MELBOURNE, Feb 3 – A Muslim cleric and six followers were jailed for up to 15 years Tuesday for forming an Australian terror cell that plotted bomb attacks designed to kill thousands.,
"The organisation fostered and encouraged its members to engage in violent jihad — to perform a terrorist act," Judge Bernard Bongiorno told Victoria State’s Supreme Court after Australia’s biggest terrorism trial.
Firebrand cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika, 48, was jailed for 15 years, of which he must serve at least 12 years, while his followers received minimum terms of between four and seven-and-a-half years.
Algerian-born Benbrika had urged them to target large crowds at sports matches or a train station to pressure the Australian government to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the court heard.
Benbrika had said it was "permissible to kill women, children and the aged," prosecutors said. Material seized from the group included bomb-making instructions and video tapes with messages from Osama bin Laden.
The men referred to themselves as mujahedeen, or holy warriors, and considered violent jihad an integral part of their religious obligations, said Bongiorno.
They were arrested in November 2005 after the government strengthened laws to detain those in the early stages of planning terror acts after the London transport bombings in July that year.
Describing Benbrika as an "unskilled fanatic," Bongiorno said he sought explosives training from an undercover police officer and "all of the evidence points inexorably to a conclusion that he maintains his position with respect to violent jihad."
Benbrika was so committed to violent jihad, Bongiorno said, that he had talked about continuing the group’s activities behind bars if its members were jailed.
While the group had not chosen a specific target or carried out an attack, the judge said they had shown no remorse, and did not appear to have renounced their beliefs.
"The existence of the… terrorist organisation constituted a significant threat that a terrorist act would be or would have, by now, been committed here," the judge said.
"The absence of an imminent, let alone an actual, terrorist attack does not mean that condign punishment is not warranted in this case."
Remy Ven de Wiel, defending Benbrika, had argued the defendants were not terrorists but young men learning about Islam from a self-styled sheikh who "couldn’t organise a booze-up in a brewery."
He told the court his client was a braggart and did nothing more than talk about jihad, or holy war.
"The Muslims in Australia have a sense of powerlessness and political impotence and they express themselves," Van de Wiel had told the jury.
But after eight months of evidence the jurors found Benbrika guilty of directing a terrorist organisation and the other six — Aimen Joud, 24, Fadl Sayadi, 28, Abdullah Merhi, 23, Ezzit Raad, 27, Ahmed Raad, 25 and Amer Haddara, 29 — guilty of being members.
Ahmed Raad, Ezzit Raad and Joud were also convicted of intentionally making funds available to a terrorist organisation, while Joud and Benbrika were found guilty of possessing a CD connected with the preparation of a terrorist act.
Bongiorno jailed Joud and Ahmed Raad for a minimum seven-and-a-half years each, Sayadi for six years, Ezzit Raad for five years and nine months, Haddara for four-and-a-half years and Merhi for four years.
An eighth man, Izzydeen Atik, pleaded guilty in August 2007 and was jailed for five-and-a-half years.