Gary Hughes: The Australian | September 20, 2008
IT was a blueprint for terror. Seized by police from the home of one of the alleged ringleaders of the Benbrika Muslim terror ring, it was al-Qa’ida’s chilling step-by-step guide on how to build a terrorist cell, avoid detection, conduct training, obtain weapons, select targets and launch attacks.
It was one of at least two such instruction manuals that, according to authorities, were used by self-proclaimed Melbourne cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika, 48, to set up and run his secret group.
One, which was also found in the hands of an al-Qa’ida member by British police, begins by setting down the three main principles essential to setting up a group: a commander and a leadership advisory council; individual members or “soldiers”; and a clearly defined strategy.
The primary mission of the group should be “the overthrow of the godless regimes and their replacement with an Islamic regime”, the manual says.
Other missions are listed as “assassinating enemy personnel as well as foreign tourists” and “blasting and destroying the places of amusement, immorality and sin”.
The manual was seized during a police raid on one of Benbrika’s trusted lieutenants in June 2005. He was one of six of the fanatical religious leader’s followers convicted alongside Benbrika this week of belonging to a terrorist organisation.
The manual, originally in Arabic when found on a computer by British police, had been translated into English for use in a later terrorist trial in the US. It was the English language version that was found in the Melbourne raid and later presented to the jury as a prosecution exhibit.
According to the manual, terror cell recruits had to be Muslims able to follow strict orders and “willing to do the work and undergo martyrdom for the purpose of establishing the religion of majestic Allah on Earth”.
They also had to be able to “endure psychological trauma, such as those involving bloodshed, murder, arrest, imprisonment and reverse psychological traumas such as killing one or all of his organisation’s comrades”.
Operational funds had to be gathered, but kept hidden in scattered locations to avoid their being seized by authorities.
There were detailed instructions about maintaining security within the group, including using secret identification signals, selecting safe houses and avoiding the scrutiny of law enforcement agencies.
Paramilitary training of recruits should be done secretly in groups of no more than 10 at remote locations and care had to be taken when buying weapons to avoid being seen or ripped off.
They were lessons that Benbrika, who this week became the first person in Australia to be convicted of leading a terrorist organisation, apparently learned well.
The seven-month Victorian Supreme Court trial was told the self-proclaimed sheik, also known as Abu Bakr, chose three of the group to form his trusted advisory council to help lead the group, as laid out in the manual.
Fadl Sayadi, 28, was the group’s security and intelligence officer; Ahmed Raad, 25, was the treasurer; and Aimen Joud, 23, was Benbrika’s trusted adviser, the jury was told.
Funds to finance the group were raised through stealing cars to strip them for parts, and credit card fraud committed against non-Muslims, under a special religious ruling, or fatwa, issued by Benbrika.
One alleged training camp was held on a remote property in outback NSW in March 2005.
Joud, Sayadi and Raad were kept under surveillance by police as they drove to the remote campsite. A Belgian .308 rifle that forensic tests showed had been used at the site during the target shooting was later seized from another man associated with the Benbrika cell.
The group’s mission, according to senior Crown prosecutor Richard Maidment SC, was to wage violent jihad on Australian soil to force the Howard government into withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to one Crown witness, potential targets included the AFL grand final at the crowded MCG in 2005 or Melbourne’s Crown casino during Grand Prix weekend in 2006.
Among the group’s recruits were Abdullah Merhi, 23, who had allegedly offered himself to Benbrika as a suicide bomber, and Haddara, who told police after his arrest he wished to become a mujaheddin and wage jihad as an Islamic holy warrior.
Members of Benbrika’s group were taught that they would be regarded as Islamic martyrs if they died, and were instructed on how to be an “effective member of the organisation so that they were capable of going into a situation where a terrorist act was to be actually perpetrated”.
The one piece of advice the Benbrika cell ignored from the terror manual, and which would prove to be their undoing, involved how they communicated.
The manual warns that modern communications, such as mobile telephones, were a “double-edged sword”. “It can be to our advantage if we use it well and it can be a knife dug in our back if we do not consider and take the necessary security measures,” the manual says.
For Benbrika and his followers, their undisciplined use of telephones became their knife in theback.
Despite the fact members rightly suspected that their mobiles, which included many held under false names, were being bugged, they kept talking.
Mobile calls between group members were among 482 covert recordings played to the jury as part of the prosecution case in thetrial.
One of the agents close to Operation Pendennis – the joint ASIO, Victoria Police and Australian Federal Police taskforce that spent 16 months between July 2004 and November 2005 targeting the Benbrika group – described the home-grown terror cell as “the real deal”.
Some officers are now concerned that potential new Muslim terror threats could prove harder to combat because of the details revealed during the marathon trial of tactics and techniques used by the Pendennis team.
The trial was told how the taskforce threw a massive electronic and physical surveillance net around Benbrika and his followers: 16,400 hours of recordings from bugs in homes and vehicles, 98,000 telephone intercepts and 402 shifts by surveillance teams.
The trial was given detailed evidence about the techniques used by an undercover counter-terrorism agent, identified only as SIO39, to infiltrate the Benbrika group. The man, using the name Ahmet Sonmez, posed as the son of a separated Turkish-Australian couple who had initially grown up in Turkey with his Muslim father before moving to Tasmania to live with his Australian mother.
It meant that members of the Melbourne group would have had trouble attempting to verify his family background.
SIO39 went to great lengths to make himself as attractive a recruit as possible to Benbrika.
He told the sheik he had easy and cheap access to ammonium nitrate fertiliser and had learned how to turn it into an explosive mixture while working on farms in Tasmania.
He also claimed to have made surplus money from selling inherited shares, which he offered to give to Benbrika. And he repeatedly talked about how it was time to wage violent jihad in Australia.
Benbrika was apparently fooled but some of the other terror cell members were not so confident, believing SIO39 too good to be true.
As one of them pointed out, he didn’t even want to argue with other members during their frequent heated discussions about religion. And in a group that was constantly squabbling, simple agreement was enough to cast suspicion.