MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia – Federal and state agencies have foiled a major terrorist attack planned for Melbourne, Australia's second largest city.
Three men from Melbourne aged between 21 and thirty have been arrested and are now in custody, as 4 search warrants were executed in locations in the northwest of the city around 3:00am on Tuesday morning.
"The consequences (of the foiled attack) would have been chilling," Australian Federal Police Counter Terrorism chief Ian McCartney said at a press conference in Melbourne on Tuesday, attended too by the the Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton and Deputy Commissioner of Victoria Police Shane Patton.
The attack the agency chiefs said was aimed at incurring mass casualties.
The men who were communicating using encrypted messages had not selected a location for the attack, or a time, but were researching locations in the city at a time that they would be crowded.
"The seriousness of this (planned) event should not be understated," the premier said describing it as "potentially a deadly, very, very serious event."
The AFP officer said the charges the men face are serious charges which could see them spend the rest of their lives in prison.
He said it will be alleged the trio planned to kill as maximum a number of people as possible.
The three men arrested, two of whom are related, are all Australian nationals and had Australian passports. Their passports however were cancelled this year, one in January, one in March and the other in October. The men are of Turkish descent. The only past history of any of the three men was that one of them was caught not displaying an L-plate when he was learning to drive in 2007. In other words, none of the three men arrested have any criminal history or have had any trouble with the law.
The agency chiefs said the men were inspired by ISIS but were not connected to them. They said they have been caught up by ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda.
The officers said the men came to their attention in early 2017. Their activity and communications reached a point in March this year where their brief was passed to the Joint Terrorism Team. Hundreds of officers have been involved in the operation since then. In the past week it was noted by investigators that the men had become more energised to the point where "they had reached a risk threshold." At this point it was decided the men should be arrested while evidence-gathering would continue, but to not act could have had the "deadly, chilling consequences," the law enforcement agency chiefs had spoken of earlier, occur.
The operation known as Operation Donabate has involved Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and other agencies which form part of the Joint Counter Terrorism Team.
Agencies say Operation Donabate is ongoing and further developments are likely.
The three men in custody are 21-year old Hanifi Halis from Greenvale, a Melbourne suburb 20 kilometres north of the CBD; 26-year old Samed Eriklioglu from Campbellfield, a Melbourne suburb 16 kilometres north of the CBD; and 30-year Ertunc Eriklioglu from Dallas, a Melbourne suburb 18 kilometres north of the CBD.
Search warrants were carried out at premises occupied by the three men. A fourth search warrant was exercised at Coolaroo, another Melbourne suburb, 19 kilometres north of the CBD.
It will be alleged the three men arrested were involved in undertaking preparations for planning a terrorist act in Melbourne that would kill as many people as possible. They were in the process of acquiring a semi-automatic .22 rifle.
Victoria Police said they wanted to reassure the Victorian community that the threat has been contained and there is no on-going threat.
People in Melbourne, they said, should continue to go about their daily business and report any suspicious activity to triple zero (000), Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or the National Security Hotline on 1800 123 400.