5 arrested for Australia plot amid fear of homegrown ISIL terrorists – USA TODAY

SYDNEY — Five Australian teenagers were arrested Saturday on suspicion of plotting a Veterans’ Day terrorist attack that included targeting police.

According to officials, the suspects include two 18-year-olds who were allegedly planning an attack at the ANZAC Day ceremony in Melbourne. Another 18-year-old was arrested on weapons charges and two other men, 18 and 19, are in custody, according to Australian Federal Police Acting Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan.

The arrests took place in Melbourne, where a joint counterterrorism team served a total of seven warrants Saturday morning. Police said they were also conducting searches at related properties.

The arrests reflect a problem that’s new for Australia, which has been long protected from homegrown terror threats by geographical isolation. It now must confront terrorism inspired by the Islamic State that has washed up on its shores.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said this week that 150 Australians are fighting with Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria. The Australian Federal Police also announced that it has prevented 200 suspected Islamic State fighters from departing Australian airports for the Middle East.

The fear is that Aussies radicalized on the battlefields in the Mideast will return home to wreak havoc. The United States and Western Europe share similar worries about thousands of their citizens who have been recruited by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Terrorism is not new to Australia, which lost 88 lives in a 2002 attack on nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia.The latest threats from the Islamic State are on home turf, however.

In December, two people were killed in a siege of a cafe in central Sydney, along with a hostage-taker claiming loyalty to the Islamic State. Then in February, police announced they foiled a terrorist plot by two men associated with the Islamic State to launch attacks on Sydney. And last month, Australian teenager Jake Bilardi blew himself up in a suicide attack for the Islamic State.

The attacks have prompted the government to tighten security at the expense of Australians’ cherished personal freedoms and carefree lifestyles.

A security vs. liberty debate played out recently among visitors at Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach. Traffic controller Luca De Montis, 50, said he didn’t mind sacrificing some freedoms to protect against “threats to the Australian way of life.”

“If the laws are there to protect us, I don’t mind if they’re a bit invasive. If you’re not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about,” he said. “But if they come here and do the wrong thing, then ship them back where they came from.”

Barista Francois Fotaneau, 30, a French national becoming an Australian citizen, said getting the balance right is important. “Australia is more libertarian than most places,” Fotaneau said. “I don’t like the idea of moving toward more restrictions.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who spearheaded Australia’s new security efforts, has lamented that terrorism is a growing threat to the Australian way of life. “I don’t think it would be possible to witness uglier fanaticism than this … and I regret to say it is now present in our country,” he told Parliament in February.

The government’s response has been to ramp up what are already some of the most expansive counter-terror laws in the world, many adopted after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

In October, the government passed the Foreign Fighters Bill, making it an offense to travel to certain conflict zones other than for legitimate purposes. A separate bill empowers the Australian Secret Intelligence Service to provide intelligence to military forces cooperating with the U.S. in airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq.

Australia also has expanded domestic intelligence-gathering powers, which authorities say have prevented attacks on home soil.

“The legislation is working well,” said Detective Superintendent John O’Reilly, head of New South Wales’ Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Command. “While buying a chemical or a car may not be criminal acts in and of themselves, the legislation has allowed us to act at the planning stage if such a purchase is in preparation for an act of terrorism.”

Others worry the new laws erode important liberties. University of New South Wales constitutional lawyer George Williams noted that Australia does not have a bill of rights, which makes it “vulnerable to bad laws.”

“You can go to jail for visiting family and friends, for business travel … even for religious pilgrimage,” Williams said. “You could be prosecuted for being involved somehow incidentally or unknowingly.”

The new laws also have rankled many in the Muslim community here. A petition, signed by more than 100 Muslim groups, condemned the government’s “predictable use of Muslim affairs and the ‘terror threat’ to attempt to stabilize a fragile leadership.” The petition also condemned “the use of language that portrays Muslims and the Muslim community as a security threat,”

Abbott, plagued by an approval rating of around 25%, saw his political standing improve a little following the February national security address that outlined the new anti-terror campaign.

Jamal Rifi, a prominent Sydney doctor and Arab community leader, said the new security measures make Australia “well positioned to respond to the new changing nature of terrorism.” But he said Abbott’s failure to engage with Muslims is contributing to the “alienation of the community that is the most important part of the solution.”

“This crisis will outlast any election cycle,” Rifi said.

Contributing: Associated Press