Saturday, August 23, 2014

Australian-based Terror Cell - Terrifying legacy emerges from success of ‘Operation Pendennis’

Khaled Sharrouf is one of the Pendennis Nine, who managed to leave Australia on his brother's passport. sharrouf3.jpg

Almost a decade after their arrest, much of the most comprehensive terrorism cell in Australian history continues to menace the country with the same messages of violence and anti-Western hate, which are being spread either by cell members or some of their close relatives.

Nine Sydney men were arrested in 2005 under Operation Pendennis, the largest counter-terrorism investigation  undertaken in Australia, which uncovered jihadist cells in Melbourne and Sydney amassing guns, ammunition and bomb-making equipment to use in terrorist attacks on home soil.

Ongoing acts of extremism by some relatives of more than half the Sydney cell members raise questions about what influence family can have on the radicalisation of young Australians.

Mohamed Elomar, nephew of Mohamed Ali Elomar (inset), suspected to be fighting with the Islamic State in either Syria or Iraq.

The cell has re-entered the spotlight with the gruesome actions of one member, Khaled Sharrouf, who slipped out of the country allegedly using his brother's passport last year to join the terrorist group Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL.


A psychiatrist and judge cautiously believed Sharrouf would abandon his radical beliefs upon his release from prison in 2009 but he is now one of Australia's most wanted terrorists, along with Mohamed Elomar, whose jailed uncle Mohamed Ali Elomar was Sharrouf's Pendennis co-accused.

Elomar senior was close with his nephews, brothers Ahmed and Mohamed, who protested their uncle's innocence during the landmark Pendennis trials.


Khaled Cheikho, top, and his nephew Moustafa Cheikho, are both being held in a high-security unit in Prison. Their close family is believed to pose a security threat to Australia.

The nephews' father Mamdouh and uncles Ibrahim and John became highly successful businessmen. Ahmed and Mohamed travelled a different path. Ahmed bashed a police officer during the 2012 Hyde Park riot and Mohamed recently posed with severed heads on the Syrian battlefield, saying "love it keep them heads rolling".

Family lawyer Adam Houda denied the influence came from their uncle, saying the brothers would have visited Elomar once in the nine years he has been incarcerated. "[Mohamed junior] has gone about things, we say, the wrong way but the person I know ... he's very sincere and always very motivated and very touched and distressed by what's happening abroad," Mr Houda said.

Close relatives of the Sydney cell's ringleader Khaled Cheikho and his nephew Moustafa Cheikho, who are both in a high-risk prison unit, continue to pose a security threat to Australia, authorities believe.

Khaled Cheikho's wife, Rahmah Wisudo, lives in Jordan with their son and was named in a 2010 US embassy cable as one of 11 Australians to be placed on a no-fly list due to "demonstrated links" with al-Qaeda.

Rahmah's mother Rabiah Hutchinson, often referred to as the "matriarch of radical Islam in Australia", and half-brothers Illias and Abdullah Ayub, who were detained in Yemen in 2006 on terrorism charges, were also named in the cable due to their  demonstrated links to al-Qaeda. Ayub was released without charge.

Illias has since emerged on the Syrian battlefield and has been hailed a hero by his family. 

"May Allah always protect or reward him with martyrdom if killed," said his father, Abdul Rahman Ayub, a former Jemaah Islamiah leader who fled Australia after the Bali bombings. 

In recent months, Rahmah has posted support for al-Qaeda leader Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri  and "mujahideen in the battle fields". 

In one Facebook post she said: "'suicidal bombing' is what the kuffar [non-believers] call it we muslims call it 'martyrdom operations' and it is allowed in Islam."

 Her bank accounts were recently frozen and her 15-year-old son has posted a picture of a machine gun and his name Zubair spelt out with bullets.

Khaled Cheikho's brother Adnan maintains his brother's and nephew's innocence and was allowed to visit Khaled for the first time in February after a five-year security lock-out. On Facebook he described him as underweight but smiley. "What a soldier," he said

 Former counter-terrorism officer Peter Moroney, who monitored Pendennis members for 18 months, said the indoctrination was so deep in some families that combating it went far beyond law enforcement. He believed extremist Facebook posts were the start of the indoctrination process.

 "It's not just dad, at some point other family members are brought into it so it doesn't surprise me if some of the relatives are involved [today] in that capacity," he said..

"When that's what you're taught from a young age, what do you expect them to grow into?"

Some relatives of cell members Mohammed Omar Jamal, Mazen Touma and Omar Baladjam also remain under the gaze of authorities.

