SYDNEY • Australian police have charged five men suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), by going on a journey that would have started with a small motorboat taking them to Indonesia and the Philippines.
The men, aged between 21 and 31, were charged last Saturday with preparing to enter a foreign country "for the purpose of engaging in hostile activities" - an offence that carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Attorney-General George Brandis told reporters yesterday that "their intentions to travel to the Middle East to engage in terrorist war fighting were known to the authorities" and that their passports had earlier been cancelled.
The five, who were not named, were arrested last Tuesday after having towed the 7m motorboat almost 3,000km from Melbourne in Victoria state to Cairns in northern Queensland, the police said. The men, in custody since last Tuesday, are set to appear in court today.
Mr Brandis said that when it became clear to the men they could not leave "in an orthodox way, they remained under surveillance so that if they attempted to leave the country in this very unusual way, they would be able to be stopped, and they were".
He noted that there is "an unusual character to the plot - I know it has been ridiculed, but these are serious crimes".
A separate police statement said there was no current threat of a terrorist act to the Australian community arising from this investigation.
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States, has been on heightened alert for attacks by home-grown radicals since 2014, and the authorities say they have thwarted several potential ones.
There have been several "lone wolf" assaults, including a cafe siege in Sydney that left two hostages and the gunman dead.
About 100 people had left Australia for Syria to fight alongside organisations such as ISIS, the Immigration Minister said last month.
The police said earlier last week that it was unclear where the men had planned to put the boat in the water. Indonesia and Australia share a maritime border, but it spans several hundred kilometres of open sea at its narrowest point.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said Melbourne-born radical preacher Musa Cerantonio, a vocal supporter of ISIS who was deported from the Philippines to Australia in 2014, was among those charged. The police declined to comment on the report.
Yesterday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would attend Syria peace talks in Vienna tomorrow. The talks will be co-chaired by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.