Supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) planned to behead a random member of the public in Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Thursday, after hundreds of police raided homes in what officials called a sweeping counterterrorism operation.
Abbott said his nation was at "serious risk from a terrorist attack" days after Australia raised its national terrorism threat level to high for the first time, citing the likelihood of attacks by Australians believed to have been radicalized in Iraq or Syria.
Australia is concerned over the number of its citizens believed to be fighting overseas with armed groups, including a suicide bomber who killed three people in Baghdad in July and two men shown in images on social media holding the severed heads of Syrian soldiers.
More than 800 police were involved in the predawn security operation in Sydney and Brisbane. The operation was described as the largest in Australian history and resulted in the detention of 15 people — nine of whom were later released, police said.
Abbott told a news conference that the suspects planned to conduct a public beheading. "That's the intelligence we received," he said.
Media reported that the plans included snatching a person at random in Sydney, Australia's largest city, and executing him or her on camera draped in ISIL's black flag.
"The exhortations, quite direct exhortations, were coming 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," Abbott said.
A resident of Sydney, Omarjan Azari, 22, appeared in court after the raids. He was charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist act and will remain in custody until a hearing in November, authorities said.
Prosecutor Michael Allnutt told the court in Sydney that an attack was being planned that "was clearly designed to shock and horrify, perhaps terrify" the community, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Azari's lawyer, Steven Boland, did not apply for bail. Boland told the court the allegation was based on one phone call, according to media reports. Boland was not available for comment.
Police said the raids were focused in Sydney and the Queensland capital of Brisbane, where two men were arrested on terrorism-related charges last week.
About half of Australia's population of roughly 500,000 Muslims lives in Sydney, with the majority in the western suburbs, where the raids occurred.
Several residents interviewed by Reuters said they had not heard about the raids and expressed disbelief about the plot.
Osama Farah, a 40-year-old university student, said the raids were part and parcel of the Australian media's unfair portrayal of Muslims as fanatics.
"There are idiots everywhere. Jews, Christians, Muslims, everywhere. They must take things to the extreme because they are sick in their heart," he said. "But to take this tiny portion of the population ... it's unfair."
Others suspected the raids served to distract attention from stringent welfare cuts that Abbott’s government has made, tanking public support for his coalition.
Samier Dandan, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, one of the country's most influential Muslim organizations, told Reuters that the raids had the potential to inflame relations between the authorities and the community.
"I hope they have very solid facts, because if they don't, this is going to be the basic platform from which the community engages with law enforcement moving forward from here," he said.
Australia's Treasurer Joe Hockey insisted that the necessary precautions have been put in place for the G-20 summit the nation is set to host in November and dismissed concerns that the raids could disrupt a meeting of G-20 finance ministers this weekend in the tropical northern city of Cairns.
Australia has estimated that about 60 of its citizens are fighting for ISIL and the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. An additional 15 Australian fighters have been killed, including two young suicide bombers.
The government has said it believes that about 100 Australians are actively supporting these groups in Australia, recruiting fighters and grooming suicide bombers as well as providing funds and equipment.
Highlighting the risk of homegrown fighters returning from the Middle East, Abbott pledged on Sunday to send a 600-troop force as well as a strike aircraft to join a U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL fighters in Iraq.
Al Jazeera and wire services