HE ATTENDED the sheikh’s Islamic religious classes. He sought the sheikh’s advice about marital prospects and investment decisions. And he showed the sheikh how to make a bomb.
A Supreme Court jury yesterday heard the story of the alleged terrorist leader and the spy sent to trap him – a tale of a false identity, a false commitment to violent jihad and conversations that threw out lures in search of evidence.
Secret Intelligence Operative 39 gave evidence from a remote location in the trial of Abdul Nacer Benbrika and eleven other Melbourne Muslims charged with preparing or fostering terrorism in the pursuit of violent jihad.
There were technical problems with attempts to pixelate SIO 39’s face so he gave his evidence by audio link.
“I’ve never cross-examined a loudspeaker before,” rumbled Remy Van de Wiel, QC, for Benbrika.
SIO 39 took his oath on the Koran. He told the court he was a Victoria Police officer working undercover with the covert unit of the security intelligence group when he first met Benbrika and his associates at a religious class in a sports centre in the Coburg-Preston area on May 16, 2004.
He introduced himself as Ahmet Sonmez, a Turk newly arrived from Tasmania.
“Sonmez” said his father was a Turk who had gone back to Turkey, and that he, Sonmez, was seeking to re-establish his Islamic identity by connecting with the Muslim community in Melbourne.
The agent claimed he was working as an unskilled labourer on building sites for a wealthy businessman. He several times offered to help get Benbrika a job working for cash with the man who was his boss. He sought moral guidance from the sheikh. He talked to Benbrika about whom he should marry, and Benbrika emphasised the importance of choosing a woman with religious views.
The agent told Benbrika that he was having a crisis of conscience over his investments. He said he held shares in Coca-Cola and he feared this was unethical because it was an American company. He wanted to know the religious status of any money he made if he sold them – and then he gave $500 of that alleged profit to Benbrika for the sheikh’s religious classes or any other worthy cause.
At one point he offered to lend Benbrika and his associates the use of a remote property in northern Victoria. He claimed his boss owned it and had told him he could stay there any time he liked, and that he could bring whoever he wanted.
Asked Mr Van de Wiel: “You were making a very deliberate effort to befriend him, weren’t you? … Consistent with the directions you had been given?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said the agent.
Agent 39 told Benbrika that he did not fear authorities because he had kept his driver’s licence and car registration Tasmanian, so authorities did not know where he was.
He also claimed that, while working for farmers in Tasmania, he had become expert in using explosives to blow up tree stumps. He said security over access to explosive materials was lax in Tasmania and that he could easily buy some through his former employer there, no questions asked.
He told the court that on the morning of October 6, 2004, he had an 8.45 meeting with members of the Victoria Police Special Operations Group. They gave him a plastic icecream container with white granules of the explosive material Nitropill, a two-metre length of yellow safety fuse, a stick of gelignite, and two detonators. He had previously been trained in how to use these ingredients to make an explosion.
He rang Benbrika and arranged to pick him up at midday. He told Benbrika that his boss had given him a day off because he had worked at the weekend and that he knew just where to go: a place he had found while bushwalking.
He drove Benbrika to a spot near Drag Hill Road, Kilmore, near Mount Disappointment. Surveillance film of the exercise shown to the court showed the two men talking in a sunny clearing surrounded by native trees. They both dropped to their haunches as the agent busied himself with something on the ground.
The agent told Benbrika: “Sheikh, ah, when I – when I light, once I light this one we have to move quickly, all right? It starts to burn.”
But the first effort to create an explosion failed. A few wisps of smoke were quickly cleared by the breeze.
The agent said he was reluctant to go back to check on it too quickly: “To make a hundred per cent sure, you have to wait half an hour before you can go near it … If you go there and then it explodes, you die, you know.”
Benbrika was impatient. He did not want to be late for a doctor’s appointment and “I have to pick the kids up from school”. But he waited for the second attempt, which produced an expanding cloud of thick, grey smoke.
In February 2005, the agent told Benbrika he was going back to Turkey to meet a prospective bride. In May, he reconnected with Benbrika and said he was returning to Turkey for good. Benbrika expressed concern for his future and told him he would always be there for him. The trial continues before Justice Bernard Bongiorno.
· Watch the blast and see more photos.
· Abdul Nacer Benbrika, 47
· Amer Haddara, 28
· Shoue Hammoud, 28
· Aimen Joud, 23
· Shane Gregory Kent, 31
· Abdullah Merhi, 22
· Ahmed Raad, 25
· Bassam Raad, 26
· Ezzit Raad, 26
· Majed Raad, 23
· Fadl Sayadi, 27
· Hany Taha, 33
First published in The Age.