04 August 2017

Australia terror probe: Plane suspects ‘made two plots’

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Australian police have stepped up their presence at the nation’s airports

Two men accused of a terror plot to put a bomb on a plane were also trying to build a device that could release toxic gas, Australian police have alleged.

The men, aided by so-called Islamic State (IS), failed in a bid to smuggle an explosive on to an Etihad flight in Sydney on 15 July, authorities claimed.

They also allegedly plotted to build a gas “dispersion” device, but police said it was far from being realised.

Investigators said the alleged plots had been “completely disrupted”.

“This is one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted on Australian soil,” said Australian Federal Police (AFP) Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan.

What is claimed about the ‘bomb plot’?

Mr Phelan said a “high-end” military-grade explosive had been concealed in luggage and taken to Sydney Airport on 15 July, but it did not get through check-in.

“There is a bit of conjecture [about] why it did not get through the baggage check-in, but I want to make it quite clear – it never got near [security] screening,” he said.

Police allege one of the suspects was put in contact with a senior IS figure in April.

The IS figure arranged for the components of the device to be sent to Australia from Turkey via air cargo, Mr Phelan said.

Police allege the accused men assembled the parts into a “fully functioning” improvised explosive device.

What was the alleged gas plan?

Police said the second plot involved creating an improvised chemical device that was designed to release hydrogen sulphide, or “rotten egg gas”.

However, Mr Phelan said the plan was not close to fruition when police intervened on Saturday.

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Investigators have searched five properties in locations across Sydney

He said police had recovered components and chemicals.

Mr Phelan did not name a possible target for the device.

Who has been charged?

Two men – Khaled Khayat, 49, and Mahmoud Khayat, 32 – appeared via video link in a Sydney court on Friday charged with “preparing for, or planning, a terrorist attack”.

The pair did not apply for bail during the brief hearing, which was adjourned until 14 November.

If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The men were arrested along with two others on Saturday when police raided properties in the Sydney suburbs of Lakemba, Punchbowl, Surry Hills, Wiley Park and Bankstown.

One man was released without charge on Tuesday. The fourth man remains in police custody, where he can be held without charge until Saturday.

Evolving danger

Hywel Griffith, BBC News, Sydney

Australia has been touched by the threat of terror several times – most often by so-called homegrown or lone wolf dangers.

What makes the latest alleged plots different is that they are believed to have been co-ordinated abroad, with an IS controller giving instructions over the course of three months.

Police have repeatedly stressed how sophisticated they believe these plans had become, alleging that IS successfully managed to send military-grade explosives into Australia.

That creates a very different dynamic for the intelligence services, who will need to assess whether they can realistically intercept items being flown into the country.

While the security forces have been widely praised for their work in disrupting this alleged plot, they will be keenly aware of how the terror threat is continuing to evolve.

What is Australia’s threat level?

The nation’s official terror warning level remains at “probable” – the third level on a scale of five.

“This is the 13th time, because of the excellence of our law enforcement agencies, that we have been able to stop a terrorist attack from occurring on Australian soil in the past three years,” Justice Minister Michael Keenan said on Friday.

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Passengers have waited in lengthy queues at airports this week

To date, there have been no mass casualty terror attacks on Australian soil.

Last year, Australian police said they foiled a major terror attack planned for high-profile locations in Melbourne on Christmas Day.

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