One of Australia’s most notorious terrorist prisoners could be held in detention even after he finishes his prison sentence later this year.
The ABC has been told that Abdul Nacer Benbrika, jailed in 2008 for being a leader of a terror cell that plotted attacks on Australian soil, has been asked to undergo interviews with a forensic psychologist as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton considers whether to apply to have him locked up even after his sentence finishes in November.
Under Commonwealth legislation, people convicted of terror offences can be held in detention for up to three years after their sentence finishes if a state or territory supreme court grants an application by the Home Affairs Minister.
The orders can be extended at the end of the three-year period if the Court is satisfied the extension is necessary.
The ABC understands that representatives of the Commonwealth solicitor wrote to Benbrika, 59, in Victoria’s Barwon prison earlier this month to inform him that Mr Dutton was considering whether to apply to the Victorian Supreme Court for a continuing detention order (CDO).
It is believed that Algerian-born Benbrika has been “invited” to undergo an interview with a forensic psychologist who will then advise the minister on whether Benbrika is a risk of committing any further terror offences if he is released into the community.
It is unclear whether Benbrika has consented to the interview.
Who is Benbrika?
In 2004, a tip-off from within Melbourne’s Islamic community sparked a law enforcement operation called Pendennis.
It led to Benbrika and 16 other men in Melbourne and Sydney being arrested in 2005 and charged with various offences.
Members of Benbrika’s terror cell included Khaled Sharrouf, who gained international infamy by joining Islamic State in Syria and photographing his young son holding the severed head of a Syrian government soldier.
Peter Moroney is a former Detective Sergeant with New South Wales Police and helped investigate Mr Benbrika and his acolytes.
He said Benbrika was the guiding light for the men who were convicted from Operation Pendennis.
“Well, certainly with respect to the Victorians and in New South Wales, he was certainly the person they went to for spiritual guidance and reflection whenever they needed to, if they had queries.” Mr Moroney said.
“[Benbrika was] certainly the person that they turn to for guidance around religious interpretations or what they should or should not be doing.”
The ABC’s 7.30 program interviewed Benbrika three months before his arrest in August 2005, where he denied all links to terrorism.
“I am not involved in anything here. I am teaching my brothers here the Koran and the Sunna and I’m trying my best to keep myself, my family, my kids and the Muslims close to this religion,” he said.
In the same interview, Benbrika described Osama Bin Laden as a “great man” and said Islam “did not tolerate other religions.”
“There are two laws: there is an Australian law, there is an Islamic law,” he said.
Anyone who fights for the sake of Allah — when he dies, the first drop of blood that comes from him — all his sins will be forgiven.”
The comments drew swift rebuke at the time from then-prime minister John Howard.
At the trial in 2008, it was alleged that members of Benbrika’s terror cell had scoped out several high-profile targets for terror attacks and had even allegedly discussed killing Mr Howard.
Benbrika and seven Melbourne-based men were all found guilty in 2009 of various terror-related offences.
Benbrika himself was convicted of intentionally being a member of a terrorist organisation and intentionally directing the activities of a terrorist organisation.
Later that year, five men in Sydney were found guilty of planning the same attacks.
A further four men pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Order could be Australian first
Although the laws allowing post-sentence detention were introduced in 2017, it is believed that there have been no successful applications for a continuing detention order by the Minister for Home Affairs since then.
Several states and territories have post-sentence detention schemes for serious sexual or violent offenders.
Victoria, where Benbrika is imprisoned, has a scheme whereby serious sex offenders can be detained after their sentences have been completed.
They are housed in a dedicated facility in country Victoria, colloquially known as ‘the village of the damned’.
Clarke Jones, a senior research fellow in the Research School of Psychology at the Australian National University, said that he would be disappointed if Mr Benbrika’s case set a precedent for all terror offenders to be subject to continuing detention orders.
However, Dr Jones said that while he has misgivings about the CDO process, Benbrika is a good candidate for orders.
“He became a little bit more active when the Islamic State came to fall, during his 12 years of incarceration,” Dr Jones said.
“He’s had lots of visitors come to see him in [prison] and there’s been concerns not only that he had an influential effect on those visitors, but also on other inmates inside the prison.
I’m not a big promoter of prison radicalisation, I think it’s sort of overstated in many cases. But in Benbrika’s case, he has been influential on a number of other offenders.”
The ABC has been told Benbrika underwent at least some deradicalisation education during his 12 years in prison.
However, in 2014, he was moved from Port Phillip Prison to Barwon due to concerns that he was spreading jihadist ideology within the prison system and in the outside world through visitors.
In February, then-chief commissioner of Victoria Police Graham Ashton told a media outlet that Benbrika stood out among convicted terrorists as a concern for the state’s police force.
“Of all the people being released, he’s probably been the highest-profile offender,” Mr Ashton said.
“He’s someone we’re maintaining a close dialogue with the Commonwealth about regarding his pending release.”
The ABC asked Mr Dutton’s office several questions relating to Mr Benbrika.
It referred questions to the Department of Home Affairs, which said it did not comment on individual cases.