of the group are committed to the cause of violent jihad,” prosecutor Richard Maidment QC said.
One of the Melbourne group, Ahmed Merhi, 20, was expecting his first child but dreamed of being a suicide bomber in Australia.
“He wanted to die here. He said he wanted to be a martyr (for Islam). It was quite clear that he wanted to go similar to a suicide bomber,” Det-Sgt Chris Murray told Melbourne Magistrates Court.
Police allege the group had stockpiled hundreds of litres of the volatile chemical acetone – the same substance used in the London bombings – and was preparing to begin a campaign of terror within weeks.
More than 400 state and federal police swept across Sydney’s southwest about 2.30am yesterday to arrest the accused plotters.
Raids took place in Lakemba, Belmore, Wiley Park, Greenacre, Illawong, Punchbowl, Hoxton Park, Condell Park, Ingleburn, Belfield, Bankstown and Kemps Creek.
Riot police were on standby in Sydney’s west last night amid fears of a violent backlash from an angry Muslim community.
After apparently shooting suspect Omar Baladjam in self-defence, police allegedly found a second pistol and papers detailing a suspected target in his backpack.
Baladjam was expected to be charged at a bedside hearing today.
Seven other Islamic extremists were charged yesterday.
They are expected to apply for bail in Central Local Court on Friday. Another nine suspects faced court in Melbourne yesterday.
The seven men arrested in Sydney were charged with conspiring to manufacture explosives in preparation for a terrorist act.
The accused were named in court yesterday as Mohamed Ali Elomar, 40, of Bankstown, Khaled Sharrouf, 24, Moustafa Cheikho, 28, and Khaled Cheikho, 32, all of Wiley Park, Mazen Touma, 25, of Bankstown, Abdul Rhakib Hasan and Mirsad Mulahalilovic.
Police will allege the same chemical used in the London bombings in July – acetone – was being hoarded by the suspects for a similar attack in Sydney and Melbourne.
Acetone is a key ingredient in common nail polish remover but becomes a deadly explosive when mixed with hydrogen peroxide (hair bleach) and sulphuric acid (drain cleaner).
The explosive known as acetone peroxide was dubbed the “mother of Satan” after the London bombings in July, which killed 54 people and maimed hundreds of others.
In another chilling parallel with the London attacks, two of the suspects arrested in Sydney were born in Australia but had converted to an extreme branch of Islam.
The bearded suspects remained in cells beneath Central Local Court after a massive contingent of 400 police raided a string of homes under cover of darkness about 2.30am yesterday.
Operation Pandanus tracked the group for 16 months as they travelled between Sydney and Melbourne.
The seven charged in Sydney did not appear in court, but footage of the arrests showed most of them in traditional Muslim dress and long beards.
The pregnant wife of one of those arrested collapsed as her husband was dragged away.
A simultaneous raid in Melbourne caught nine extremists, including firebrand Muslim cleric Benbrika.
The Algerian-born Benbrika is a devoted follower of Osama Bin Laden.
“Osama bin Laden was a great man before 11 September, which they said he did it, and until now nobody knows who did it,” Benbrika said in August.
State and federal police joined forces with ASIO agents to execute 23 search warrants in Australia’s two biggest cities.
At least six more arrests are expected in the coming days.
Police Commissioner Ken Moroney said yesterday the raids had prevented a “catastrophic” attack.
“I’m satisfied that we have disrupted what I would regard as the final stages of a large scale terrorist attack here in Australia,” he said.
The huge counter-terror operation was a massive boost for Prime Minister John Howard, who rushed through special legislation to make yesterday’s raids and arrests possible.
The PM was accused by sections of the Labor Party, the Greens and Democrats of playing up the terror threat for political gain.
“When it comes to the safety of the Australian people and the security of this country there is no room for political manipulation,” Mr Howard said.
Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty said the investigation would continue for several months. “The operation is a long way from finished. There’s a lot more work to go,” he said.
He assured the Islamic community it would not be specifically targeted.
“It will be clear that a lot of the activities centres in certain parts of certain cities, but it is the broader Islamic community who we need to keep on side and who have assisted and will continue to assist I’m sure in dealing with the problem that has come forward,” Mr Keelty said.
“Can I just reassure the Islamic community our efforts to amend the policy and amend the legislation or talk to the Government about that was never ever aimed at the Islamic community.”