Murder and mourning as gangland violence takes its toll in Sydney

As neighbours gathered to celebrate Ramadan, a popping sound filled the air.

“They used to blow up fireworks now and then; we thought it was fireworks so I went to have a look,” a Greenacre woman, who did not want to be named for safety fears, said.

Forensic police at the scene of Rami Iskander’s alleged murder, the latest in a spate of underworld shootings.Credit:Rhett Wyman/SMH

When she saw two cars speed off and sirens filled the air, the woman realised she was wrong.

The popping sound was in fact the volley of bullets directed at Mahmoud “Brownie” Ahmad, a career criminal and convicted killer shot dead in what homicide squad Commander Danny Doherty called a “meticulous assassination” in late April.

“They weren’t going to muck around with this one,” Doherty said.

“Obviously, the intention was to kill him and they were going to do that by firing as many bullets at him as they could.”

Mahmoud “Brownie” Ahmad, Tarek Zahed and Rami Iskander were targeted in gangland shootings in April and May 2022. Ahmad and Iskander were killed, while Zahed was in hospital a week after being shot.Credit:Facebook, supplied

Ahmad’s death – the first of three fatal shootings in a three-week period – came against the backdrop of ongoing gang violence in south-west Sydney that has seen 13 shootings in the past two years.

State Crime Command director Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett says the violence is informed by family conflicts and intergroup conflicts – but mostly the desire to control Sydney’s lucrative drug market.

“There are people fighting over the money to be made. That’s highly relevant,” Bennett told the Herald on Friday.

Compounding that problem? Police seizures, which often lead to conflict between those involved in drug imports.

Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett.Credit:Nine

“[A drug import] always represents an enormous financial investment, those things become drug debts,” Bennett says. Recent busts have “led to ruptures among those who stood to profit. When delivery is not met, other people think drugs should be paid for. The only solution is violence.”

Low-level conflict has simmered between the Hamzy and Alameddine crime families for years, with tensions rapidly escalating in October 2020.

Mejid Hamzy was gunned down outside the Condell Park home he shared with his wife and children.Credit:NSW Police

A brawl in Sefton was followed by several non-fatal shootings in quick succession. Then came the alleged assassination of Mejid Hamzy – the younger brother of notorious Brothers 4 Life boss Bassam Hamzy – who was gunned down outside the Condell Park home he shared with his wife and children.

Police believe Mejid’s murder was ordered by an international crime boss who erroneously believed that the 42-year-old had stolen 400 kilograms of cocaine. It’s not thought to be connected to the ongoing spate of fatal shootings related to the conflict between his family and the Alameddines.

“It’s a crime trend, not a bunch of people who know each other killing each other. It’s not cut and dried,” Bennett says.

“It links to interfamily conflict and intergroup conflict. It’s exacerbated by rumours and debts. This trend is how people are settling these scores in recent times.”

As the Hamzy family mourned Mejid’s death, a bloodbath was to come. Bilal Hamze, Bassam’s cousin, was assassinated outside a high-end Japanese restaurant in Sydney’s CBD in June 2021; teen gangster Salim Hamze was shot dead alongside his father Toufik in Guildford in October. Police say the 64-year-old Toufik was not involved in the underworld but killed by a bullet intended for his son. Another of Bassam’s brothers, Ghassan Amoun, was executed leaving a beauty parlour in South Wentworthville in January.

With the exception of Mejid’s, all of those murders remain unsolved.

Bilal Hamze’s funeral in June. He was assassinated outside a Japanese restaurant in Sydney’s CBD.Credit:Kate Geraghty

While these killings are “targeted”, they are often carried out in proximity to the public. In August, an innocent bystander was injured when 22-year-old Shady Kanj was murdered in a gang-hit while driving through Chester Hill. The stray bullet grazed the forehead of a man in another car – a matter of millimetres could have changed or ended his life.

“It’s completely unacceptable that people are behaving like this in the suburbs,” Bennett says.

The conflict seemed to diminish earlier this year, for a time. People connected to the Alameddine and Hamze families (different branches of the family use different spellings) were kidnapped, beaten and arrested, but nobody was shot dead.

In March, police whose thankless work is stopping underworld bloodshed appeared optimistic as they announced the arrest of the two alleged contract killers who gunned down Mejid Hamzy.

Police at the scene of Ghassan Amoun’s murder. He was executed leaving a beauty parlour in South Wentworthville in January.Credit:Brook Mitchell

“These organised crime groups were dominating south-western Sydney a year ago, that’s no longer the case,” Bennet told reporters at a March press conference announcing the arrests.

“It’s a giant step forward as far as managing these crime types and securing community safety… it is a good day for the people of NSW.”

The good days would soon end, with the execution of Mahmoud “Brownie” Ahmad six weeks later.
A longtime heavyweight in Sydney’s underworld, Ahmad fled to his native Lebanon when police issued a warrant for his arrest for a 2016 killing that police believe sparked at least five other deaths.

He was arrested upon his return to Sydney in 2017 and ultimately convicted and jailed for manslaughter. He was released on parole late last year.

Those investigating his death now face the difficult task of establishing who of Ahmad’s long list of enemies sanctioned his murder. