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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Australian Cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika Convicted for Leading Terrorist Cell

Australian Cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika Convicted for Leading Terrorist Cell

February 4, 2009

Terror lurking within February 05, 2009

Gary Hughes

Article from: The Australian

'YOU put your hand here, like this. And you put ... a knife here, and you open. This is training. You have to learn it." Those chilling words caught by a secret police bug were Muslim cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika calmly instructing three of his followers about the importance of learning to kill a human being with a knife.

He adds that the victim will groan "and then you strike", just like in an internet video of a Western hostage being beheaded in Iraq.

"Sheik, he is screaming like a, like a sheep," says one of the followers, apparently referring to the victim in the video.

"Scream, and our women, didn't they scream?" responds Benbrika.

For those casual visitors filing into the Victorian Supreme Court during seven long months of the trial of Benbrika and 11 of his followers last year, it was hard to reconcile the sight of the slight figure sitting disinterested in the front row of the dock in his flowing Muslim robe with those words and his other preachings of violence and hatred.

  • March 2003: Australia commits troops to fight beside the US and Britain in the ground invasion of Iraq. Militant Muslim cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika believes this makes Australia a land of war and a fair target for a home-grown terrorist attack.
  • July 2004: After a tip-off from within the Melbourne Muslim community, ASIO and Victorian and federal police establish Operation Pendennis to investigate Benbrika and his followers. Extensive electronic and physical surveillance of Benbrika and followers eventually collects 16,400 hours of recordings from bugs and 98,000 telephone intercepts.
  • July 2005: Police raid a number of homes of some group members who had been stealing cars to fund their terrorist plans. Their trial is later told the raids disrupted plans to mount an attack on the AFL Grand Final at the MCG two months later.
  • August 2005: Benbrika is confronted by Muslim cleric Samir Mohtadi, who warns Benbrika he will go to the police after hearing the religious teacher was "teachingthe boys to do something violent in this country".
  • November 8, 2005: Benbrika and eight other men are arrested during terror raids in Melbourne's northern and western suburbs and charged with a range of terrorist offences. They are remanded in custody to Victoria's maximum security unit at Barwon prison.
  • November 14, 2005: Another member of the cell, Izzydeen Atik, agrees to plead guilty and testify against his former associates at trial in return for a reduced sentence.
  • April 2006: Three more alleged members of the group are arrested and charged, but will later be acquitted at trial.
  • September 2006: All 12 men are committed to stand trial on terrorism charges.
  • August 23, 2007: Atik jailed for 5 years.
  • February 2008: Trial begins for the 12 men in a special courtroom amid tight security. A Supreme Court jury is told by the Crown the largely circumstantial case mainly hinges on 482 covertly recorded conversations between members of the group.
  • March 2008: Lawyers for the 12 accused make an application to abandon the trial because the men are being held in such harsh conditions in jail their physical and mental health is suffering and they are being denied a fair trial. Justice Bernard Bongiorno agrees and says he will adjourn the trial indefinitely unless the men are moved to a new prison.
  • April 2008: Atik gives evidence of the plot to blow up the Melbourne Cricket Ground on AFL Grand Final day.
  • August 2008: Jurors retire to consider their verdict.
  • September 15, 2008: Benbrika and followers Aimen Joud, Fadl Sayadi, Ahmed Raad, Ezzit Raad and Abdullah Merhi are found guilty of terrorism-related charges. Four others are found not guilty.
  • September 16, 2008: One more man -- Amer Haddara -- is found guilty.
  • February 3, 2009: Benbrika is jailed for a maximum of 15 years with 12 years minimum. Six others receive minimum sentences ranging from 4 years to 7 years.

With his long grey beard and quiet manner, he looked more like the gentle, learned and respected Muslim scholar his defence barrister claimed him to be than a fanatical terrorist committed to waging violent jihad or holy war.

Even on Tuesday, as Justice Bernard Bongiorno told Benbrika he would spend a minimum of 12 years in jail for leading a terrorist cell in Melbourne, the cleric dressed in all white for the occasion showed no outward emotion.

Sitting with arms crossed, as if to fend off the judge's harsh words describing the bloody violence the cleric and his followers wanted to wreak on innocent Australians, Benbrika stared blankly ahead.

According to the judge, Benbrika and his band of young followers drawn from the Muslim community in Melbourne's northern and western suburbs wanted to "destroy buildings and kill people in the cause of jihad".

The group "constituted a significant threat that a terrorist act would be or would have, by now, been committed here in Melbourne", Justice Bongiorno said.

Despite his deceptive demeanour, it was Benbrika's firebrand words of violence and revenge that cast a spell over young Muslims looking for an outlet to their anger, frustration and paranoia.

Ironically it was Australia's tolerance of other religions that had allowed Benbrika to reach the point where he could become the first person in this country to be convicted of leading a terrorist organisation.

Benbrika, 48, a trained aviation engineer, had arrived in Australia from his native Algeria on a visitor's visa in 1989 to escape war in his homeland and seek the type of religious freedom he had been denied.

After settling in Melbourne he initially found employment as a process worker in the outer northern suburb of Campbellfield.

Later he would be unemployed, which as his defence barrister explained, gave him ample time to study the Koran and other Islamic tomes. "Benbrika spent more of each day immersed in religious texts," the barrister said.

