SYDNEY, Australia – Australian authorities arrested 16 terror suspects today – including a prominent radical Muslim cleric sympathetic to Osama bin Laden – and said they had foiled a major terror attack on the country by men committed to “violent jihad.”
The Australian Federal Police said seven men were arrested in Sydney and nine in Melbourne in coordinated raids that also netted evidence including weapons and apparent bomb-making materials. A prosecutor said the cleric, Abdul Nacker Ben Brika – also known as Abu Bakr – was the ringleader.
“I was satisfied that this state was under an imminent threat of potentially a catastrophic terrorist act,” said New South Wales Police Minister Carl Scully.
Police Commissioner Graeme Morgan said one of the men arrested was shot and wounded by police in the raids, which followed a 16-month investigation.
An Associated Press photographer saw a bomb squad robot examining a backpack the man was wearing when he was shot. Morgan said it contained a handgun.
Police declined to give details of the likely target of the attack, but Victoria state police chief Christine Nixon said that next year’s Commonwealth Games, to be staged in Melbourne, were not a target.
Abu Bakr – an Algerian-Australian who has said he would be violating his faith if he warned his students not to join the jihad, or holy war, in Iraq – was among nine men who appeared today in Melbourne Magistrates Court charged with being members of a terror group.
Prosecutor Richard Maidment told the court the nine formed a terrorist group to kill “innocent men and women in Australia.”
“The members of the Sydney group have been gathering chemicals of a kind that were used in the London Underground bombings,” Maidment said. He said Bakr was the leader of the group.
Rob Stary, a Melbourne lawyer who said he represents eight of the nine men arrested there, including Abu Bakr, earlier had emphasized that the charges involved only membership in a terror group.
“They are not charged with being involved in the planning or preparation (of a terrorist act),” he said.
In an August interview with the ABC, Abu Bakr said that although he is against the killing of innocents, he could also not discourage his students from traveling to Afghanistan or Pakistan to train in terrorist camps.
Abu Bakr told the ABC he is not involved with any terror cells in Australia. However, he said he supports al-Qaida’s aims and praised the group’s leader.
“Osama bin Laden, he is a great man,” Abu Bakr said. “Osama was a great man before 11 September. They said he did it and until now nobody knows who did it.”
Australia has never been hit by a major terror attack, but its citizens have repeatedly been targeted overseas, particularly in neighboring Indonesia.
Last year, the country’s embassy in Jakarta was badly damaged by a suicide bomber, and dozens of Australians were killed in bombings in 2002 and last month on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
Prime Minister John Howard’s opponents say his strong support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and decision to send troops there and to Afghanistan have made an attack on Australia inevitable.