PLOT TO BLOW UP NEW YEAR’S PARTY

TOP COP’S RACE AGAINST TER­ROR

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - FRONT PAGE - AVA BENNY- MOR­RI­SON CRIME RE­PORTER

NEW Year’s Eve, 2003, and Counter Ter­ror­ism In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit of­fi­cer De­tec­tive Sergeant Peter Moroney keeps one eye on the boat ramp at Hen and Chicken Bay, on Syd­ney Har­bour, and the other on the bliss­fully un­aware crowds lin­ing the fore­shore. There is a buzz in the air, but it is lost on Det Sgt Moroney. As fam­i­lies get g in­creas­ingly gt ex­cited t about the up­com­ing fire­works ex­trav­a­ganza, an­titer­ror­ism po­lice are fever­ishly try­ing to lo­cate a boat that could carry out a po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic at­tack.

“You sit there think­ing, ‘You have no idea what is po­ten­tially about to come your way’,” Mr Moroney said, speak­ing for the first time about the se­cret op­er­a­tion car­ried out to pro­tect rev­ellers that year. This is the ter­ror plot the na­tion has never been told about. Mr Moroney, 44, who left the po­lice force in 2011 af­ter 17 years, has re­vealed the de­tails in his up­com­ing book Ter­ror­ism In Aus­tralia, which tells the story be­hind Aus­tralia’s big­gest counter-ter­ror­ism in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Op­er­a­tion Pen­den­nis.

The son of for­mer po­lice com­mis­sioner Ken Moroney, he joined the po­lice in 1994.

Then, as the world grap­pled with the in­creas­ing threat of ter­ror­ism af­ter the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks on New York’s twin tow­ers in 2001, Mr Moroney signed up for the newly formed coun­tert­er­ror­ism unit in 2003. He was al­lo­cated a tar­get to in­ves­ti­gate, a crim­i­nal-turned-Is­lamic rad­i­cal he refers to as “Mah­moud”.

Mah­moud was a young Mus­lim man who at first be­came in­volved in or­gan­ised crime, only to be rad­i­calised while serv­ing time in prison.

By 2003, he was keep­ing com­pany with like-minded ex­trem­ists, in­clud­ing Khaled Shar­rouf, the no­to­ri­ous Is­lamic State sup­porter killed fight­ing in Syria. And his ha­tred is grow­ing.

Po­lice were watching him closely and sus­pected he was plan­ning a ter­ror at­tack — they just didn’t know when or where.

That was un­til, by chance, Det Sgt Moroney drove past him in Lakemba in De­cem­ber that year. Mah­moud was tow­ing a boat be­hind his car. Mr Moroney said this week: “You tor­tured your­self in your own head think­ing, ‘Don’t be an id­iot, the poor guy is tow­ing a boat. Who cares?’

“But it was just know­ing him, know­ing how he op­er­ated and that his ha­tred for the West was grow­ing, it made lit­tle sense that he would go get a boat to en­joy the har­bour.”

From a tracker on his car, po­lice knew Mah­moud was visit­ing van­tage points around the har­bour in the fort­night be­fore the New Year’s Eve fire­works.

In his book, Moroney ex­plains how in­ves­ti­ga­tors started to spec­u­late that Mah­moud may plan to blow up the boat on the har­bour or at­tack a naval ves­sel.

Nine days out from New Year’s Eve, Mah­moud took his boat out at 11pm with Moustafa Cheikho, Khaled Cheikho, Omar Ja­mal and Ab­dul Rakib Hasan. Those men would later form part of the no­to­ri­ous Pen­den­nis Nine, a Syd­ney ter­ror cell that amassed bomb-mak­ing ma­te­ri­als and weapons in 2005.

When wa­ter po­lice pulled up along­side the group, hud­dled in the mid­dle of the boat, they claimed they were fish­ing.

