Terror Suspects Arrested in Australia

Australia arrests 17 suspected terrorists Tuesday. The group, which included a Islamic cleric opposed to the war in Iraq, was charged with planning a large-scale attack on Australia. Steve Inskeep talks to Australian Broadcast Company reporter Mark Douglas.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Authorities in Australia have taken a group of prisoners of their own. Police say they broke up a terror attack when they arrested 17 suspects. One of them is an Islamic cleric who opposes the war in Iraq. The cleric said he would be violating his faith if he warned his students against joining the jihad in Iraq where Australian troops are fighting. Now the police commissioner of New South Wales, Ken Moroney, contends the group was plotting inside Australia itself.

Commissioner KEN MORONEY (New South Wales, Australia): Well, I believe on the basis of the investigation to date is that we've been able to prevent a significant large-scale terrorist attack here in Australia.

INSKEEP: Moroney spoke on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and we're going now to ABC reporter Mark Douglas, who's in Sydney.

And, Mr. Douglas, how large was the operation to arrest these suspects?

Mr. MARK DOUGLAS (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): Well, Steve, this is the first of its kind in Australia. There were some 400 police involved in this operation, and we're talking the two largest cities in Australia, Sydney and Melbourne. Eight people were arrested in Sydney, nine in Melbourne. These were dawn raids and they were police from our federal authorities and from state authorities involved in this operation, which had been about 16 months in the planning. So it had been quite some time that these people had been under surveillance and under investigation.

INSKEEP: What evidence was seized in these raids that would definitely point to the possibility of a terror attack?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, we're a little unclear as to the evidence that has been seized. We're told by the police that these groups were suspected of stockpiling chemicals, similar to the chemicals used in the terror attacks in London on the London Underground recently. At the moment, the police are not sure they--we understand that they've seized documents and they've seized computers and are hopeful, maybe, of finding out a little bit more about the plot at hand.

INSKEEP: We should be just completely clear about our terminology. When we say chemicals, you mean chemicals to make a bomb, not for a chemical attack of some kind.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Absolutely, chemicals that would be used in explosive devices.

INSKEEP: Now the alleged ringleader, a man who sometimes goes by the name Abu Bakr, was he a public figure in Australia before the arrests?

Mr. DOUGLAS: He had come to prominence. He'd been spoken about previously as being a potential threat. He had been actually interviewed by our organization previously where he denied that was the case, but he's a public supporter of Osama bin Laden. He described Osama bin Laden as a great man, and he also pointed to differences between Australian law and Islamic law and that he was against anyone who tries to harm the religion, so he had been pinpointed by authorities as a figure of interest. And I've spoken to some of the representatives of the Islamic community in Australia today who say they're not surprised that he's one of those who've been arrested today.

INSKEEP: We've been talking to Mark Douglas. He's with ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in Sydney.

Thanks very much.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: We're going to listen to some of that interview with the cleric known as Abu Bakr who is described as an Algerian-Australian. Interviewer Mark Colvin asked if Abu Bakr approved of Australian Muslims fighting against their own country in Iraq.

(Soundbite from interview)

Mr. ABU BAKR (Cleric): According to my religion, jihad is a part of my religion, and what you have to understand, that anyone who fight for the sake of Allah, the first--when he dies, the first drop of blood that comes from him, all his sin will be forgiven.

Mr. MARK COLVIN (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): So what you're saying is you are a teacher of these students, but if they decide to go to Afghanistan or Pakistan to train in camps, it's their decision with God and not to do with you.

Mr. BAKR: That will have nothing to do with me. One, they do understand their religion. They don't need to ask me.

Mr. COLVIN: Well, isn't it important that you say to them, `You shouldn't go and engage in violence? You shouldn't go and train?'

Mr. BAKR: If I do this, it means I am betraying my religion.

INSKEEP: In that interview, Abu Bakr, the cleric now arrested in Australia, also said Islam forbids the killing of the innocent. He left unclear just who he counts as innocent.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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