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Australian authorities have charged two people and arrested several more in a massive sting operation over an alleged Islamic State-related plot to abduct and publicly behead a member of the public in Sydney.
Some 800 Australian police conducted synchronized pre-dawn raids across Sydney and Brisbane Thursday morning in connection with the plot, which was ordered by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports that 15 people have been arrested, and Sydney resident Omarjan Azari was charged with conspiring in a plot to kidnap and murder Australian citizens.
Commonwealth prosecutor Michael Allnutt told Sydney's Central Local Court the alleged offence was "clearly designed to shock, horrify and terrify the community".
Mr Allnutt said there was "a plan to commit extremely serious offences" that involved an "unusual level of fanaticism".
He said the plot involved the "random selection of persons to rather gruesomely execute" and said there was an "irrational determination to commit that plan" because those allegedly involved continued to plot the attacks even though they knew they were under police surveillance.
The Sydney Morning Herald adds that nine of the 15 arrested have since been released, and a second man charged with arms possession-related offenses.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that orders for the plot came from "an Australian who is apparently quite senior in ISIL, to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country," according to the Australian Associated Press.
Several media outlets identify that man as Mohammad Ali Baryalei, a former bouncer and actor in Sydney. The Sydney Morning Herald describes Mr. Baryalei as the "most senior Australian member of the terrorist group Islamic State, having travelled to Syria in April last year."
Before travelling to Syria, Mr Baryalei was a leader in the "Street Dawah" movement in which members proselytised on the streets of Sydney and tried to convert Australians to Islam. ...
"He was outspoken and wouldn't shy from speaking the truth regardless," [former Street Dawah friend Abdul Salam Mahmoud] told Fairfax Media. "He wasn't pleased with living in Australian society and wanted to live in an Islamic society away from open alcoholism, homosexuality, fornication, drugs and capitalism." ...
ABC's 7.30 program reported that Mr Baryalei was from an aristocratic Afghan family who had come to Australia as refugees when he was a child.
It is understood that not long after he arrived in Syria he began recruiting Australians to join him to fight with Islamic State. Among those he is reported to have recruited are Sydneysiders Khaled Sharrouf, who has posted images on social media of himself executing prisoners in Iraq and having his young son pose with a severed head in Syria, and Mohamed Elomar, a former boxer who was also photographed holding the decapitated heads of his "enemies".
The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that Australia's Muslim community has come under increased pressure with the rise of the Islamic State. According to Australian intelligence sources, at least 60 Australians are fighting alongside IS, meaning "Australia, on a per capita basis, has more of its nationals involved in the Iraq-Syria theater than any other country." This has put some in the half-million strong community on the defensive, particularly as Mr. Abbott's government calls for Australian Muslims to get behind his “Team Australia” project to combat the threat of homegrown terrorism.
Abbott has used nationalist rhetoric to get Australia’s half-million strong Muslim community behind the government’s proposed tougher security laws, arguing that all who live in the country need to "join our team" by putting the country's interests and values first.
He argues that the Team Australia concept is inclusive, targeting only those who would threaten Australia. But many in the Muslim community have taken it as an attack on their loyalties at a time when they are already feeling embattled. The team concept, they argue, casts them in a suspicious light, even though high profile Muslims have spoken out against extremism.
“The problem is: what is Team Australia?” says Aftab Malik, scholar-in-residence at the Sydney-based Lebanese Muslim Association. “To many Muslims growing up in the shadow of 9/11, there is great disenfranchisement. They are struggling, wondering what is it that we have to do, because their Australian-ness is increasingly being called into question.”