He became a permanent resident of Australia after meeting and marrying a Melbourne Muslim student studying mechanical engineering at Swinburne University.

Benbrika's interest in Islam continued to deepen, thanks largely to the disability pension and family support payments that provided him with freedom from having to work for a living. He fathered seven children, the oldest born in 1995. During many of the 482 covertly recorded conversations played to the jury in his trial he can be heard gently scolding them or sending them off on errands.

As Benbrika's knowledge of Islam deepened, he began to be sought out by other Muslims for advice and for his interpretation of the Koran.

In the Muslim community there is no formal process for appointing clerics. They are simply respected scholars of Islam, elevated to positions of religious leadership by fellow Muslims because of their knowledge and wisdom. Benbrika became one of these leaders.

Initially he was mainstream. He taught at Melbourne mosques and other Islamic organisations and was president of the Algerian Society, which worked to help Algerian refugees. Fellow Muslim cleric Samir Mohtadi, who would later confront Benbrika about rumours he was "teaching the boys to do something violent in this country", was one of those who respected Benbrika's scholarship at that time.

But the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001 and the Bali bombings in October 2002 brought about deep and profound changes within the Muslim community in Australia.

The trial of Benbrika and his co-accused was told how Muslims became alienated, with attacks on mosques and on Muslim women appearing in public dressed in traditional garb. The introduction of tough anti-terrorism laws caused widespread fear and paranoia. In turn many young Muslim men grew restless. It would prove fertile ground for Benbrika's brand of radical Islam to take root and flourish.

Then in March 2003 Australian troops were sent to fight alongside US and British forces in the ground war in Iraq. Within Islam, an attack on a Muslim anywhere is an attack on all Muslims and it is every Muslim's duty to defend their brothers and sisters.

For Benbrika, the commitment of troops to Iraq made Australia "a land of war" and consequently a legitimate target for attack. If innocent Muslim women and children were killed in Iraq, it was justified to kill innocent women and children in Australia.

It was this turn toward "harshness" in his teachings that drove Benbrika away from the mainstream. Many within the community became concerned with his preachings. But his words found an eager audience among those young, angry and frustrated Muslims. Benbrika held private religious or dars classes for his small band of eager followers, all deeply committed Muslims .

"They saw their commitment to violent jihad in the context of this religious commitment," said Bongiorno while delivering sentence on Benbrika and six followers. "They ... regarded violent jihad as an integral part of their religious obligations, a belief constantly reinforced by Benbrika's teachings."

Benbrika's home became the hub for this inner group or jemaah. "The jemaah existed, under Benbrika's direction, for the purpose of engaging in violent jihad," said Bongiorno.

"Benbrika regarded the destruction of the kafir - Arabic for unbelievers - as an essential aspect of the Islamic religion.

"The jemaah would achieve this by acts of terrible violence in this country, or perhaps elsewhere."

Benbrika's aim was to stage terrorist attacks so shocking - in the judge's words, "destroy buildings and kill people in the cause of jihad"- that the Australian government would be forced to withdraw troops from Iraq and break off its alliance with the US.

By July 2004 concern about Benbrika within Melbourne's mainstream Muslim community had grown to the point that one of them tipped off the Victorian police.

A joint Victoria Police, Australian Federal Police and ASIO taskforce, codenamed Operation Pendennis, was set up to target the group and an elaborate electronic surveillance web was thrown over Benbrika and his followers.

Pendennis would eventually collect a staggering 16,400 hours of recordings from bugs and 98,000 telephone intercepts, 62,968 of them involving the accused or making reference to at least one of them.

On top of that were reports and video footage from physical surveillance carried out by teams of undercover watchers; Victoria Police and the AFP clocked up 402 eight-hour surveillance shifts, with an additional 224 shifts conducted by ASIO.

Aware that it was most likely under surveillance, the group made some attempt to hide its activities by going on trips or meeting at remote locations. And towards the end Benbrika tried to set up a separate secret cell in case he and his followers were caught.

Despite the precautions, the words caught on the 482 tape recordings played to the jury were enough to convict Benbrika and six of his followers, Aimen Joud, 24, Fadl Sayadi, 28, Ezzit Raad, 26, his brother Ahmed Raad, 25, Abdullah Merhi, 23, and Amer Haddara, 29.

Four other followers, Hany Taha, 33, Bassam Raad, 27, Shoue Hammoud, 28, and Majed Raad, 23, were acquitted at the end of the seven-month trial.

How well progressed the Benbrika group was towards mounting an attack was never fully established during the trial.

Evidence from Izzydeen Atik, a former group member who pleaded guilty and testified against the others in return for a reduced sentence, gave evidence that Benbrika told him an attack had been planned for the 2005 AFL Grand Final at the MCG. When those plans were disrupted by police raids on a number of members in July 2005, the target was supposedly moved to the Melbourne's Crown Casino during Grand Prix week or the AFL pre-season series final the following year.

But Bongiorno dismissed Atik's evidence, describing him as "a liar, a cheat and afraudster".

A lack of a specific target, however, did not make the group any less dangerous. Nor did the fact Benbrika had no military or terrorist training.

Bongiorno said, "Terrorist acts as they have been experienced in modern times are often carried out by amateurs whose principal attribute has not been skill, but rather zealous or fanatical belief in some ideology or other which seeks to promote itself by the use ofviolence.

"Benbrika clearly had such a belief and fanaticism and imparted it to his young associates."

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