Australian religious extremist Musa Cerantonio has been arrested in the Philippines after boasting he had travelled to the Middle East to join jihadists.
The arrest of 29-year-old Melbourne-born Mr Cerantonio on the island of Cebu early Friday morning is a coup for Western intelligence agencies which have named him as one of the top two influential jihadist “inspirations” for fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Mr Cerantonio had announced on Twitter earlier this month that he had made it successfully to the Levant – presumably either Syria or Iraq – after leaving the Philippines where he was believed to be in hiding.
But Philippine police, who said they had been tracking him for a week, believed Mr Cerantonio had been in the Philippines for about a year.
Mr Cerantonio tweeted he was leaving the Philippines to join fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which began their march to try to capture Iraq’s capital in early June.
''Al-Hamdulillah (Thanks to God) I have arrived in the land of Khilafah (caliphate) in Ash-Sham (the Levant)! May Allah honour all Muslims during this blessed time with His obedience,'' he wrote on Twitter.
His arrival in the Middle East would have been a blow to Australian authorities who were reportedly hoping to issue a warrant for Mr Cerantonio's arrest.
The Australian Federal Police have been investigating the former Catholic convert to Islam and pursuing possible charges under Australia's Foreign Incursions Act, which prohibits fighting with foreign paramilitary organisations, including recruiting others.
Mr Cerantonio has previously used Facebook to urge Muslims to kill Western leaders.
Police and immigration agents stormed a village outside Cebu to arrest Mr Cerantonio who was with a Filipino woman who was also wanted for questioning.
Police said they recovered several SIM cards, mobile telephones electronic devices and cash during the operation. Cerantonio and a Filipino woman also had their passports and more than 14,000 Philippine pesos in cash, as well as other money in different currencies, the website said.
Mr Cerantonio was being flown to Manila where he was expected to undergo questioning at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Quezon City.
A warrant for his arrest had earlier been issued by Philippine police.
Police Senior Superintendent Conrado Capa said arresting police initially found no evidence linking Mr Cerantonio to terrorism or any terror group.
“The arrest was based on a plain and simple serving of warrant of deportation issued by the Bureau of Immigration,” Superintendent Capa.said.
However, Superintendent Capa said investigators will thoroughly examine the contents of the mobile phones and the sim cards seized from him to determine his local contacts and to check if he already has followers in Cebu.
Also arrested during the raid was Filipino Jean Navarro Montayre, 32, who was wanted by police for questioning on a charge unrelated to Mr Certantonio.
The Australian Federal Police are likely to seek Mr Cerantonio’s extradition to Australia where he is the subject of investigations.
"The AFP is aware that Philippine authorities have taken action in relation to Musa Cerantonio which may result in his return to Australia," the police said in a statement.
"As a matter of long-standing practice, the AFP does not confirm or deny whether it is investigating particular individuals, nor does it provide detailed commentary on intelligence and security matters.
"As this is an ongoing matter for Philippine authorities, it would not be appropriate to comment further."
with David Wroe
The story Australian Islamic preacher Musa Cerantonio arrested in the Philippines first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.