Hero dad: How I covered an Aussie terror plot

'The men were planning mass destruction'

Police officer Peter was part of the team which stopped Australia’s largest terrorist attack.

Here, Peter Moroney, 44, tells the story in his own words.

Leaving the obstetrician’s office, my wife Ruth and I got to the car park. ‘What did you think about what the doctor said?’ she asked me.

The truth was, I hadn’t heard a word, and I could see the disappointment written all over Ruth’s face. She was eight and a half months pregnant and this was one of our final ultrasounds.

I’d missed so many of the others, I’d been determined to make this one. But I’d completely tuned out. I’d let my job consume me again. A detective with the Counter Terrorism Coordination Command Investigations Unit, I was responsible for helping prevent terrorist activity in Australia.

After getting the job in 2003, my first investigation was Mahmoud, a 33-year-old Aussie who’d just been released on parole after committing drug offences. Intelligence had been received that while in prison, he’d reverted back to Islam. A big supporter of Osama Bin Laden, he had strong anti-western beliefs.

Staff at a local library had also reported Mahmoud using their computer to watch images of bombs exploding and the awful impact it had on victims. Along with other information, we were sure he was planning a terrorist attack on innocent Aussies.

father and little girl
My little girl was one of many Australians I was working to protect (Credit: Supplied)

After lots of surveillance, we suspected it was going to be carried out on the water at Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve. As tens of thousands of people gathered to watch the famous firework display, more than 100 officers were out watching every boat ramp on the harbour.

It felt strange that the world was going about its business blissfully unaware, while there was a deeply serious operation happening behind the scenes. Luckily, the night came and went without any trouble, and in time, Mahmoud was arrested on terrorism charges. But it was through our investigation of Mahmoud that we were led to a group of others who were planning their own violent attack.

The investigation became known as Operation Pendennis. It was soon clear two separate groups had formed, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, but they were both led by Abdul Nacer Benbrika. After spending years monitoring their phone calls, meet-ups and activities, we discovered the men had spent weekends on remote farms practising shooting. 

By March 2005, we were intercepting 80 different phones and working our way through around 100,000 phone calls, some of which had to be translated from Arabic. It was a mammoth task, but we discovered these men were building up a collection of guns, bullets and bomb-making materials, including litres of chemicals. They also had videos demonstrating step-by-step guides on how to build and detonate explosives.

It wasn’t a case of just turning up at their houses and arresting them all though. We needed enough evidence to prove their motive was to harm others. So although I couldn’t wait to be a dad, my mind kept wandering back to work. I felt guilty and torn.

After the ultrasound appointment, I realised that for about the past five months, I hadn’t really been home. Ruth had done it all on her own. 

The day our daughter was born, I felt excited, nervous and also a bit guilty. Here I was, with Ruth and our girl, yet I couldn’t help but think about the men who were possibly planning to cause mass death and destruction.

While I was on annual leave, what the squad were dealing with continued to plague my mind. These men wanted Aussies dead.

Back at work, I missed out on a lot at home as my little girl grew. Calling Ruth to tell her I’d be home late yet again, she took it on the chin.

I knew I had to stop putting the job before my family, but it was so difficult when we knew an attack was imminent.

Finally, it was confirmed that both New South Wales and Victoria police would simultaneously carry out a total of 25 raids on November 8, 2005.

On November 7, I made the usual call to Ruth saying I wouldn’t be home. She knew the following day would be the climax of 18 months work.

And thankfully, all nine of our targets – Khaled Sharrouf, Mohamed Ali Elomar, Abdul Rakib Hasan, Khaled Cheikho, ‘B’, Moustafa Cheikho, Mazen Touma, Omer Jamal and Mirsad Mulahalilovic – were caught and arrested. Melbourne police also successfully arrested several targets, including leader Adbul Nacer Benbrika.

Mohamed Ali Elomar
Abdul Rakib
Abdul Rakib Hasan
Adbul Nacer Benbrika
Moustafa Cheikho

On April 30, 2007, all nine Sydney defendants were committed to stand trial. However, four pleaded guilty to various charges. The remaining five stood trial for conspiring to prepare to commit an act of terrorism.

Eventually, in September 2009, they were found guilty. These men planned to commit a devastating attack, designed to kill and maim Australians. We worked together to prevent that happening. Years of hard work and sleepless nights had finally paid off.

“Terrorism in Australia: The story of Operation Pendennis,’ by Peter Moroney, is published by New Holland, on sale now.

Read more in this week’s issue of that’s life!, on sale now.

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