April 23, 2015 / 2:43 AM / 2 years ago

Australian Islamic center linked to Gallipoli centenary plot shuts down

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian Islamic community center linked to five men arrested for planning an attack at a World War One centenary event said on Thursday that it was closing immediately, citing harassment.

More than 200 police launched a series of raids in the southern city of Melbourne on Saturday following a month-long sting operation aimed at disrupting the alleged plot.

Victorian state Premier Daniel Andrews said the men were “associates” of Abdul Numan Haider, an Islamic State sympathizer who was shot dead last year after he stabbed police officers, and who was known to have attended the Al-Furqan Islamic Centre in Melbourne.

Al-Furqan said in a statement on its website that it would shut its doors immediately, citing what it called harassment from the media, police and government.

“We believe that given the constant harassment, pressure and false accusations leveled against the center ... this is the best course of action for the protection of the local community, its members, and the broader Muslim community that is often implicated in these insidious campaigns,” it said.

The run-up to this year’s centenary of the landings at Gallipoli - a major holiday in Australia and New Zealand - has been has been marred by concerns that radicals may target the celebrations for a high-profile attack.

The Australian newspaper reported that the most senior Australian recruiter for the Islamic State in Syria, Neil Prakash, was also a former member of Al-Furqan.

In a video recently posted online, Prakash urges followers of the Islamic State to attack targets in Australia.

Australia has sent hundreds of soldiers to Iraq to help train forces fighting the Islamic State, heightening concerns about reprisal attacks in the homeland.

Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its action against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, has been on heightened alert for attacks by home-grown Islamist radicals since last year.

Canberra raised the national terror threat level to “high” for the first time last September, when hundreds of police conducted raids after receiving information that Islamic State supporters planned to conduct a public beheading.

Australia believes at least 70 of its citizens are fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, backed by about 100 Australia-based “facilitators”.

Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie

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