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COUNTER-TERRORISM agencies fear that local extremists are increasingly using mobile phones connected to overseas networks to thwart investigators and spread hardline propaganda.
Agents from Victoria Police and ASIO are investigating the sale of mobile phones within Melbourne’s Somali community that are being used to receive al-Qa’ida-linked motivational videos of Islamic extremists torturing and beheading “infidels”.
The connection of mobiles to overseas networks is frustrating police as bugging telephones has been a good method of tracking and infiltrating suspected extremists. The Weekend Australian understands the mobile phones are being sold at some hardline Islamic prayer halls and mosques in Melbourne for between $500 and $1000.
It is believed the phones are connected to telephone networks in Lebanon and Syria.
The phones are connected to anonymous foreign accounts and calls, emails and video messages are limited to phones using the same overseas network to make them more difficult to trace.
Making overseas calls from an international phone in Australia involves the transmission of signals to a local phone tower, which then sends a signal to a fixed-line network before getting through to the overseas destination.
Phones connected to overseas networks are more difficult if not impossible for authorities to track.
Security sources told The Weekend Australian there was concern the phones were predominantly being sold to young Muslim Somalis who were vulnerable to extremist messages.
“The phones are able to receive and send all sorts of videos, including radical sermons, assassinations and beheadings of infidels by Islamic terrorists,” a security source said.
Australian Federal Police Association chief executive Jim Torr said the AFP was aware that criminals were increasingly using phones connected to overseas networks.
“And it’s not just your profit-motivated criminals who will use this (technology), it’s also terrorists who will use mobile phones in particular, so it’s certainly a big deal,” Mr Torr said.
It is understood that Victorian authorities are looking at ways of involving telecommunications networks such as Telstra in the latest investigation through the Special Projects Unit, which has an agreement with networks entitling it to obtain call records.
Among the alleged distribution points is the Eight Black prayer centre in North Melbourne. The centre has been the subject of a federal police investigation, Operation Rochester, as well as investigations by Victorian police and ASIO, over the past two years after allegations that radical sermons had been preached at the prayer hall and young Somalis attending the centre had returned to join Islamic jihad in their homeland. The investigations are ongoing.
Islamic leaders at Eight Black, including senior imam Sheik al-Somali, have rejected accusations that the prayer centre is a proponent of radical Islam.
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Agents believe the primary seller of the phones is a Somali community member from Melbourne’s northern suburbs. They said they were unaware of how many phones were in circulation.