Australian police arrest three over plan to stage ‘mass’ attack

Police officers that form part of the Joint Counter Terrorism Team stand outside a home they raided as part of an operation against three men who were allegedly preparing to attack the public in Melbourne. (AAP via Reuters)
Updated 20 November 2018
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Australian police arrest three over plan to stage ‘mass’ attack

  • The three men were taken into custody after they allegedly sought to acquire a semi-automatic gun to carry out an attack
  • The arrests came less than two weeks after a man set fire to a pickup truck and stabbed three people, killing one

SYDNEY: Police said on Tuesday they arrested three men who were allegedly preparing to attack the public in Melbourne, less than two weeks after a man killed one person in Australia’s second-largest city in what police said was an act of terrorism.
Australian federal and state police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, and other agencies that form part of the Joint Counter Terrorism Team carried out the arrests on Tuesday morning.
Police said three men, aged 30, 26 and 21, were taken into custody after they allegedly sought to acquire a semi-automatic gun to carry out an attack.
The 21-year-old man was charged with planning a terrorist act, police said.
All were Australian citizens and their passports had been canceled earlier this year.
“We now have sufficient evidence to act in relation to preventing a terrorist attack,” Graham Ashton, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, told reporters.
Police said the suspects had yet to decide on the site of their planned attack but they believed the act was imminent.
“They were certainly looking at a place of mass gathering, where there would be crowds,” Ashton said. “They were trying to focus on trying to have a place where they could kill as many people as possible.”
Police said they believed the arrests had nullified any threat from the group.
Australia, a staunch US ally that sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, has been on heightened alert since 2014 for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East or their supporters.
Australia currently sees the likelihood of a militant attack as “probable,” the midpoint on a five-level threat ranking system. It has been set at that level since the system was introduced in 2015.
Police said the three men were known to authorities and their passports were canceled because of concerns they would travel to a conflict zone overseas.
The arrests came less than two weeks after a man set fire to a pickup truck laden with gas cylinders in the center of Melbourne and stabbed three people, killing one, before he was shot by police.
As was the case in that attack, police said on Tuesday the three men had been inspired by Islamic State rather than being directed by the militant group.
Police said the three suspects did not have any links to the man responsible for the Nov. 9 attack, although they had escalated their planning in the aftermath of that assault.
“Certainly, over the last week they’ve become energized about doing something more quickly,” Ashton said.


Genius or joker? British PM favorite Johnson set to face the world

Updated 27 June 2019
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Genius or joker? British PM favorite Johnson set to face the world

  • The 55-year-old, famous for his messy mop of blond hair and dishevelled style, has turned upper-class English eccentricity into a political asset in Britain
  • He is a natural introvert, two sources close to his team told Reuters, adding that his shyness is often construed as arrogance, and he needs a lot of time alone before speaking in public

