Australian police announced Tuesday that they have arrested four men in connection with a plot to attack a military barracks in Sydney and kill as many soldiers as possible before being killed themselves. The four, of Somali and Lebanese descent, are believed to have ties to Al-Shabab, a Somali terrorist group that is ideologically sympathetic to Al Qaeda and has been officially designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
They were arrested in a predawn raid involving 400 police officers at 19 locations, the result of a seven-month investigation during which police said that they discovered the men had received military training in Somalia. Police have said there may be as many as 18 people involved in the terror cell.
The alleged plot came to Australian authorities' attention in January when they were monitoring telephone calls made by a Lebanese man who had been espousing "extremist" views at his mosque in a Melbourne suburb. The Lebanese man telephoned a Somali living in the Melbourne area and asked for assistance so that he and his friends could travel to Somalia.
Police soon learned that the Somali man was a "facilitator" who arranged for Australian jihadists to get to Somalia and fight for Al-Shabab. Authorities believe that he had recently enabled a pair of Somalis living in Australia to travel through Kenya into Somalia to train with the group. But the Lebanese man was dogged by passport and visa problems that prevented him from leaving Australia.
The Australian newspaper reported Tuesday:
"Frustrated by his inability to travel abroad to join al-Shabaab, the Lebanese man and the core hardline group discussed their options. Investigators listened in horror as the men were then overheard planning a terrorist attack in Australia."
Investigators heard the alleged conspirators discuss a suicide attack on an Australian army base in revenge for the presence of Australian troops in Muslim countries. As police listened to the men talk about an attack, there were suspicions that the jihadists were just mouthing off.
Those hopes were dashed when surveillance teams followed one of the suspects to Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney – the home base for Australia's elite Parachute Battalion and Commando Regiment. They watched as the suspect cased the area, observing the movement of people and traffic. They heard other suspects discussing ways to obtain firearms and exchanging information about family members and friends with firearms licenses.
As evidence mounted against the alleged plotters, police and prosecutors found themselves facing a dilemma: They could continue the investigation and glean more intelligence to increase the likelihood of securing convictions. But delay would increase the possibility that the group would carry out an attack. In recent days, The Australian reported, officials decided to launch the raids after concluding "that immediate action was justified to prevent the possibility of innocent lives being lost."
Meanwhile, Australian authorities say they have been communicating with American FBI officials about the investigation. There are indications Al-Shabab supporters in both countries have coordinated on fundraising and other activities. National Public Radio reported that the U.S. investigation into Al-Shabab had become the "biggest domestic terrorism investigation in this country since Sept. 11" and cited sources predicting major arrests in the coming weeks.