Five terror suspects caught trying to flee Australia to Syria by boat

Updated 9:00 AM EDT, Wed May 11, 2016
The seven-meter boat that authorities say five men were planning to flee Australia on. Australian Federal Police say the men were likely heading -- eventually -- to Syria to link up with extremist groups there.
PHOTO: Channel 7
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Story highlights

Men were accused of plotting to leave Australia by boat to become fighters in Syria

Their passports had been canceled because they had suspected links to terrorism

(CNN) —  

Five men on a terror watch list have been arrested on suspicion of trying to leave Australia by boat to join extremist groups in Syria, Australian police say.

The men are suspected of “potential offenses against the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act, specifically those concerning incursions into foreign countries to engage in hostile activities,” according to a joint press release by the Australian Federal Police, Victoria Police and the Queensland Police Service.

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As the suspects’ passports had been canceled, their only option to leave Australia was by sea. They were found with a seven-meter fiberglass cabin cruiser allegedly bought to make the trip.

“We have information to suggest these men had purchased a boat in Victoria, and had driven to far north Queensland, where their intention was to depart Australia,” AFP Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan told reporters in a press conference.

The interior of the boat authorities say the five men were planning to use to escape Australia.
PHOTO: Channel 7
The interior of the boat authorities say the five men were planning to use to escape Australia.

He said that the men had been under investigation for “a number of weeks.” Police swooped to arrest them near the northern Queensland city of Cairns.

CNN affiliate Seven News reports that their first likely port of call would have been Indonesia, 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) from northern Queensland. Images of the boat’s interior obtained by the network show just one plastic-wrapped case of bottled water for the five men.

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’Serious attempt’ to exit Australia

Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton suggested that the five were committed to joining extremist groups overseas, pointing to Syria as a likely final destination.

“This is a serious attempt by five men, who are of security interest to us, who have had their passports canceled, in attempting to exit Australia, so that they can make their way through boat, and then ultimately, we are investigating the intention to possibly end up in Syria to fight,” he said.

He acknowledged that some members of the public may see letting the five “take their chances in the waves” to be the best course of action, but said that authorities cannot allow Australians “to support terrorism anywhere.”

He said that if the suspects were to make it to Syria they could come back “battle hardened,” highly skilled and further radicalized, representing an even greater threat to Australians.

Authorities have executed nine search warrants in Melbourne and North Queensland to gather evidence for the investigation, the joint press release said.

“At this stage, they do not relate to offenses concerning the planning of a terrorist attack in Australia,” the press release says. All five are in police custody.

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Problem with radicalized teens

Last month, New South Wales police arrested a 16-year-old boy in Sydney on suspicion of plotting a terror attack on an Anzac Day ceremony, a similar narrative to arrests made a year ago, when five young men were arrested in Melbourne ahead of a 2015 Anzac ceremony, in what police then called a major counter terrorism operation.

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Other Australian teens have been seduced by the lure of extremism, including Abdullah Elmir, a 17-year-old Australian who allegedly fled to Syria before appearing in an ISIS propaganda video vowing to raise the ISIS flag over the White House.

CNN’s Chieu Luu and intern Claire Moran contributed to this story.