Australia's biggest ever anti-terror police raids took place this morning at 4am, involving nearly 900 law enforcement officers, arresting 15 suspects.
The Australian Federal Police, as well as state police and intelligence operatives, hit 25 locations in the outer suburbia of Australia's largest city, Sydney, in a co-ordinated operation to break up an alleged terror plot that was “imminent” according to Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.
The plot was to kidnap a random Australian citizen, and film them being beheaded in a bustling public space, before putting the footage up online.
Omarjan Azari, 22-years old, was quickly charged at Sydney Central Local Court, where the commonwealth prosecutor explained the plan was “clearly designed to shock, horrify and terrify the community”.
Australia's Prime Minister, as well as law enforcement have alleged that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) members ordered or were involved in the plan. The Australian media have run with this too, the feeling being that ISIS has reached Australia's streets.
“It just isn't consistent with any ISIS operations, strategies or tactics” a senior international security analyst working on the Syrian crisis, who spoke to VICE on condition of anonymity, said from Lebanon, “ISIS's philosophy and organisation is based on quite traditional ideas of force and warfare, they aim to seize and hold territory in Iraq and Syria. Western countries are still seen as key recruitment grounds and sources of finance, but I don't believe the organisation would order a random homicide in a country like Australia”.
The purported ISIS agent who ordered the attack is Mohammad Ali Baryalei, an immigrant from Afghanistan who formerly made a living as a nightclub bouncer in Sydney's party district, Kings Cross. He is alleged by authorities to have recruited up 60 people in Australia, to travel to Syria and fight for the Islamic State. One of his recruits, Khaled Sharrouf, is now famous for tweeting a photo of his 7-year-old son holding a decapitated head in the conflict zone. Sharrouf turned to radical Islam after LSD and amphetamine use brought on mental illness.
“Most of the beheadings that ISIS have committed, have been internal, almost religious sacrifices” explained the security source “the only cases of beheadings that were committed with external, political, propaganda purposes were two journalists and an aid worker who had been held for up to 18 months – meaning, they were in no rush. This sounds to me like it is more likely someone attempting to emulate what they think ISIS is, rather than someone within ISIS”.
While no terrorist acts have taken place in Australia since the war on terror began, several large raids have thwarted attempted attacks.
The first, in 2005, involved Sharrouf, the former acid tripping Jihadi who has since been recruited by the apparent mastermind of today's plot, Mohammad Ali Baryalei.
Sharrouf and eight others were charged with a plot to bomb several Sydney landmarks the day after Australia's first anti-terror laws were introduced. Several hundred officers swooped on the suspects in Sydney and Melbourne in operation Pendennis after exhaustive wiretapping and surveillance of the group in scenes very similar to today's raids.
Sharrouf was charged with possessing items to be used for a terrorist act, including six clocks and 140 batteries he stole from a department store. He was given a sentence of 3 years and 11 months, while the other eight received up to 15 years. Subsequently Sharrouf has gone to Syria to fight for Islamist foreces.
Justice Anthony Whealy recently justified the short sentence, “You have to bear in mind that his crime, although a serious crime, was a pretty pathetic crime. Stealing some clocks, some batteries and potato chips from the supermarket doesn't really warrant a long time in jail."
Recalling the case today, prominent Sydney Lawyer Charles Waterstreet, who was the real life basis of the ABC television show Rake (played by Greg Kinnear in a US version of the show on the Fox Network) described the convicted terrorists as rank amateurs, “to start with they went in and bought hydrogen peroxide in their flowing white robes from the local shops.”
Waterstreet had represented another terror suspect, Belal Khazaal, who at the time of his arrest was accused of authoring a terrorist manual for Australian-based jihadis.
“He basically copied and pasted it together off the internet, it's sort of the equivalent of posting playboy images to redtube” Waterstreet said of the former Qantas airlines cabin cleaner.
Khazaal was handed a 12 year sentence for his manual, won an appeal, and then lost a subsequent one that has put him back behind bars.
Australia, as a far flung ally of the the West, sitting as it does in the middle of the Asia-Pacific, has generally been a magnate for keyboard jihadis. Inspired, rather than trained by, international terror cells.
The charges from today's terror raids will be heard in civilian courts, and much of the evidence will be publicly available, unlike in the United States. Given Prime Minister Abbott's statements associating the plot with ISIS, eyes will be on how connected 22-year-old Omarjan Azari is with the international terror cell.
“As far as a terrorist plot goes, beheading someone in Sydney doesn't take much more organising than borrowing 20 dollars to buy an axe from Bunnings” explained the security source from Lebanon “so as far as a conspiracy, or an ISIS plot goes, it'll be interesting to see how direct that connection is”.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @s_mitchell