A judge found that Jamal was largely influenced by his older brother Saleh, described by the government as critical to the evolution of jihadism in Australia. Saleh fled Sydney on a false passport in 2004, was convicted of terrorism offences in Lebanon and, while in prison, threatened to fly a plane into the Harbour Bridge and said he would "chop up" John Howard.

Saleh kneeled on the ground as he was released from Nowra prison last year after being acquitted over the Lakemba police station shooting. 

Saleh has since started a property investment business and police sources believe the family is trying to make an honest living and hope to help Mohammed turn his life around after prison.

Members of the Jamal, Cheikho and Sharrouf families remain close. Khaled Sharrouf's sister Miriam remains friends with Omar Baladjam's wife, posting a message on her behalf in June to protest the "oppressive and inhumane treatment" of their "brothers" in Goulburn's Supermax and despairing at the lonely wives and orphan children "missing their fathers' daily company, guidance and care".

In his sentencing remarks in 2009, Judge Anthony Whealy said the cell members showed little remorse and few signs of deradicalisation. Many "wear their imprisonment like some kind of badge of honour", he said. 

A court found all nine cell members had vast quantities of extremist material, including thousands of images and videos of executions, and they shared the same violent hatred of non-believers and intolerance of Australia.

A study by Australian Institute of Criminology researcher Shandon Harris-Hogan has found the influence of family is the "key driver" of radicalisation among Australia's "small but persistent" jihadist network. "In order to prevent further radicalisation and potentially a catastrophic act of mass-casualty terrorism, focus needs to be directed towards addressing the close family and friendship influences which draw people into the network," he concludes in the study, published in Security Challenges this year.

ASIO would not comment on specific operations. 

A spokesman for the NSW Police said they "continue to monitor and engage with communities at risk of either being victims of, or engaging in acts of extremism". 

"In recent years the NSW Police Force has investigated and disrupted a number of planned activities," the spokesman said.

The Pendennis Nine

1.Khaled Sharrouf

Convicted of conspiracy to do acts in preparation for a terrorist act. Obtained six clocks and 140 batteries to be used in bombs. 

The 33 year-old father-of-five from Punchbowl is married to convert Tara Nettleton.

Sentenced to 4 years, released in 2009.

2. Khaled Cheikho

Khaled was described as the ringleader of the Sydney cell. 

Born in Lebanon as one of 11, he is a 42 year-old father-of-one.

Sentenced to 20 years.

3.Moustafa Cheikho

Khaled’s nephew Moustafa was found with explosives and bomb-making tools. 

The 38-year-old father and mechanic was described by a judge as having low self-esteem.

Sentenced to 19½ years.

4. Mohamed  Ali Elomar

Described in court as the “puppet master” of the Sydney cell and given the longest prison term due to his leadership role.

The married father of six, who operated his own drafting business, would be 50 years old.

Sentenced to 21 years.

5.Mohammed Omar Jamal

A judge found he was largely influenced by his older brother Saleh’s radical beliefs. He was found guilty of obtaining bomb-making materials.

An Australian-born 31-year-old computer repairman with eight brothers and four sisters.

Sentenced to 17 years.

6. Mazen Touma

Convicted for obtaining firearms, ammunition and explosives. 

Now 33, raised in a moderate Islamic family, divorced by his Greek Orthodox-born wife after his arrest but informally married the sister of a prisoner while awaiting trial.

Sentenced to 20 years.

7. Abdul Rakib Hasan

Collected equipment and chemicals for a terrorist act. Grew up in a large poverty-stricken Bangladeshi family and moved to Australia to study but worked as a butcher in Lakemba. Would now be 49.

Divorced by convert wife, Shahida Steele, with whom he had four children. Largely abandoned by his family.

Sentenced to 19½ years.

8.Omar Baladjam

Acquired ammunition, chemicals and firearms. 

A 38 year-old father of four, born in Manly. Had a troubled upbringing, ran a painting company. Wife and mother most likely relocated to Malaysia after his arrest.

There was a message posted online recently by Sharrouf's sister Miriam from Baladjam's wife demanding his release.

Sentenced to 20 years. 

9. Mirsad Mulahalilovic

Possessed firearms and ammunition and released in 2010.

Bosnian-born Muslim convert, 38, who ran a painting business in Sydney.

Since his release, he has established another painting business and is living in Belmore.

Named in a 2010 US embassy cable as one of 23 Australians under ASIO surveillance due to links with al-Qaeda.

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