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Anti-Terror Raids In Australia Targeted Islamic Extremists

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Australia today, police carried out what is said to be the country's largest ever counterterrorism operation. Police say they foiled a plot, directed by a senior member of the Islamic State movement, to behead random members of the Australian public. Stuart Cohen has more from Sydney.

STUART COHEN, BYLINE: Eight hundred police fanned out across the immigrant-rich, western suburbs of Sydney in the predawn hours, raiding dozens of homes and vehicles. Fifteen people were arrested. Nine were later released. One's already been charged with planning a terrorist attack. Authorities say the plan was to randomly snatch people off the streets and behead them on camera, sending the tapes to the Islamic state, or ISIS, to use as propaganda. Prime Minister Tony Abbott says intelligence showed the plot was directed by an Australian national.

PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT: Quite direct exaltations were coming from an Australian, who is apparently quite senior in ISIL, to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country.

COHEN: Smaller raids took place in the suburbs of Brisbane. Authorities say they expect more arrests in the coming days. Meanwhile, New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione says he's stepping up police presence at major tourist sites, like Sydney Harbour, and at large sporting events.

ANDREW SCIPIONE: We have very high visibility police operations happening in areas where, potentially, people might want to either take some retribution or, in fact, create drama within communities. We won't be letting that happen.

COHEN: The operation comes less than a week after the government raised Australia's terror alert to its second-highest level, meaning an attack is now highly likely. Damien Kingsbury is professor of International Studies at Deacon University in Melbourne. He says this move plays well for a government struggling with unpopular domestic policies. But...

DAMIEN KINGSBURY: Having said that, there is a genuine concern with the potential threat from terrorist activities in Australia. We do have a large and growing Muslim population in Australia, which overwhelmingly are quite comfortable with being Australian. But there is a component of that population which doesn't find a happy home here.

COHEN: Members of the Muslim community are now concerned about a backlash in the wake of the raids. And some opposition members in parliament say the commitment of troops last week to a coalition to fight ISIS will only make Australia a bigger target for terrorism at home. For NPR News, I'm Stuart Cohen, Sydney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.