SYDNEY, Australia – Australian authorities arrested 17 terror suspects on Tuesday -- including a prominent radical Muslim cleric sympathetic to Usama bin Laden -- and said they had foiled a major terror attack on the country by men committed to "violent jihad."
The Australian Federal Police said the men were arrested in Sydney and Melbourne in coordinated raids that also netted evidence including weapons and apparent bomb-making materials. A prosecutor said the cleric, Abdul Nacer Benbrika -- also known as Abu Bakr -- was the ringleader.
"I was satisfied that this state was under an imminent threat of potentially a catastrophic terrorist act," said New South Wales Police Minister Carl Scully.
Police commissioner Graeme Morgan said one of the men arrested was shot and wounded by police in the raids, which followed a 16-month investigation.
Police declined to give details of the likely target of the attack, but Victoria state police chief Christine Nixon said that next year's Commonwealth Games, to be staged in Melbourne, were not a target.
Prime Minister John Howard thanked security forces in a nationally televised news conference.
"This country has never been immune from a possible terrorist attack," he said. "That remains the situation today and it will be the situation tomorrow. It's important that we continue to mobilize all of the resources of the commonwealth and the states to fight terrorism."
Abu Bakr -- an Algerian-Australian who has said he would be violating his faith if he warned his students not to join the jihad, or holy war, in Iraq -- was among nine men who appeared Tuesday morning in Melbourne Magistrates Court charged with being members of a terror group.
Prosecutor Richard Maidment told the court the suspects had formed a terrorist group to kill "innocent men and women in Australia."
"The members of the Sydney group have been gathering chemicals of a kind that were used in the London Underground bombings," Maidment said. He said Abu Bakr was the leader of the group.
"Each of the members of the group are committed to the cause of violent jihad," he added, saying they underwent military-style training at a rural camp northeast of Melbourne.
Seven of the suspects, including Abu Bakr, were ordered detained until a court appearance on Jan. 31. Two others were applying to be released on bail.
In an August interview with the ABC, Abu Bakr said that although he is against the killing of innocents, he could not discourage his students from traveling to Afghanistan or Pakistan to train in terrorist camps.
Abu Bakr told the ABC he is not involved with any terror cells in Australia. However, he said he supports Al Qaeda's aims and praised the group's leader.
"Usama bin Laden, he is a great man," Abu Bakr said. "Usama was a great man before 11 September. They said he did it and until now nobody knows who did it."
Australia has never been hit by a major terror attack, but its citizens have repeatedly been targeted overseas, particularly in neighboring Indonesia.
Last year, the country's embassy in Jakarta was badly damaged by a suicide bomber, and dozens of Australians were killed in bombings in 2002 and last month on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
Howard's opponents say his strong support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and decision to send troops there and to Afghanistan have made an attack on Australia inevitable.
Just last week, Howard warned that Australian authorities had received specific intelligence about an attack on the country and pushed through Parliament changes to existing anti-terrorism laws to allow police to arrest people involved in the early stages of planning an unspecified terror attack. Nixon said some of the arrests Tuesday were made possible by the new legislation.