SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - Anti-terror raids across Sydney and Brisbane on Thursday were sparked by an Australian senior militant of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who ordered "demonstration killings" in Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, adding that there was intelligence on planned public beheading.
He did not name the Australian militant, but a court official and police said a Sydney man identified as Omarjan Azari, 22, had appeared in court after the raids on Thursday and had been charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist act. He would remain in custody until a hearing in November. His lawyer Steven Boland did not apply for bail.
Prosecutor Michael Allnutt told the court that an attack was being planned that "was clearly designed to shock and horrify, perhaps terrify" the community, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said there was a plan to snatch a random member of the public in Sydney, draped the person in the ISIS flag and execute the person on camera.
When asked about the report, Abbott said: "That's the intelligence we received."
"The exhortations, quite direct exhortations, were coming from an Australian who is apparently quite senior in ISIL to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country," he said, referring to the other name of the militant group - Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
"So this is not just suspicion, this is intent and that's why the police and security agencies decided to act in the way they have," he added.
The raids were the country's largest ever counter-terrorism operation involving 800 police officers. They detained 15 people and disrupted plans to "commit violent acts", federal police chief Andrew Colvin said.
The operation, which spanned multiple suburbs, came barely a week after Australia raised the terror threat level to "high" for the first time in a decade on growing concern about militants returning from fighting in Iraq and Syria. A "high" alert, which is the second-highest level, indicates that the government and intelligence authorities believe an attack is likely.
The Australian government believes up to 60 Australians are fighting alongside jihadists for ISIS, while another 100 were actively working to support the movement at home.
"These people, I regret to say, do not hate us for what we do, they hate us for who we are and how we live. That's what makes us a target," said Abbott. "It's important our police and security organisations be one step ahead of them and this morning they were."
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who sits on Australia's national security committee, said the raids demonstrated "the very real threat" facing Australia.
"I think the scale of what we're seeing in this ongoing operation this morning... I think demonstrates the very real threat that's there and the incredibly good work which is being done by our agencies," he said. "And I think it again supports why the government has been so strong in its response to this threat."
The latest raids followed the arrests of two people last week in Brisbane who were charged with allegedly recruiting, funding and sending jihadist fighters to Syria. And on Wednesday, a Sydney-based money transfer business was shut down amid concerns it was being used to funnel funds to the Middle East to finance terrorism.
NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione has urged calm. "Right now is a time for calm. We actually need to let people know that they are safe," he said.
Last week's decision to raise the terror threat level after years on "medium" comes after repeated government warnings that attacks could happen.