“But there were no rods, no

fish­ing gear, no bait,” Mr Moroney re­called. His sus­pi­cions in­creased when he learned Mah­moud had ac­quired a sec­ond boat, which po­lice couldn’t track down. “That was the height­ened as­pect of it,” he said. “Was it sea­wor­thy? What had he done with it? Why couldn’t we find it?”

By the time New Year’s Eve dawned, po­lice were on edge. More than 100 of­fi­cers were de­ployed to watch every boat ramp on the har­bour.

Oth­ers were watching Mah­moud’s house and his car. PolAir and the elite tac­ti­cal op­er­a­tions unit were on standby.

As huge crowds be­gan to flood into the CBD, top law en­force­ment of­fi­cials were hud­dled in a brief­ing room at the Crime Com­mis­sion. Then Po­lice Min­is­ter John Watkins was briefed and was be­ing kept up to date through­out the night.

“It struck me as be­ing re­ally strange that the world was go­ing about its busi­ness, cel­e­brat­ing New Year’s Eve to­tally un­aware that there was a deeply se­ri­ous op­er­a­tion hap­pen­ing be­hind the scenes,” Mr Watkins said on Fri­day.

Ear­lier in the day, a de­ci­sion was made to di­vert an oil tanker from en­ter­ing the har­bour. It was a po­ten­tial tar­get and the risk was too high. “That tanker was di­verted at a cost of about a quar­ter of a mil­lion dol­lars to keep it out to sea for a cou­ple of days,” Mr Moroney said.

It was also de­cided that if po­lice couldn’t find Mah­moud’s sec­ond boat by 9pm, of­fi­cers would sim­ply knock on his front door and ask him. The strat­egy risked alert­ing Mah­moud and send­ing him to ground.

“But it was the de­ci­sion that had to be made — we couldn’t let it go,” Mr Moroney said.

When po­lice con­fronted him, M ah moud claimed to have lim­ited knowl­edge of the sec­ond boat and said that he had sold it.

It was nearly mid­night and the sec­ond boat had to be found, but po­lice were back at square one. Of­fi­cers started go­ing back over old mo­bile phone data as mid­night loomed. Fi­nally, at 1am, af­ter notic­ing Mah­moud’s phone had been used in a sub­urb in Syd­ney’s south­west, Mr Moroney and his off­sider found the boat in a dead-end street. It was barely sea­wor­thy.

“The mo­ment we found it, we were stood down,” he said.

Ex­actly what Mah­moud and his ex­trem­ist friends were plan­ning is open only to spec­u­la­tion.

Years later, af­ter Mah­moud left Aus­tralia un­der a fake name and was ar­rested at a train­ing camp in Le­banon, he ad­mit­ted car­ry­ing out re­con­nais­sance on the har­bour, Moroney said.

But Mah­moud said he wanted to at­tack a naval base not carry out a mass ca­su­alty at­tack. He never fol­lowed through be­cause he couldn’t source the funds to buy the weapons. Some in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve him, some don’t.

Re­gard­less, the fo­cus on Mah­moud led po­lice to his

friends, the men who would be­come in­ter­twined in Aus­tralia’s big­gest ter­ror­ism plot.

In 2005, Det Sgt Moroney and his team ar­rested Cheikho, Ja­mal, Hasan, Shar­rouf and Mo­hamed Ali Elo­mar as part of the 16-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion Op­er­a­tion Pen­den­nis.

The case in­volved two ex­trem­ist cells, one in Syd­ney and one in Mel­bourne, con­spir­ing to carry out a ter­ror at­tack.

Re­flect­ing on his work in counter-ter­ror­ism, Mr Moroney, who now works in se­cu­rity and risk con­sul­tancy, be­lieves it is a crime that is here to stay.

“What con­cerns me the most now is the speed and ease at which they go from zero to 100,” he said. TER­ROR­ISM IN AUS­TRALIA: THE STORY OF OP­ER­A­TION PEN­DEN­NIS, PUB­LISHED BY NEW HOL­LAND, WILL BE AVAIL­ABLE NEXT WEEK.

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