Five men who allegedly planned to get to Indonesia by boat so they could join Islamic State in Syria are facing life in jail after being charged with terror offences.
The men, including Islamic preacher Musa Cerantonio, were charged late on Saturday night after spending five days in custody following their arrest near Cairns towing a seven-metre fishing boat en route to Cape York in far North Queensland.
All five will face Cairns magistrates court on Monday, when officers from the Australian Federal Police’s joint counter terrorism teams will argue that they should be extradited to Melbourne.
The men, who are all from Melbourne and aged between 21 and 31, have each been charged with one count of making preparations for incursions into foreign countries to engage in hostile activities.
They face a maximum penalty of life in jail if found guilty.
Attorney-General George Brandis confirmed on Sunday that each of the men had had their passports cancelled several months ago by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
“These people had been under surveillance for quite some time – that’s the reason their passports were cancelled because they had been under surveillance and their intentions to travel to the Middle East to engage in terrorist war fighting were known to the authorities,” he told reporters in Brisbane.
“When it became clear to them that they wouldn’t be able to leave the country in an orthodox way, they remained under surveillance so that if they attempted to leave the country in this very unusual way they would be able to be stopped and they were.”
Senator Brandis said police wanted to extradite the men to Melbourne to face court because that was where they allegedly plotted their trip to Syria via Indonesia and bought the small fishing boat they planned to use to leave Australia.
He said police had executed 10 search warrants in Melbourne and far north Queensland as part of the investigation.
Senator Brandis stressed there was no current or impending threat of a terrorist act in Australia and the alert level remained at “probable”, where it has been since September 2014.
However, several people remain under police surveillance and will be arrested if they attempt a terrorist crime or try to leave Australia to take part in terrorist attacks overseas, he added.
“Obviously, at one level, there was an unusual character to the plot. I know it has been ridiculed,” he said.
“But these are serious crimes because they involve preparation to engage in terrorist war fighting overseas, and that is against Australian law.”
The men were charged after the AFP last Thursday successfully applied to a Cairns magistrate for them to be held in detention for an extended period under “specified time” provisions of the Crimes Act.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says the state’s police commissioner is keeping him in the loop about the case.
“These are sensitive and delicate matters and I wouldn’t want to say or do anything that might jeopardise anyone getting the outcome we would all want,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Sunday.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the case highlighted the need for Australian authorities to be constantly vigilant.
“The most important priority for any government always is the safety of the people,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“That’s the supreme responsibility and we are relentless in ensuring that we keep Australians safe.”
He said Barack Obama had thanked him last week for Australia’s “extraordinary contribution” in fighting Daesh, saying the US president acknowledged there were “real threats” faced by Australians.