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In court he has appeared quiet and withdrawn, sitting back with his arms folded as others chatted during breaks.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.