Hundreds of police swooped on suspected terrorists in Melbourne early today amid fears suicide attacks were about to be launched on army bases in Australia.
Police from around the country were quietly moved to Melbourne before launching their raids on homes in at least seven suburbs.
Several men of Somali and Lebanese backgrounds were arrested and were expected to appear in court later on terrorism-related charges.
Police sources said it would be claimed the men were planning to attack a barracks in western Sydney and other defence bases in Victoria.
The suspected terrorists were said to be plotting to force their way into the bases to kill as many soldiers as possible before turning guns on themselves.
The arrested men are believed to have links to al-Qaeda.
Sources said electronic surveillance on the suspects had picked up conversations about ways to obtain weapons to carry out what would be the worst terror attack on Australian soil.
The arrested men are said to be construction workers and taxi drivers living in Melbourne, but have Islamic backgrounds.
It is understood several men from the alleged terrorist cell have travelled to Somalia to train in the use of weapons with the terrorist movement al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab has been training suicide bombers and jihadist fighters in the hope of overthrowing the Somali government.
The organisation’s aim is to impose a hardline form of Islam and regards the West as its enemy.
It has links with al-Qaeda, including the prominent figure Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is said to be behind the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, when more than 200 people were killed.
Investigations into the Melbourne cell are believed to have started earlier this year–before today’s dramatic raids around the city.
According to police sources several members of the group wanted to travel to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab, but when they found difficulty in obtaining visas they turned their attention to launching terror attacks in Australia.
At one of the homes, which police spent several hours searching, a forensic tent was set up in the garden, allowing officers to inspect items that had been allegedly found on the property.
More than 400 police from the Australian Federal Police and forces in Victoria, New South Wales, the NSW Crime Commission and the Australian Securitjy Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) were involved in the dramatic raids.
A spokeswoman for Victoria Police said there had been ‘a number of arrests’ but declined to say how many.
The raids were carried out under the name Operation Health.
The seriousness of the terrorist operation was emphasised by senior police early today with claims that the alleged jihadists were planning to burst into army bases with semi-automatic weapons blazing.
They intended to kill as many defence force personnel as possible before turning the weapons on themselves–if they were not first killed by soldiers.
Australian Federal Police acting Chief Commissioner Tony Negus said early today that if the alleged plot had been carried out, it would have been the most serious terrorist act ever on Australian soil.
Four people, all Australian citizens of either Lebanese or Somalian backgrounds, had been arrested.
Police have begun interviewing two men aged 25, a 26-year-old old and a 22-year-old.
These are the same age ranges as suicide bombers who have committed atrocities in Indonesia.
Mr Negus said it was possible that further arrests could follow.
While the Holsworthy base in Sydney was an alleged target, there had been ‘suspicious activity’ around other bases, said Mr Negus.
Allegations related specifically to an attack with firearms, not bombs, he said, adding: ‘We believe these men were affiliated with a group called al-Shabaab in Somalia.
‘We were satisfied the timing (of the raids) was right–obvioiusly the primary concern is public safety,’ said Mr Negus.