A jihadist and his disciples

Convicted terror plot ringleader Abdul Nacer Benbrika wanted to wage violent jihad on Australians, and so recruited a small band of malleable lost souls on whom he imprinted his own warped and bloodthirsty interpretation of Islamic law.
ABDUL Nacer Benbrika went on hunger strike while in jail. Not over his incarceration, the terror charges he faced or the food – but over the removal of his Islamic books from his cell. In May, guards at the Metropolitan Remand Centre took about 120 books from him because they were seen as a fire hazard. Benbrika starved himself for a week until authorities agreed to buy him electronic copies of the Arabic texts.
Benbrika argued that he needed the books to be able to instruct his lawyers during his trial and to advise the other 11 men accused of being part of his terror group. He said in an affidavit tendered to the court: “Throughout the trial I have generally done four to six hours of work each night after lockdown referring to these books. I work on Islamic concepts discussed in the recorded conversations or relevant to issues in the trial. Often I research and answer questions to assist my co-accused.”
For Benbrika, it was crucial that he not lose his place as the self-appointed religious authority for this group of young Muslim men; he had so long been their expert on the theology of terror.
Benbrika was this week convicted of leading an organisation fostering terror in the pursuit of violent jihad, and other counts. Six of his followers were convicted on terror charges, four were acquitted, and no verdict was reached for one man.
Benbrika has described himself as an aeronautical engineer who never managed to find work in his profession after coming to Australia from Algeria in 1989. Here he assumed the status of sheikh, or religious leader, and the rewards for him were obvious; nothing like young acolytes to boost one’s self-esteem.
Hints about why some of his followers took up fantasies of heroic action in the name of Allah can be gleaned from evidence at their trial.
Abdullah Merhi, who was only 19, had recently lost his father and might have briefly found a replacement in the middle-aged sheikh. Like most of the others, he was seeking spiritual meaning and purpose.
The group’s initial focus was the sheikh’s classes in Islamic doctrine. The jury concluded that was where the involvement ended for four of the men. Defence lawyers pointed out that several accused were not shown to have ever been present when violent jihad was talked about.
Some talked to Benbrika of how they longed to make a great mark on the world, or wanted to escape the domestic grind of marriage and children that would otherwise be their fate.
Convicted member Amer Haddara, now 28, was secretly recorded telling Benbrika: “Another phase is beginning. This is what I can see. And I have been running away from it. I don’t want it. This is having responsibility, having children and the like.”
Haddara said he did not want the headache: “I thought ‘finish’. I will escape the whole thing altogether.” The prosecution later argued that he was alluding to escape through martyrdom.
What the young men all definitely shared was a longing to be an authentic Muslim. One of the accused, Shane Kent, was a convert to Islam. The others were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs – the children of migrants in a new, secular land – who were preoccupied with how to be a real Muslim man: what rules should they obey, what goals should they adopt, how should they live their lives?
Using his own seductive take on international politics and Muslim identity, Benbrika nurtured in them a view of the world that would lead them, Pied Piper-like, into the dock at Australia’s largest terror trial.
Benbrika must have seemed to his young followers to be “the real thing”. He came from a Muslim country, wore a long, flowing beard and a kaftan, and was more comfortable with Arabic – the language of the Koran – than English.
He taught that the Muslim “ummah”, or international community, was being treated unjustly in places such as Palestine and Chechnya. So it was the duty of all Muslim men who were not old or infirm to fight jihad to shake off Western domination.
He told fellow Islamic community leader Samir Mohtadi that Australia was “a land at war” with Muslims as it had troops in Iraq.
Mohtadi had asked to meet Benbrika to warn him against any acts of violence in Australia. Mohtadi told the court: “I said if he intends to kill anyone in this country, he will imprison our Muslim sisters, basically, and he would be killing innocent people and . . . it will be devastating for the Muslim community and the non-Muslim community.”
Benbrika told Mohtadi that the rumour he was planning terrorism “is nothing but a lie”.
Benbrika was an absolutist and a perfectionist, passionate about his own interpretation of Islamic belief (the prosecution was at pains to point out that it did not suggest for a moment that Benbrika represented the true face of Islam). When follower Majed Raad (who was acquitted) brought him a book on Islam that Benbrika thought heretical, Benbrika berated him and then burst into tears.
Benbrika’s definition of jihad was single-minded and military. He said: “The real meaning of jihad is fighting the enemy of Allah . . . There is only one meaning in the Koran, which means fighting the kuffr (unbelievers).”
Benbrika believed that when one was on the path of right, all actions were righteous. He was asked by one man during a philosophical debate, wouldn’t it be hard to cut the throat of a woman? Benbrika answered, in his broken English: “Not hard . . . I swear to Allah it’s not hard. Why is it hard? That is why you have to do it and you’re happy. Why? Because Allah allowed it to you. You must consider like this, think like that. You understand? Allah is giving you the right.”
Benbrika had seven children in his small house in Dallas, but he set aside one room as a study lined with hundreds of books on Islamic jurisprudence. He talked with assurance and in obsessive detail about what the authorities said was halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden) under Islam.
He had rules for everything from what prayers to say before going to the toilet to how to make the heavenly most of martyrdom as an Islamic fighter, or mujahideen.
In one conversation he told Izzydeen Atik: “If your intention is good and you die with some sin as a mujahid, Allah willing, the first blood that comes from you, you will be forgiven all your sin except one: if you owe money to people. That is something that stick . . . that is why, before you die, leave a will.”