LONDON: Loose cannon or influential statesman — what kind of British prime minister would Boris Johnson make on the world stage? Judging by his time as foreign secretary, possibly both.
When Johnson was given the foreign job in 2016, after Britain voted to leave the EU, he was viewed as an unlikely choice by politicians and public alike given his tendency to court controversy with gaffes, oddball jokes and off-the-cuff remarks.
The early days seemed to confirm the worst fears of those who saw the Conservative lawmaker as an unsuitable diplomat, at a critical time when Britain needed to forge new political and commercial ties with a slew of countries.
What should have been a routine conference in Italy, the “Mediterranean Dialogues Forum” aimed at building relations with leading envoys from the West and Middle East, instead turned into something of a diplomatic incident.
The backlash was swift from Prime Minister Theresa May, who said his comments did not reflect “actual policy,” dishing out what a government source described as a shocking and very public “cuffing” for a senior minister.
Now May is stepping down over her failure to extract Britain from the European Union. Johnson, a leader of the Brexit campaign, is the overwhelming favorite to become leader of the governing Conservative Party next month, which would also make him prime minister.
The 55-year-old, famous for his messy mop of blond hair and dishevelled style, has turned upper-class English eccentricity into a political asset in Britain and perfected a personal brand based on a comic talent and a seemingly shambolic style.
His critics say this robs him of statesman-like gravity, arguing that it’s difficult to take seriously a man who once said the chance of him becoming prime minister was about as likely as finding Elvis on Mars.
However two of Johnson’s aides and another veteran Conservative who knows him said that he was often misunderstood and that beneath his blustering, self-confident demeanour was a shy, serious man focused on his goals.
He is a natural introvert, two sources close to his team told Reuters, adding that his shyness is often construed as arrogance, and he needs a lot of time alone before speaking in public — distinctively at odds with the public perception of Johnson being a natural, unscripted showman.
“Before speaking to a room, he needs to corral himself,” said the veteran Conservative. “It’s not a performance but it saps him of energy. He just needs to summon up the energy.”
One aide, a government source and an EU diplomat also pointed to an influential, but behind-the-scenes, role he played as foreign secretary following the poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, by a nerve agent last year in England.
One government source said Johnson had put his “shoulder to the wheel” to win international support for sanctions and Russian diplomatic expulsions from a long list of countries.
A senior European diplomat agreed that he was “professional” in this role, which attracted little publicity.
“People in Brussels didn’t take Boris seriously back then,” the diplomat said. “In March last year, he showed he could drop the clownish personality, he showed a will to discuss the Skripal affair in the most serious terms and to make the point to his counterparts that they needed to back Britain on this.”
Irreverent insurgent
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to give his full name, is something of an enigma at home and abroad.
He is man of apparent contradictions, with his privileged background and bursts of Latin phrases seemingly at odds with his popular appeal when elected mayor of left-leaning London in 2008 with the biggest personal mandate in British history.
He is one of those rare politicians to be most commonly referred to by most members of the public by their first names.
Like US President Donald Trump, he can emerge unscathed from gaffes and scandals that would sink any normal public figure. Other offensive remarks he has made include calling black people “piccaninnies” and saying Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes.”
“Boris is a flawed character and flaky but most politicians are underneath,” said Ed Costelloe, chair of the campaign group Conservative Grassroots. “It would be lovely to have Mother Theresa as prime minister, but it ain’t going to happen.”
In fact, some people love him all the more because he appears to be an irreverent insurgent who defies the media training of polished politics, shooting from the hip with comic timing and flair. Others seem to give him more leeway.
The biggest task ahead, should he become leader, would be withdrawal talks with the EU, which has said it will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by May in November — a deal that was repeatedly rejected by British lawmakers and led to the original Brexit date of March 29 being pushed back.
Johnson has offended many in Europe, with remarks such as suggesting Italy should help with a Brexit deal to avoid losing out on sales of Prosecco sparkling wine and declaring it was “bollocks” to say that freedom of movement was a founding principle of the EU.
Yet the British government sources said his ability to wrestle changes to the deal from Brussels, as he has demanded, would come down to whether he can carry the support of British lawmakers and end a stalemate that has incensed EU officials.
“His success depends on whether the EU believes he can actually command a majority,” said one of the sources. “The thing about the PM was that they just didn’t believe she could ever get it through so were never going to give any more ground. If they think Boris can get it through, they might shift.”
It’s all about Brexit
Johnson has cast himself as the only leadership candidate who can deliver Brexit on the next deadline of Oct. 31 — with or without a deal.
The sources close his team said he was approaching his bid in a similarly quiet way to the Skripal manoeuvring. He has built support through behind-the-scenes talks with lawmakers rather through media appearances and speeches — and had been conspicuously absent from public sight until this week.
He has been listening closely to the counsel of his closest aides and veteran election strategist Lynton Crosby, who is not officially on the payroll but is offering advice.
Johnson’s strategy of steering clear of the airwaves and avoiding public head-to-head debates has been carefully thought through as part of a leadership campaign in the works for months in anticipation of May’s announcement five weeks ago that she would step down, said the sources.
The plan appeared uncharacteristic for a man who made his name by being highly visible, including appearing in comedy shows and one of Britain’s best-loved TV soap operas.
He even drew accusations from his only remaining leadership rival, Jeremy Hunt, of being a coward for avoiding head-to-head debates. Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said she found Johnson’s decision to ignore live TV debates “very odd.”
The strategy was partly borne of the fact that Johnson is widely viewed as a near-certainty to win the party leadership, and become prime minister, barring an unforeseen catastrophe.
Foreign Secretary Hunt voted to stay in the European Union in 2016, which is likely to count against him among the around 160,000 party members who will choose the winner and are mainly pro-Brexit.
However Johnson was forced to veer from the gameplan and break cover this week when he was faced with exactly the kind of negative publicity his team had hoped to avoid, after a neighbor called the police upon hearing Johnson and his girlfriend shouting and smashing plates.
Police found no cause for action, but the story dominated the front pages of Britain’s newspapers, with some questioning Johnson’s character and past — he is divorcing his second wife and has had several reported affairs.
Following the furor, he changed gear and launched into a media blitz on TV and radio.
Nonetheless, few in his party believe anything can seriously impede his cruise to 10 Downing Street.
“Boris is still well ahead with the membership who will ultimately decide who the next prime minister is,” said Conservative lawmaker and Johnson supporter Andrew Bridgen.
“The overriding issue is Brexit and unfortunately Jeremy voted remain.”