The ingredients for Sydney’s terrorist conspiracy seemed so ordinary: a couple of small businessmen, an uncle and his nephew, a kid who fished from a ferry wharf.
Malcolm Brown, Rick Feneley and Jacqueline Maley report. Even in the days ASIO was watching him, he liked to fish. Even while his phone was tapped and he was recorded saying: ”I will kill John Howard.”
That call was made on August 27, 2005. Howard was prime minister and the young man under surveillance, at 21, was a familiar face among the anglers on the ferry wharf at Abbotsford on Sydney Harbour. This is where he had spent much of his teens, down the road from his father’s home. On Friday and Saturday nights, from age 16, he would go fishing with his local shopkeeper, Tony.
Tony, now 55, describes himself as a Catholic Chinese from Papua New Guinea. As he told the Herald this week, Abbotsford ”is not a Muslim suburb”. It is multicultural, but his friend was among few Muslims. From a family of eight boys and four girls, he was a ”good kid”. They would fish together for about five years. Until the police came.
”We’d catch some bream, but [he] was good at catching calamari,” Tony recalled. ”He would give it away to the Italians, the Vietnamese.”
The second last time Tony saw his mate as a free man, his appearance had changed. He was wearing a traditional robe and growing a beard. ”It was not a very successful beard. He wasn’t a very hairy guy. I laughed at him – ‘You’re wearing a dress!’ – and he laughed too.” The young man was not offended. Tony saw nothing that suggested a sudden turn to extremism.
This week, the young fisherman, now 25, was among five men sentenced in the Supreme Court in Sydney for their roles in a terrorism conspiracy. After a 10-month trial, Australia’s longest terrorism case, they were whipped away with heavy police escort to serve very long jail sentences – a maximum 130 years between them – leaving a total of 12 children and wives or former wives to fend for themselves.
They cannot be named in Victoria for legal reasons. Another four men had already pleaded guilty, and two of them were released from jail last year.
Tony had gone to court as a character witness for his friend. He was horrified by his sentence – 23 years with a non-parole period of 17 years and three months – although it was the lightest given to the final five conspirators.
”I think he was a naive young man, probably taken in by these older guys,” Tony said. Like his mate’s sister, he believes a grave injustice has been done. They refuse to believe he ever intended to hurt anybody, let alone Howard. That phone call may have been youthful bluster, says the sister.
In fact, the trial judge, Anthony Whealy, found insufficient evidence to conclude any of the conspirators intended to kill anyone. His sentences – the heaviest was 28 years – have provoked anger among many Muslims. But one community leader suggested Muslims could be split into four camps on the case: those who believed, like Sheikh Taj el-Din al Hilaly, that the five men were convicted for their thoughts, not their actions; extremists who, while normally Hilaly’s rivals, supported this line and hoped it would stir anger and radicalise more people; those who believed the court’s finding must be accepted and that Australia’s security is paramount; and a ”silent” group who went further, believing – though not declaring – that the five got what they deserved.
Some worried most about the radicalising of more young men like the angler. What moved him to gather the ingredients for explosives? What moved his associates to assemble a terrifying arsenal of weapons, ammunition and chemicals for bombs? Justice Whealy said their conspiracy took on a life and a menace of its own which tended to exceed the contribution of the individuals. Even if none intended to kill, the end result, in all probability, would have been an outrage, massive destruction of property and possible loss of innocent lives.
Australia had welcomed these men and their families. What turned them against Australia?
Convict 1, from Bankstown, was branded by the prosecution as the ”puppet master” of the Sydney conspirators. He was born in Lebanon 44 years ago, came to Australia at 11 and went on to Bankstown High, where he completed year 10. He has 11 siblings, all in Australia. He was a metal fabrication apprentice with the Water Board. He then did mechanical engineering and completed a rigging and crane driver course. He went into a family business, working with structural steel on building sites. He married at 22 and had six children. He started his own drafting business.
But Convict 1 became radicalised. He collected extremist material which told him that if Muslim lands were being attacked – in this case Iraq and Afghanistan – he had a duty to respond.
On June 27, 2005, police raided his home and found 12 firearms and 11,755 rounds of ammunition for automatic or semi-automatic weapons. He also co-wrote an order for lab equipment to assist in bomb-making, helped set up a coded communications system and possessed recipes for explosives. He got 28 years with a minimum of 21.