The jury’s verdicts suggest Benbrika was also what academics call “a terrorist entrepreneur”.
Professor David Wright-Neville is co-founder of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University. He gave evidence at the plea hearing last year for Atik, who pleaded guilty to terror charges.
Wright-Neville said a terrorist entrepreneur “fishes around the margins of society for alienated, disenfranchised and angry people, gives them a sense of meaning, gives them a sense of community, often gives them a sense of direction; (he is) a charismatic figure who coheres the group . . . and exercises significant authority.”
He said terrorists typically passed through a long period of becoming withdrawn from wider society, which they blamed for their own problems. They begin to mix with a small group of like-minded people with whom they share their frustration and humiliation, and their anger “intensifies very quickly”.
He argued that religion was not a causal factor but could help hold a group together: “Religion becomes a way that the political entrepreneur can manipulate (and) instil a common ideology.”
In Benbrika’s group, some of the structures were based on Islamic principles. Benbrika told the men that their zakat, or alms tax – a charitable donation that is one of the five pillars of Islam – could be paid into the group fund, or sandooq. From several, he accepted a bayat – a pledge of loyalty to him as the amir, or commander – the prosecution alleged.
In Benbrika’s Islam, his own teachings were to be accepted without question and texts were to be read literally. He was asked about a verse from the Koran that says, “If you punish the enemy . . . then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted.”
Benbrika said this meant: “They kill our kids. It’s our right, according to the verse you read, to take out revenge.”
Benbrika’s strictures were often softly spoken, sometimes almost whispered, but delivered with great emotional intensity. At times he cajoled, persuaded and reassured; at other times, he laid down the law like an Old Testament prophet, refusing to tolerate disobedience or doubts. He declined to accept a pledge of loyalty from Atik because Atik had disregarded one of his orders.
Many covertly recorded conversations were linked by prosecutors to war-like rhetoric in CDs, guerilla training videos and documents that made up “a common jihadi library” that was said to have helped shape the men’s thinking.
Several CD images were of the beheading of Western hostages by masked Muslim terrorists. Others showed individuals being killed in military encounters, with voice-overs saying: “They knew he was a Muslim, so they slit his throat,” or “They ripped his entire eye out. He was only five and he was a Muslim . . . was that enough for you?”
Songs called nasheeds had lyrics about a triumphalist Islam: “We used to own this world for centuries . . . then look what happened to us when we forgot jihad.”
A discussion that mentioned a catapult, according to lead prosecutor Richard Maidment, SC, related to a document that glorified the attack on the World Trade Centre. The document referred to texts and history to justify indiscriminate killing in the pursuit of jihad.
Maidment said the logic was that “in battles long gone by, one of the weapons used was a catapult, and you can’t direct a catapult accurately enough to just kill an individual or group of individuals who you can identify. So, because it was OK to use a catapult in those battles, then it’s OK to use a weapon which can kill indiscriminately (today)”.
Benbrika could be pernickety about his interpretation of the finer points of Islamic law. Some of his group suggested setting up a scam to raise money by taking out loans they never intended to pay back.
Benbrika initially agreed but took back his original fatwa, or ruling, after consulting the decisions of sheikhs overseas. He declared the idea un-Islamic because it involved a promise to pay interest – even though the whole point of the scam was that no interest would actually be repaid. But he “authorised” members of the group to steal and strip cars and use credit cards fraudulently.
On one hand, Benbrika heaped coals on the fire of his followers’ burning resentment about the political treatment of Muslims around the world. On the other, he offered them relief from that frustration, with dreams of heroism on earth and eternal glory in heaven if they would harness that anger to violent jihad.
But Benbrika firmly rejected suicide as forbidden, and he condemned martyrdom for no good political cause.
Shoue Hammoud (among the acquitted) asked once whether a victory for Allah was a necessary element, “or can I just martyr myself and go to heaven? Quick way to paradise?”
Benbrika said: “Martyrdom is easy. You go to the kuffr (unbelievers) and say, ‘shoot me’. So what? That’s not what we want. We want victory.”
Benbrika expected “victory” to come at a terrible cost, to his closest followers as well as to the world around them. In February 2005, he was recorded as saying: “Everyone has to prepare himself . . . to die or to be jailed. Allah knows best . . . We want to die for jihad. We do maximum damage, maximum damage. Damage their buildings with everything and damage their lives just to show them. That’s what we waiting for.”
Police swooped before the men got to that point. Their lawyers later argued that they would never have reached it.
Benbrika had spoken of possible capture. He told some of the men that if prosecuted they should plead youth, or marriage and family, so they did not get long jail terms.
At their sentencing by Justice Bernard Bongiorno, the other convicted terrorists will find out whether that was one of many pieces of very bad advice they received from Abdul Nacer Benbrika.
Karen Kissane is law and justice editor.
· The case began with a tip-off to police in 2004 alleging Benbrika and others were planning a terrorist attack. Police set up surveillance.
· The main evidence was 482 conversations between the men, covertly taped using listening devices (a total of 16,000 hours taped by police) and telephone intercepts (98,000 calls taped by police). Only 143 hours were played to the jury.
· The investigation was done by a joint taskforce of Victoria Police, Australian Federal Police and ASIO officers.
· More than $25 million has been spent investigating, prosecuting and defending the men.
· Benbrika and four others face other terror charges in trials due to start from next year.

