It’s almost forgotten now but one of the most notorious terror acts perpetrated on Australian soil was conducted by a little known group against a Turkish diplomat.
In the attack on December 17, 1980, unknown gunmen assassinated Sarik Ariyak, the Turkish consul-general in Sydney, and his bodyguard Engin Sever. The culprits got away but there was little doubt they were linked to the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG).
The terror group wanted an Armenian homeland, plus Turkish acknowledgement of the Ottoman empire’s alleged murder of perhaps 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-23. Its members conducted a series of deadly attacks against Turkish diplomats and interests throughout the world in the 1970s and 1980s.
Federal cabinet papers for 1983 – released by the National Archives of Australia – reveal the Australian Security Intelligence organisation (ASIO) was sufficiently concerned about an attack that the government initiated a “special counter-terrorism risk alert”.
In a briefing to cabinet on October 24, 1983, ASIO warned that JCAG had been planning an operation in Australia, although it wasn’t clear if that could happen in the near future.
Much of the ASIO briefing document to cabinet was heavily redacted.
But enough remains to give a clear idea of the basis for ASIO’s concern about a possible imminent event.
The document says a JCAG member in Sydney, Krikor Keverian, was found to have four handguns in his luggage when returning from Los Angeles on July 12.
The next paragraph is blacked out but is followed by the intriguing sentence: “It is believed they were the ‘important things’ that he was reminded to bring back with him by Silva Donelian whom ASIO believes played some role in the killing in Sydney in December 1980 of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard.”
As well, the document continues, a man named as Levon Demirian was planning to return early from Beirut on July 13 “because something had been brought forward”.
His visit was cancelled after the discovery of the handguns.
On July 14, another Armenian, Agop Magarditch, who had recently returned from the US, reported to authorities there were guns in a shipment of furniture and personal items en route to him from Los Angeles.
That was duly intercepted and found to include a submachine gun, five handguns, ammunition, information on assassination and much more.
“It is our suspicion that Magarditch, on hearing of Keverian’s arrest, panicked and reported the weapons,” ASIO said.
The agency cited a series of more recent developments, including agent reports that Demirian was in Australia and that he had probably come in under an alias.
“Such an entry would suggest operational motive. Any operation would almost certainly require an overseas commander and as the cell in Los Angeles is in disarray, Beirut is the likely source of such a person,” ASIO said.
ASIO said another man, John Assadourian, had been appointed Keverian’s “bodyguard” for reasons that could only be speculated upon.
“In any event it identifies Keverian as a person of some significance in the eyes of his associates,” ASIO said.
The report cites a failed JCAG attack on the Turkish embassy in Lisbon on July 27 in which some of the attackers came from Beirut and all were equipped for a protracted siege.
“The possible significance of the Magarditch shipment and of Demirian’s involvement is made clearer by this information,” ASIO said.
It concluded handguns being brought into Australia by Keverian were destined for use in some JCAG operation, in which Demirian was to be involved.
The possibility that this was to have been a siege/hostage operation could not be overlooked.
ASIO said JCAG prepared its operations carefully, sometimes over 12 months, and that what was planned could have been in its early stages.
It recommended the alert should continue to November 6, and be extended if there was significant new information.
In the meantime, ASIO said surveillance of selected JCAG members would continue, as would telephone interception.
As well, NSW police had been asked to interview selected people with the aim of deterring any operations and locating Demirian.
That might have worked in the short term but subsequent events showed ASIO’s concerns were wholly justified.
Around 2.16am on November 23, 1986, a car bomb exploded prematurely in the basement of the Turkish consulate in Melbourne, obliterating Hagop Levonian, who was subsequently identified as one of the bombers.
His accomplice Levon Demirian was jailed for 25 years for murder, although that conviction was quashed on appeal and he ended up serving 10 years for conspiracy.