Police in Australia yesterday accused two brothers of attempting to smuggle a homemade bomb onto an Etihad flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi using explosives sent via international cargo by a commander of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.
Releasing details of what they described as one of Australia's most sophisticated terrorist plots, police said the brothers tried to smuggle the bomb aboard the flight on July 15 by packing it into the luggage of a third brother, who was unaware of the plot. But the plan was aborted at the check-in counter - possibly because the suitcase was too heavy, though the precise reason remains unclear.
Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police Michael Phelan said yesterday that the brothers, Khaled Khayat, 49, and Mahmoud Khayat, 32, then allegedly turned to a separate plan to build a device to release a toxic chemical, hydrogen sulphide, into a crowded venue.
Both men were arrested in raids in Sydney last Saturday and appeared in court via video yesterday. They did not apply for bail.
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Mr Phelan said the men developed their plot after communicating with an ISIS "controller" in Syria, who was not Australian. Their brother remains overseas.
"This is one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted on Australian soil," he told reporters.
"If it hadn't been for the great work of our intelligence agencies and law enforcement over a very quick period of time, then we could very well have had a catastrophic event in this country."
It was the 13th attempt at a major terrorist attack in Australia in the past three years. The plot had prompted heightened security at Australian airports and led to lengthy queues earlier in the week.
Mr Phelan said the attempt to smuggle a bomb - which was hidden inside a meat mincer - through airport security prompted police to build a replica device to check whether it could make it through. The replica was detected "100 per cent" of the time, he said, suggesting the brothers' bomb would not have made it onto the Etihad flight.
Police said they were concerned that components of the homemade bomb were successfully sent via air cargo from Turkey.
Minister for Justice Michael Keenan said yesterday that air cargo would be subject to extra screening, and the authorities would consider further security measures in the wake of the alleged conspiracy.
Police said the planned chemical bomb was far from being prepared, but it was due to be used at a crowded public place. The ISIS controller allegedly suggested venues to the brothers in Sydney.
"They were talking about crowded closed spaces, you know, potentially public transport, and so on," said Mr Phelan.
The brothers face life in prison after being charged with two counts of preparing or planning for a terrorist act.
Their lawyer, Mr Michael Coroneos, said the men were entitled to the presumption of innocence.
The case was adjourned to Nov 14.
A third man, Khaled Merhi, was arrested last Saturday and remains in custody. Merhi's brother was arrested but has been released without being charged.
Police reportedly learnt of the plot after being tipped off by British and US intelligence agencies, 11 days after the attempt to smuggle the bomb onto the Etihad flight.