First published in The Age.

Trial and error

Jury mistakes, overbearing security and outspoken commentators almost derailed the terror trial five times. Karen Kissane reports on the drama behind the scenes.
THE jury room is a sacred site. What goes on in there is meant to remain utterly confidential. It is illegal for a juror to tattle about what went on behind those closed doors, or for anyone else to publish details if they should happen to find out.
But part of what went on in the jury room – and in particular, what went into the jury’s wastepaper bin – at the Benbrika terror trial became known to the court and almost derailed this complex, socially and politically sensitive trial.
It was one of the many potholes on the long and bumpy road to a verdict. The trial, which has cost millions of dollars and on which the fate of 12 men rested, nearly fell over five times in behind-the-scenes dramas that could not be reported until now.
On June 27, Justice Bernard Bongiorno told the court that one of his associates routinely cleared a special bin in the jury room that was for material that must be shredded for security reasons. The day before, the associate had discovered in it a bundle of printouts from the internet.
It seemed the jury had defied the judge’s orders not to consider any material other than what was put to them in the courtroom – another important principle of law, which had been emphasised to the jury by the judge many times during the trial.
“There is no suggestion that any of the accused were Googled, or anything of that nature,” Bongiorno reassured the lawyers.
But the defence lawyers for several accused applied to have the jury discharged, even though, as barrister Gerard Mullaly put it, this would be “an utter calamity”.
They said there could now be little confidence in the jury following the judge’s other directions about how to do their work, and that it was possible the jury had come across legally “poisonous” material.
By the following day, the lawyers were also concerned that radio host Derryn Hinch had referred on air to the finding of papers in a bin at a Melbourne trial and had suggested that a jury might be discharged.
Bongiorno decided to question the jurors in a closed courtroom. He then ruled that the trial should continue.
There was a similar drama again this month when the jury was found to have brought a dictionary into the room.
The Benbrika trial was a vast, lumbering beast of a legal proceeding that could easily have toppled over. It was held together largely by the co-operation of its lawyers – their agreements on how to proceed cut about three months off the trial – and the determination of its judge, who held fast to the mantra he expressed at the beginning: “This trial will go ahead.”
Defence lawyers twice applied to have the trial “stayed” or stopped, arguing that the conditions that the defendants were being kept in were so harsh that it undermined the court’s ability to provide a fair trial.
The judge agreed. He said he would hear bail applications for the accused unless their conditions improved. He even threw open that part of the court’s proceedings to the media. Normally, the media cannot report anything that happens in court in the way of legal argument; if the jury is not there, it must not be published.
Bongiorno was effectively threatening to pull the pin on the incarceration of allegedly dangerous men in a trial in which three police agencies had invested heavily – and he let the world know it.
The threat of the grenade was enough. Victoria’s Justice Department buckled to his demands that the men be moved from high-security Barwon Prison and that their security regime be eased.
Defence lawyers applied to have the jury discharged no less than four times. The first time was over the discovery that courtroom guards had been doing security sweeps of the jury room; this breached the principle of jury confidentiality. The second application for discharge was over the documents found in the jury room bin, and the third was over the dictionary.
The fourth, which came at the crack of doom, was over comments by federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland who, as the first law officer of the Commonwealth, is in some ways the person at the top of Australia’s system of justice.
On Monday, the jury was asked to return the verdicts it had already decided. Then it went back to its deliberations to decide the rest.
McClelland called a press conference to welcome the first guilty verdicts. It is risking contempt of court to comment on a case before the jury has finished because the jury must not be subjected to any pressure from outside, although it should be noted that McClelland’s comments were quite general and arguably not likely to pressures the jury.
Antony Trood, lawyer for Amer Haddara, said of the press conference, “One shakes one’s head in slight bewilderment at the thought that he would do it.”
Justice Bongiorno replied, “They all do. It is very hard to shut them up.”
For the fourth time in seven months, he refused to discharge the jury. He pointed out that he had warned them the night before not to watch or read any news reports about the verdicts.
Twenty minutes later, the jurors announced they had their final verdicts.
The trial was in some ways a grand endeavour. It was so large it had to be held in the imposing ceremonial court in the County Court building in William Street, even though it was a Supreme Court case.
It depended upon the continued good health of 44 people just to kick off each day: 12 defendants, 14 jurors, 17 black-robed barristers and a judge.
Bongiorno had to manage hundreds of legal questions that arose during the seven-month proceedings, as well as the court’s sometimes testy relationship with Corrections Victoria. He also had to decide questions about how the court should accommodate the defendants’ Islamic beliefs.
The judge shortened the jury’s sitting times by half an hour from September 1 to allow the defendants to make it back to jail in time for sunset during the fasting period of Ramadan.
He debated with lawyers how best to manage another issue around court custom. In a Supreme Court trial, the court is ordered to stand for the entrance of the judge, and then the judge and those facing him bow to each other as a gesture of respect for their mutual roles and for the legal process. In this trial, the accused stayed seated during that little ritual.
A Muslim may bow to no one but Allah, the judge was told. This was confirmed by witness Samir Mohtadi, a Muslim community leader, in his evidence to the court: “It’s an act of worship. Shouldn’t be done (even) to a king or a queen.”
The central role of Islamic belief and custom in the evidence led to some interesting cross-cultural exchanges. At one stage, Mohtadi talked about the way his community segregates men and women. Bongiorno leaned forward, curious.
The judge: “Your male friends, married ones, do you know their wives?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You don’t know them at all?”
“No, and they don’t know mine. So when they come to visit me there will be a separate room where the female would go in there, be comfortable, take off their head scarf, speak about female things and us men, you know, sit down and gather and talk about other things.”
“Would you ever have met them?”
“Not at all?”
“I don’t know their name. I don’t know how they look like.”
“And that is even with close friends?”
“What about your family?”
“My family are different.”
“You know your sister-in-law?”
“You know her name?”
“And you associate with her, eat with her?”
“No. If – for example, I can’t come to her house while my brother is away. I can come to their house while my brother is there. Islam is based on prevention. Prevention is better than cure. How many people have entered someone’s house and they like their wives and God knows what happens – but anyway, let’s move on.”
Several of the young women who were the defendants’ instructing solicitors smiled as they listened to the exchange. Given their role as the primary legal contact for the accused, Australia’s legal process must have been a consciousness-raising exercise for the defendants too.
There were many sharp exchanges in court over the consequences of Corrections Victoria classifying the accused as high-risk. Corrections tried to insist on 26 security guards in court (the judge allowed only 12) and wanted the men to sit behind an existing perspex security screen in the dock.
But at the request of defence lawyers, the judge ordered it taken down. The lawyers argued that the screen would prejudice the jury against the men because it suggested they were seen by authorities to be a danger to the community.
The judge also insisted, again over the protests of Corrections, that the men’s lawyers be allowed to enter the dock to talk to them. He said, “I’ve been in many, many cases. I’ve seen people of criminal repute that make these people look like babes in arms where they have got access to counsel … in the dock without any difficulty.”
When a guard protested that the Corrections had no process for handing the accused documents they should read in court, Bongiorno said, “We will not worry about a process. We will just do it. If you have got the key to the (cupboard) door, open it and give them to them.”
But this remained a high-security trial. Lawyers, journalists and members of the public entering Court 3.3 had to submit to a second X-ray and metal detector clearance, show photo ID and have their bags searched by hand.
Finally, Bongiorno had to manage the court’s relationship with the media. This is always a fraught exercise. Judges must balance two principles that sometimes conflict: that nothing should be published that might unfairly prejudice the right of the accused to a fair trial, versus the need for the courts to be open and transparent.
Bongiorno made more than 30 suppression orders during the trial but lifted many – over the protests of some defence lawyers – upon verdict.
He also made decisions that kept the trial open to the public, refusing an application that publication of any reports be banned. But he also kept a watchful eye on media stories to ensure they did not cross any legal line and pulled up ABC radio and television and the Sunday Herald Sun over reports that concerned him.
After about 120 days of hearings that produced 5800 pages of transcript, the first trial of the Benbrika 12 has finished. But, like all good barristers, the lawyers in this case have protested along the way over various issues. Some of these protests might become grounds for appeal.
Exhaustive and exhausting as it has been for all involved, only round one of R v Benbrika and Others can be declared truly over.

