A PLOT by Islamic extremists in Melbourne to launch a suicide attack on an Australian Army base has been uncovered by national security agencies.
Federal and state police, armed with search warrants, swooped on members of the suspected terror cell this morning, as they seek to arrest Australian nationals of Somali and Lebanese background in what will be the second-largest counter-terrorism operation in the nation's history.
The men are expected to be charged with a range of terrorism-related offences.
Authorities believe the group is at an advanced stage of preparing to storm an Australian Army base, using automatic weapons, as punishment for Australia's military involvement in Muslim countries. It is understood the men plan to kill as many soldiers as possible before they are themselves killed.
Members of the group have been observed carrying out surveillance of Holsworthy Barracks in western Sydney and other suspicious activity around defence bases in Victoria.
Electronic surveillance on the suspects is believed to have picked up discussions about ways to obtain weapons to carry out what would be the worst terror attack on Australian soil.
The cell has been inspired by the Somalia-based terrorist movement al-Shabaab, with two Melbourne men, both Somalis, having travelled to Somalia in recent months to obtain training with the extremist organisation, which is aligned with al-Qa'ida.
One of those men has already returned to Melbourne. The other is still in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab, which is using suicide bombers and jihadist fighters to try to overthrow the Somali government, seeks to impose a pure, hardline form of Islam, and sees the West as its enemy. It has been declared a terrorist organisation by the US and it has close links with al-Qa'ida leaders, including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an architect of the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 223 people died.
The investigation of the group, dubbed Operation Neath, involves about 150 members of the Australian Federal Police, Victoria Police and ASIO. It was launched in late January.
Search warrants for at least 19 properties across Melbourne have been prepared to allow authorities to obtain more evidence against the group, which is believed to number about 18, with a smaller, hardcore element.
The suspects include Australians of Somali and Lebanese decent, most of whom are labourers employed in Melbourne's construction industry, or taxi drivers.
It is understood that several members of the group also wanted to travel to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab, but when travel became difficult, they turned their attention to carrying out a terrorist attack in Australia.
Al-Shabaab is currently searching for jihadist recruits around the world, including in Australia. Authorities fear that Australian Muslims who travel to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab could return to Australia as sleeper agents for future attacks in this country.
In the US, more than 20 Somali American men have disappeared from their Midwest homes in recent months to fight alongside al-Shabaab troops in Somalia.
The FBI's investigation into the radicalisation of Somali refugees in the US, via al-Shabaab, was described by The New York Times last month as “the most significant domestic terror investigation since September 11”.
The AFP is understood to have recently presented its evidence against the Melbourne cell to the Office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, which advised that the evidence was sufficient to support charges being laid under national terrorism laws.
A previous AFP investigation _ Operation Rochester, in 2007 _ into extremist activities within small pockets of the nation's 16,000-strong Muslim Somali community petered out after it was established there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
Only a small number of Australia's Somali community adopt the hardline Wahabist view of Islam, but authorities fear radicalism among this minority is being fanned by recent events in Somalia.
Intelligence analysts warn that Somalia has become the new breeding for international Islamic terrorists, as extremists seek revenge for the events of December 2006, when US-backed forces from Christian Ethiopia toppled the hardline government known as the Islamic Courts Union.
The US and Australia defended the Ethiopian invasion as a front in the global war on terror, but it awakened the nationalism of many Somalis in Australia, as well as Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds, who viewed it as a Christian crusade into a Muslim land.
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