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Australia Foils Al-Qaeda-Linked Terror Plot

Australian forensic police inspect a car at a house in Melbourne.
(RFE/RL) -- Australian federal police have taken into custody four men they accuse of planning a commando-style suicide raid on a Australian Army base.

The men, Australian citizens of Lebanese and Somali descent, are alleged to have been in contact with the Somali Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab. That organization in turn is said to be close to the Al-Qaeda terror movement.

Police allege that the four men, aged in their early to mid 20s, were planning to attack the Holsworthy army base in southwest Sydney with semiautomatic weapons. The plan was to shoot as many soldiers as possible before they themselves were killed.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was quick to praise the federal police and the ASIO intelligence agency, which worked together on the case.

"I commend these agencies for their combined and coordinated work to this point that led to the arrests this morning," Rudd said. "As the Australian government has said consistently, there is an enduring threat from terrorism at home here in Australia as well as overseas."

Some 400 police took part in raiding 19 sites in Melbourne, Australia's second city, in the early hours of August 4, to make the arrests. More arrests are possible.

The motives of the alleged plotters are as yet unclear, but Australia has had troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and is therefore considered a target for Islamic militants who oppose foreign intervention in those countries. More than 90 Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks in Indonesia over the past seven years.

Carl Ungerer, director of the National Security Project at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, described Australia as the "gold-medal target for Al-Qaeda and its franchises around the world. We have not been targeted successfully since 2001."

The acting chief of the federal police, Tony Negus, told journalists that at least one of the men arrested had traveled to Somalia for training by Al-Shabaab. While there he sought a fatwa, a religious ruling, to justify an attack within Australia, Negus said.

"Somalia appears to be, and North Africa more broadly, the new training ground for Al-Qaeda," Ungerer told Reuters. "The infrastructure is in fact there, not in Afghanistan as it was 10 years ago."

The police and intelligence service had been observing the suspects for seven months, and had seen them outside the Holsworthy army base and other military installations.

The latest events come amid Australia's biggest terror trial, in which an Islamic convert, Shane Kent, last week admitted plotting a bomb attack on a major sports event in Melbourne in 2005. Eight members of Kent's extremist cell have already been jailed over plans to bomb that year's Australian Football League Grand Final, which attracted a crowd of 92,000 people.

Prime Minister Rudd said that despite the thickening web of terrorism plots, he sees no reason to raise the level of the national alert.

"I am advised that events today do not at this time warrant any change to our national counterterrorism level, which remains at medium as it has been since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States,"

In Somalia, Al-Shabaab controls much of the southern and central parts of the country, and its leader is Muktar Ali Robow. It has been fighting the Somali government and its Ethiopian allies, with the intention of setting up a strict Islamic state in Somalia.

compiled from agency reports