Karen Kissane is law and justice editor.

First published in The Age.

Costs pass $25m mark

MORE than $25 million has been spent by the joint police taskforce and the legal system to investigate and try the Benbrika 12, and the meter is still ticking.
The Australian Federal Police had spent $12.2 million investigating the men and providing officers to support the legal proceedings, a spokeswoman told The Age. This figure was the total at July 31 this year, she said.
ASIO refused a request by The Age to release its costings.
The next largest known expense came from the budget of Legal Aid Victoria, which will spend more than $8.1 million on lawyers and court costs to defend the accused.
Responding to a request under freedom-of-information laws, Legal Aid revealed lawyers involved in the men’s committal in 2005 had been paid $1.3 million. The running costs for lawyers for most of the Supreme Court trial – up until the figures were released on July 28 – were $6.8 million.
The final cost in this area, therefore, will exceed the $8.1 million total to date.
The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions had spent $2.5 million by June 16 on running the case against the men.
Releasing the costs under FOI, the DPP said they comprised $2.2 million for counsel; $189,000 for expert advisers; $60,000 for expenses such as interpreters and court filing fees; and $8000 for administrative expenses, including office stationery and supplies.
It cost Victoria Police $2.3 million to provide staff to the joint taskforce, and the cost of surveillance was another $961,000, according to documents released under FOI. This makes a total of $3.24 million.
In addition, more than $2.4 million has been spent on jailing the men, based on State Government figures.
Most were arrested in November 2005 and three were arrested in March 2006.
Keeping 12 men in high security costs $941,000 a year (the daily rate per man, according to Corrections Victoria, is $215.50).