Convict 2, 36, was born in Lebanon in March 1973 and came to Australia at three years of age. He was the youngest of five sons and he had five sisters. He was educated at Punchbowl Primary and Bankstown High, where he started but did not finish year 11. His employment record was ”sporadic”. From Wiley Park, he married nine years ago and had a son. The Koran forbids the killing of innocent people, but a document found in his garage defined the innocent only as Muslims who believed in violent jihad. During his interview with police in 2005, he said: ”Your democracy full of hypocrisy, we worship Allah; sharia law is going to rule the land … Go and learn it because you are going to be ruled by it … The nature of this democracy rubbish, it is all bullshit, and you tell John Howard this.”
In 2007, two years after his arrest, his wife and son moved to Jordan. Jailed for 27 years, or a minimum of 20, he may never see them again.
Convict 3, nephew of Convict 2, was born in Australia on February 23, 1977. He had an older brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister. His parents were divorced when he was 12 and his mother was left to bring up the children. He did not get on well at school but completed his Higher School Certificate at Condell Park High. He became a mechanic’s apprentice at Greenacre but did not get his final papers because of a back injury. From 1995, when he was 18, he developed a strong interest in the Koran. By 1999 he was attending the Mussalah prayer hall at Lakemba twice a day and came under the influence of his uncle. Convict 3 went into security but he lost his right to work in the industry or carry a gun because of scrutiny from the Australian Federal Police and ASIO.
In October 2001, he attended a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist training camp in Pakistan. He returned in February 2002. Justice Whealy said this ”predisposed him towards hatred and intolerance towards those people who were, as he saw it, persecuting Muslims overseas”.
He married in August 2002 and has a son. ASIO and police raided him in October 2003. It did not stop him. In intercepted telephone conversations he talked about Bosnia, Iraq, Chechnya and problems with the Kurds, all in the context of jihad. Justice Whealy found he bought hydrogen peroxide, prepared for the manufacture of a detonator suitable for an explosive device and had instruction material on bomb detonation. His wife and child visit him each week in jail, where he will serve at least 19 years and six months. His maximum sentence is 26 years.
Convict 4 was born on August 24, 1969, the youngest of 12 in a poverty-stricken Bangladeshi family. He migrated to Australia, at 20, with some education but no vocational skills. He gave up business computing studies after two weeks because of his poor English. He studied English at Bondi Junction.
He became disenchanted with the alcohol and drug culture he was exposed to, and sought in Islam a more disciplined life. He worked as a cleaner at the InterContinental hotel, then learned fish-filleting and opened a business at Lakemba. He married a woman who converted to Islam. They have four children. He named his eldest son Jihad, meaning ”struggle”. Leaving his own business, he worked at a halal butcher’s shop in Lakemba. He struggled to provide for his family. By 2004-05, he had met Convicts 1, 2 and 3 and was praying regularly at the Mussalah prayer room.
In his evidence at the trial – as the only defendant to take the stand – he said he did not believe those who participated in the invasion of Afghanistan were innocent. In 2004-05, when the conspiracy started, he regarded Australia as ”the enemy”. He expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden. Justice Whealy found he was involved in acquiring laboratory equipment for making explosives, and ordered quantities of battery acid, distilled water, acetone and methylated spirits. After his arrest, his wife and children visited him once a week. But the visits dwindled and finally his wife divorced him. He was jailed for 26 years, with a minimum 19 years and six months.
Convict 5, the young angler from Abbotsford, was born in Australia on July 22, 1984, a middle child among 12 children. Until about age 11 he lived on the small family farm at Austral, in Sydney’s south-west. But his parents divorced and, from his early teens, he spent much of his time with his father at Abbotsford. His father was strict. He had received rough treatment from an older brother and said he had been abused and neglected as a child. Several brothers acquired criminal records. He did not get on well at school, developed a drug habit and was expelled in year 9 because of conflict with teachers. He completed the equivalent of the School Certificate at TAFE.
He set up his own business, building and repairing computers. But he was under pressure to get away from friends who were abusing drugs and alcohol. An elder brother, who had been in jail, took him to the mosque and insisted he pray five times a day. He met his brother’s friends, some of whom would become his co-offenders. He was on the phone to Convict 2 when he said, ”I will kill John Howard.” During a police search of his home, he said: ”Youse are going to be put into a fire by Allah!” Allah would put a curse on the wives and children of unbelievers and send diseases. ”Youse can all rot slowly,” he said.
