Five Australian teenagers were arrested Saturday on suspicion of plotting an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-inspired attack — which included plans to target police officers — at a Veterans' Day ceremony, officials said.
More than 200 police were involved in a series of raids in the southern city of Melbourne in the early hours of Saturday, police said, following a month-long sting operation. The suspects included two 18-year-olds who are alleged to have been preparing an attack at the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day ceremony in Melbourne later this month, Australian Federal Police Acting Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan told reporters.
Another 18-year-old was arrested on weapons charges, and two other men, ages 18 and 19, were in custody and assisting police. All the arrests took place in Melbourne.
ANZAC Day is the annual April 25 commemoration of the 1915 Gallipoli landings — the first major military action fought by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War I.
Police said they believe the plot was inspired by ISIL, and was to have involved "edged weapons."
"At this stage, we have no information that it was a planned beheading. But there was reference to an attack on police," Gaughan said. "Some evidence that we have collected at a couple of the scenes, and some other information we have, leads us to believe that this particular matter was ISIL-inspired."
Australia's government has raised the country's terror warning level in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of ISIL. In September last year, the group's spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued a message urging attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia.
Australia has sent hundreds of soldiers to Iraq to help train forces fighting ISIL, heightening concerns about reprisal attacks in the homeland.
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its action against the ISIL group in Syria and Iraq, has been on heightened alert for attacks by home-grown fighters since last year.
Australia believes at least 70 of its citizens are fighting with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, backed by about 100 Australia-based "facilitators.”
The suspects arrested on Saturday are believed to have at the very least taken their inspiration from ISIL, which has proven adept at recruiting from Western countries.
Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan said at a separate news conference that the teens had links to Numan Haider, an 18-year-old who stabbed two Melbourne police officers and was subsequently shot dead in September. Haider had caught authorities' attention months earlier over what police considered troubling behavior, including waving what appeared to be an ISIL flag at a shopping mall.
Phelan said the teens arrested Saturday were on officials' radar for months, but the investigation was ramped up when it appeared they were planning a specific attack.
"This is a new paradigm for police," Phelan said. "These types of attacks that are planned are very rudimentary and simple. ... All you need these days is a knife, a flag and a camera and one can commit a terrorist act."
One of the teens, Sevdet Besim, appeared briefly in court Saturday on a charge of preparing for, or planning, a terrorist act. He did not apply for bail and was ordered to reappear in court next week.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned that the threat of attacks in Australia has escalated, with one-third of all terrorism-related arrests since 2001 occurring in the last six months. At least 110 Australians have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside armed groups, and the nation's security agency is juggling more than 400 high-priority counterterrorism investigations — more than double the number a year ago.
In February, two men were charged with planning to launch an imminent, ISIL-inspired attack after authorities said they appeared on a video threatening to stab the kidneys and necks of their victims. In September, a man arrested during a series of counterterrorism raids was charged with conspiring with an ISIL group leader in Syria to behead a random person in Sydney.
Abbott said the latest alleged plot was at an advanced stage of planning, prompting police to swoop in. Still, he urged the public to participate in ANZAC Day events as usual.
"The best sign of defiance we can give to those who would do us harm is to go about a normal, peaceful, free and fair Australian life," he said. "And I say to everyone who is thinking of going to an ANZAC Day event, please don't be deterred. Turn up in the largest possible numbers to support our country."