‘Rat’ had key role in terror inquiry

ONE day in February, a small, lean man sat down in court to watch the Benbrika terror trial. He was quickly bundled out by security guards and charged with contempt of court over what he was wearing: a T-shirt emblazoned on the back with the scornful words “Izzy is a rat”.
They were four words the jury could not be permitted to see.
“Izzy” is Izzydeen Atik, originally the 13th man in the group run by the Muslim sheikh who is now a convicted terrorist, Abdul Nacer Benbrika.
Atik had broken ranks with the other 12. Last year he pleaded guilty to charges of intentionally having been a member of, and providing resources to, a terrorist organisation.
His pleas could be interpreted as answering the central question the Benbrika jury had to decide: whether there was a terrorist organisation.
Atik also told police he would help them prosecute the other 12 men. In August 2007, Justice Bernard Bongiorno sentenced him to 51/2 years’ jail.
Atik was expected to – and later did – give evidence in the Benbrika trial as a key Crown witness against his former comrades; hence, “the rat”. Atik was the only witness who testified that Benbrika had discussed specific targets for a terror attack, such as the 2005 AFL grand final.
But the jury was not told he had pleaded guilty to terror charges for fear it would prejudice a fair hearing for the other defendants. That T-shirt was letting a cat out of the legal bag. Luckily for its wearer, he was removed from court before the jury entered.
Yesterday the last two men on trial with Benbrika received their verdicts. A Supreme Court jury found Amer Haddara, 28, of Yarraville, guilty of being a member of a terrorist organisation but not guilty of being in possession of a computer that he knew was connected with a terrorist act.
The jury could not reach a verdict on whether Shane Kent, 31, of Meadow Heights, had been a member of the organisation.
Atik’s fate might foreshadow that of Haddara and the other six men, including Benbrika, who were convicted on Monday. The arguments raised at Atik’s plea hearing show the kind of issues Justice Bongiorno might consider in sentencing them.
Prosecutors conceded that Atik was never part of the group’s inner circle. Benbrika saw him as a wild card. Atik had certainly long been a troubled young man seeking relief from the suffering of what was later diagnosed as mental illness. But in his search for comfort in Allah, he found Benbrika. It led him not to tranquillity but to jail.
Atik was born in Australia in 1980 to Lebanese migrant Muslim parents, the fourth of eight children. His parents had been farmers and had little English when they arrived. The family settled in western Sydney.
Atik felt uncomfortable around people from an early age, which a forensic psychiatrist later said might have signalled the beginnings of his schizophrenia. He suffered bullying, got into fights at school and was expelled twice. About the time he left school for the last time at 15, his mother took him to see a Muslim sheikh who said his mental problems should not be disclosed publicly or he might be institutionalised. He was given a special pendant to wear at all times to help with his symptoms.
“Nonetheless, his symptoms persisted,” his lawyer, Michael O’Connell, said at his plea hearing.
Atik married in 1997 and had a child in 2000, but the marriage was not happy. He began gambling and using cannabis and was unfaithful. The couple divorced.
While serving a jail sentence in NSW for deception offences in 2002, Atik reported hearing the voices of angels and a man named “Andrew” in his head and was diagnosed with florid paranoid schizophrenia. He was also found to have an IQ of 61, lower than 99% of the population.
His lawyer later argued that Benbrika’s manipulative power over him was heightened because of his low IQ and mental illness. But at Benbrika’s trial, Benbrika’s lawyer suggested Atik had faked the symptoms to get more sympathetic treatment from the NSW court. Atik denied this.
In 2002 Atik went to Melbourne to be near his child. He became close to a cousin who was religious. At Atik’s plea hearing, Mr O’Connell told Justice Bongiorno that Atik had found his cousin’s influence stabilising, and that the practice of religion had provided comfort and given order to his life. “The smallest detail about the religion, the ritual to be observed and the like, was very important for him.”
In 2003 Atik and his cousin went on a pilgrimage to Mecca together. Mr O’Connell said: “The experience of the pilgrimage was an extraordinary one for him. He felt as if he had been given a new lease on life and he resolved to avoid getting into trouble and to take his medication as directed by a local doctor.”
In March 2004, when he was 24, he met one of Benbrika’s followers, Aimen Joud, through mutual friends. Joud invited him to attend one of Benbrika’s religious classes. Atik was told that Benbrika was a different kind of sheikh whom he could trust and who spoke the truth.
Atik was associated with Benbrika’s group from late 2004, but the Crown said he was a knowing member – knowing that the group was helping prepare or foster a terrorist act in the pursuit of violent jihad – only from March to November 2005.

On December 1, 2004, Atik was secretly recorded trying to give Benbrika a bayat, or pledge of loyalty. Benbrika refused to accept it because Atik had failed to comply with some of his orders. “You think too much for yourself,” he told Atik.
Atik became the group’s “travel agent”. He used stolen credit card numbers to fraudulently obtain airline tickets, which were used by three members of the group to travel to Sydney in July that year. He also arranged six other trips and organised meetings between members of the group and contacts in Sydney.
He would later say Joud convinced him to become involved in the credit card fraud by arguing that non-Muslims were killing innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it was “lawful” under Islam to take their blood and wealth.
Justice Bongiorno told the jurors in the Benbrika trial that it would be extremely dangerous to convict on Atik’s evidence alone because he was a conman, a liar and a social security fraudster.
The judge said Atik had used credit card fraud to pay $500 a week for a butler and to rent a house in Williamstown while he was on a pension and had a carer who also received benefits.
Atik was caught by police for his fraud. It frightened him and led him to fret over what would happen if police knew of his association with the Benbrika group. He told Benbrika he was worried that if one member “does something, we’ll all go down . . . we have to keep away from each other”.
Atik said he was scared that police would say he was supporting terrorists. Benbrika told him to prepare his mind. Later, Benbrika said: “It’s not something small . . . We’ll damage building – blast things.”
But Benbrika also told him it was very difficult to get “product . . . after 11 September”.
Atik was arrested in Sydney in November 2005 and extradited to Melbourne to face terror charges. Nineteen months later, Atik changed his plea to guilty.
He told the court in pre-trial hearings last August that when he decided to plead guilty he asked a prison governor to put him in touch with police and to put him in protection, away from the others. He said he told his solicitors that “I believe the group is an extremist group and I’ve had enough and I want to get away from them . . . I’ve pretty much seen the light”.
He denied that he agreed to give evidence in order to get a reduction of his sentence.
At the trial of the rest of the group, he said Benbrika had told him of a plot to attack the 2005 AFL grand final at the MCG. He said the attack had to be put off until the following year because of funding problems and raids by police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
“The next targets were the NAB Cup and the Crown Casino building at the Grand Prix weekend (in 2006),” he said.
He said Joud had asked him to get at least 10 firearms, either handguns or semi-automatic weapons, as well as explosives, but he did not obtain them.
He said another accused, Bassam Raad, had suggested he wanted to become a suicide bomber and was waiting for Benbrika’s command to send him off. Bassam Raad was this week acquitted on all charges by the jury.
At his plea hearing last August, Atik’s lawyers argued that his penalty should be lighter because of his mental disabilities and because he would provide confirmation of the prosecution’s otherwise circumstantial case in the Benbrika trial.
But prosecutor Richard Maidment, SC, argued for a substantial sentence. He warned the judge that terrorist bombings such as those in Madrid and London had been committed “by people who might have looked like no-hopers to any observer, and perhaps (were) not even taken terribly seriously in the Madrid case until they perpetrated the act, and scores, hundreds and even thousands of innocent people can be killed or maimed in a single random attack by such people.”
In his sentencing remarks, Justice Bongiorno said forensic psychiatrist Dr Lester Walton had found Atik’s psychosis would probably have impaired his capacity to plan, make decisions and understand the consequences of certain actions. Dr Walton suspected Atik would qualify as intellectually disabled.
The judge said: “That these conditions were long-existing and clearly genuine is a necessary inference (given the) . . . evidence of covertly intercepted conversations in which Atik spoke of his auditory hallucinations . . . in terms of ‘Andrew’ and angels who spoke to him and gave him directions.”
Justice Bongiorno concluded that Atik’s reduced capacities made him vulnerable to recruitment, reduced his moral culpability and would make jail harder for him. The judge said any penalty also had to take into account the significant help Atik gave to police in regard to the Benbrika case and another case in Sydney.
He said if Atik had not turned informer, it would have been proper to jail him for 71/2 years. Given Atik’s co-operation with authorities, he sentenced him to 51/2 years with a minimum of four years and six weeks.
And the wearer of that “Izzy the rat” T-shirt in court at the Benbrika trial? He turned out to be Ahmed Merhi, a brother of the youngest terror defendant, Abdullah Merhi. His joke cost him dearly. He lost his job as a guard at the Melbourne Custody Centre.
Bongiorno told him his actions could have aborted the trial and that, if he had not pleaded guilty to contempt, he would have been sentenced to jail. He was reprimanded and discharged.
And that T-shirt? It was forfeited to the Crown and placed in police custody – a last, mute casualty of Australia’s biggest terror trial.

First published in The Age.

Ordeal takes its toll on shaken sheikh


ABDUL Nacer Benbrika sat slouched low in his seat, greyer and more worn than when he was arrested three years ago. He still wears his long beard and traditional Arab dress of kaftan and loose pants but he has aged visibly during his incarceration. His skin has taken on a yellow tinge and there are now pouches under his eyes.
In court he has appeared quiet and withdrawn, sitting back with his arms folded as others chatted during breaks. Occasionally he recited what seemed to be prayers in Arabic. He has not looked like a man expecting good news.
Yesterday, Benbrika’s face remained impassive each time the jury forewoman quietly pronounced him “guilty”. But his crossed legs were jiggling under his grey kaftan, revealing the tension of the moment.
At the first call of guilty – on the charge of being a member of a terrorist organisation – he murmured softly to the young man who would be convicted next, Aimen Joud. They had often sat during court breaks with an arm around the other’s shoulders. Joud stroked his beard and rubbed his mouth as he was pronounced guilty on five counts.
Several of the other men were close to tears – of grief for their loss or relief at their win – as the verdicts passed along the two rows of seats in the dock. Most bent over and gazed at their knees to shield their faces as their fate was pronounced.
But when the four who had been acquitted stood, free to leave, there was an outburst of joy and sorrow among all the men. They embraced affectionately, one after the other, offering congratulations and commiserations and slapping each other heartily on the back.
For the first time in a long time, the Benbrika 12 were no longer 12.
For Shane Kent and Amer Haddara, the wait for verdicts continues. For Benbrika, Joud and another four convicted yesterday, the next issue will be their sentences.
The defence lawyers had often told the jurors that they needed to differentiate between the defendants because they were really participating in 27 separate trials: 12 defendants on a total of 27 counts. Yesterday’s mixed bag of verdicts suggests that the jury took them at their word, evaluating the evidence for each accused independently.
The prosecution had alleged that the 12 men, all Muslims from Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs, were part of an organisation pursuing terrorism in the pursuit of violent jihad and that Benbrika was their leader. Ten of the men had faced other charges too and all had pleaded not guilty.
The Algerian-born Benbrika, 48, was a father of seven who lived in Dallas. He was also a self-appointed Muslim “sheikh” or religious leader who had gathered around him a group of young Australians, all but one of them of Lebanese background, whom he taught about Islam.
For some of those young men, the jury seems to have decided, the involvement went no further than that: an interest in religious classes. Several defence lawyers had argued that their clients had never been present during conversations involving violent jihadi rhetoric.
But Benbrika is now a convicted terrorist. He had wanted an act of terror to pressure the Australian Government into withdrawing its troops from Iraq, the prosecution had alleged.
He was recorded saying: “Here in Australia, when you do something, they stop to send the troop . . . If you kill – we kill here a thousand, the Government is going to think.”
The evidence included many of Benbrika’s own words in covert recordings, particularly comments about wanting “maximum damage” and “to die for jihad”.
The group had been infiltrated by a police secret agent, known only as SIO 39, who represented himself as a Turk called Ahmed with an interest in jihad.
In one exchange with SIO 39, Benbrika spoke of wanting money to buy weapons and chemicals, saying: “This is all needed.”
In another, the agent told Benbrika he could get an ingredient of fertiliser that could be used to make explosives. The agent told Benbrika it would take up to 75 kilograms to destroy a suburban house.
Benbrika asked: “Even if you would like to get 500 kilo, can you get them?”
Lead prosecutor Richard Maidment, SC, told the jury to consider the evidence of an explosives expert during the trial: “(He) talked about the kind of damage that you could do with these respective amounts, and in cross-examination of him you may remember (a lawyer) suggesting to him that in the Russell Street bombing case, which occurred in the late ’80s, that 100 kilos of explosive was used, and (the expert) said, ‘No, it wasn’t 100 kilos, it was 11 kilos.’ So that gives you some idea of the scale of operations that Mr Benbrika had in mind.”
On October 6, 2004, the agent took Benbrika to bushland at Mount Disappointment to demonstrate his knowledge of explosives. The agent used 500 grams of ammonium nitrate in an ice-cream container to produce what the prosecution would later call “a bang and a bit of smoke”. Police secretly filmed the whole exercise.
There was no evidence at the trial that Benbrika had told any of the other men about Mount Disappointment.
The prosecution claimed that Benbrika led an organisation whose structures included a joint fund called a “sandooq”; income from a car-stripping scam; air tickets bought with fraudulently obtained credit-card numbers; and a system of pledging loyalty (or giving the “bayat”) to Benbrika.
There were several trips involving some of the men, which the Crown described as either bonding or training camps: to Ocean Grove, to Louth and Eden in NSW, and to Sydney, where some met up with Sydney associates.
Benbrika possessed material that the Crown alleged was part of “a common jihadi library” that extolled violent jihad, killing the “kuffar” (unbelievers) and martyrdom. The material included videos of beheadings and a document with advice on how to establish a terrorist cell.
Prosecutor Maidment said the purpose of these was to desensitise his followers to violence so that they would be hardened to carry out a terror attack.
Aimen Joud, who is now 23, was only 19 when he became involved with Benbrika. He used to work in the building trade and live with his family in Hoppers Crossing. The Crown said he was part of an alleged “consultative committee”.
When police escorted him from his home in the early hours of the morning, Joud raised his hands in the air and said, “Allah akbar!” (Allah is great!)
The evidence against him included a conversation in Ezzit Raad’s garage on September 10, 2004. Ezzit Raad was protesting over the fact that they wanted to store a stolen car with him. He kept saying he could not see how this was right before Allah.
Ahmed Raad said, “What can I do, man? What more proof do you want? You think we just go and get the weapons and walk off? We need money to get it, praise is to Allah. You have patience, man.”
Joud told Ezzit Raad “the pleasures of Allah is expensive”. Ezzit continued to protest and Joud told him that the “brothers in Chechnya” didn’t just stand around in macho videos holding AK-47s. “They don’t do it every single day, man. They do this. They take.”
The Crown said this was evidence that Joud knew it was a terrorist organisation, and that the purpose of making money from the car was to buy weapons.
Two CDs were found on Joud’s bed when his home was searched on September 17, 2004. One contained a collection of manuals, including the Car Bomb Recognition Guide and The Terrorist’s Handbook.
Other documents included CIA Field expedient methods for explosives preparations and Plastic Hydrogen Bomb instructions.
The second CD contained what the prosecution came to call “the Mansura Web” material. It contained material glorifying jihadi martyrdom and graphic war videos and photos from Muslim war zones such as Bosnia and Chechnya. One video showed the execution (by a knife in the neck) of a Russian, and another man having his head cut off with an axe.
Fadl Sayadi, 28, used to live in Coburg and work as a forklift driver and concreter. He was convicted of being a member and of providing resources to the organisation by acting as a leader.
The prosecution said he was another member of the “consultative committee”, and that he helped keep the group together and watched out for its security. He warned Benbrika to be careful of “Ahmed” (the police agent SIO 39).
Maidment said the roles adopted by Sayadi and Joud were made clear in a conversation in which they did a post-mortem on an outing to Kinglake that had been a debacle and talked of “the lack of discipline shown by members of the organisation and their dismay, really, at the behaviour of a number of people in the brotherhood.
“And the roles that are adopted and assumed by Aimen Joud and Fadl Sayadi in relation to this organisation are captured quite neatly where Fadl Sayadi says, ‘And if now we can’t – if we are the elders and we can’t be patient and guide them as good examples, what would it be like in the future? We will probably kill each other, man.’ ”
Maidment said this and other conversations showed Sayadi and Joud “organising the troops, determining who should go, who should stay, who should be contacted and so on”.
Maidment also pointed to phone calls in 2004 in which Sayadi was told by a contact in Lebanon that his name was listed with Lebanese state security because he belonged to “a certain society”. Sayadi then called Shoue Hammoud, who was travelling in Lebanon, and told him to start praying and to make up a story about why he was travelling there.
Abdullah Merhi, 22, an apprentice electrician of Fawkner, is the youngest of the accused. He has been found guilty of being a member but not guilty of intentionally providing resources to the organisation by offering himself as a suicide bomber, a charge his lawyer had described as obscenely unjust.
MERHI was covertly recorded asking Benbrika, as part of a philosophical debate, whether it would be right under Islam to kill then prime minister John Howard if his policies killed innocent Muslim families.
His lawyer, Mark Taft, SC, said the Howard question was a theoretical one, asked to tease out Benbrika’s interpretation of a text in the Koran.
In another exchange that the prosecution claims was about his impatience to help commit a terrorist act, Merhi told Benbrika he did not want to wait even two years and asked whether Allah would “open the door” for him soon.
Benbrika warned Merhi to be patient and careful: “It has to be secretly. Watch yourself, because if you show them what you want” – (slapping noise) – “they gonna put them in – put us in jail.”
At one point Merhi had told Benbrika: “I want in on everything, if there is anything.”
Ahmed Raad has been found guilty of being treasurer of the “sandooq”. The prosecution said he was also a member of the consultative committee. Now 25, he used to live in Fawkner with his wife and child before his arrest. He had given up plumbing following a work injury and earned money by selling phone cards.
Lawyer Julian McMahon described Ahmed Raad as having “modest intelligence”: “Effectively, he struggles to read.”
The prosecution case against Ahmed Raad relied partly on the garage conversation in which he and Joud spoke to Ezzit Raad about the need to steal and strip cars to buy weapons.
Ezzit Raad, 26, is married with two children. He was an electrician living in Preston before his arrest. He was found guilty of being a member and also of attempting to make funds available to the organisation.
In July 2005, a gathering of men at Benbrika’s were talking about how the London bombings a week earlier had killed 52. Ezzit Raad said: “Should have been more.”
In the garage conversation, when he kept protesting against having to store the stolen car, his brother Ahmed said to him: “You’ll point a gun at a kuffar’s head and shoot him but you won’t put the stolen car here.”
Ezzit Raad replied: “This is different, all right? Don’t put that with this.”
The four men who walked free yesterday are Shoue Hammoud, Hany Taha, Bassam Raad and his cousin Majed Raad. They had no comment for the media but Gerard Mullaly, the lawyer for Majed Raad, said of his client: “He’s happy that the ordeal is over and he is looking forward to getting on with his life.”
· Extended reports

First published in The Age.