Justice Whealy said Convict 5 willingly joined the conspiracy, though at a later stage and he left it in 2005, a few weeks before the first arrests.
Convict 5’s sister is a year younger than her brother, and very close. Outside court, she said: ”My brother did not do nothing … The only extremists are ASIO. Justice will be served by God. The truth will come out on judgment day.” Challenged later on the evidence – the guns, the bomb-making materials, the manuals – she told the Herald: ”I don’t know! Probably for something else. I don’t know. Maybe the chemicals for painting. Maybe they go hunting. Who knows? That’s none of my business. That’s regardless of my brother. I don’t know about the others. I have to care for my brother.”
His fishing mate, Tony, did offer some insight into why he might have felt alienated. ”I saw police harassing [him]. Between 11 and 12 one night, when we’re fishing, the police cars come up. The police ask him to step aside, and they frisk him.” Why? ”Because his name is [name deleted].”
Many Muslims feel under siege this week; that Islam has been prosecuted and its adherents persecuted. Uthman Badar, from the Australian arm of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group banned in some countries for its extremism, said anti-terrorism laws here had lowered the burden of proof. People were being prosecuted merely for their ideas.
”Here we have a case where there is no direct evidence, no established intent to kill, and no specific target … many of the ‘extreme’ views, as mentioned in the sentencing remarks, are basic Islamic views which Muslims generally hold; views like Muslims being obliged to defend themselves and jihad being the way to do this. Criminalising these views is to criminalise criticism of Western foreign policy in Muslim lands, and this is the crux of the matter. The anti-terror laws were designed to silence Muslims through fear and intimidation.”
Samir Dandan, from the Lebanese Muslim Association, says many Muslims believe they receive harsher treatment than non-Muslim Australians. He cites Mohamed Haneef, the Indian-born doctor who in 2007 was wrongly accused of assisting terrorists, and the notorious gang rapist Bilal Skaf, who is serving 36 years for leading multiple attacks on women. Dandan emphasises that Muslims abhor gang rape.
Convict 5’s sister also alludes to Skaf: ”You look at an Australian doing a rape and getting three years, but when it comes to a Muslim or Arab …”
One Muslim community leader is distressed by such a comparison. And he considers people naive if they believe Hilaly, who claims he can confirm ”100 per cent” that the five men are innocent. But this leader does not want to put his name to his comments, knowing it would draw a backlash from his community at such a sensitive time.
”We see a lot of anger out there,” says Keysar Trad, founding chairman of the Islamic Friendship Association. Anger, he says, at the violence against Muslim countries; anger that Muslims are too readily blamed for troubles. He worries that this week’s severe sentences will drive that anger underground – to be exploited by extremists.
On the odd occasion, hotheads have approached Trad, Hilaly and other imams, but ”our immediate response is that violence is unacceptable under Islamic teaching”. Would they report them to police? ”Would a priest refer someone who comes to him to the police if he feels he has talked that person out of committing a crime?”
Jamal Rifi, a Belmore family doctor and human rights award winner, says young Muslims must not be ”receptive to brainwashing techniques”.
”That’s why we do a lot of proactive things,” Rifi told the Herald. He noted a meeting in the past fortnight with the NSW police counter-terrorism unit. He lauded an ”ideological change” among police – a willingness to work with Muslims. ”We are seen as part of the solution rather than just part of the problem.”
For a crime with no victims and no known targets, it has caused a lot of suffering – not least for the families of the jailed men. Many had relied on them as the sole breadwinners. After their arrests, some Centrelink payments and bank accounts were frozen. There were death threats. Eggs were thrown at houses. “People drive by screaming at us and swearing,” the sister-in-law of one of the men said at the time. “They beep their horn and tell us to our back to our country.” But she said: ”This is my home.”
Sheikh Khalil Chami, of the Islamic Welfare Centre in Lakemba, was a regular visitor to the men’s cells. During these meetings, they were ordered to speak only in English. He believes they were radicalised in Sydney. ”They are planning here. They adopt everything from here,” he said. ”It is our fault … we don’t prepare them for Australia. We don’t give them anywhere to meet, and someone else comes in and picks them.”
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald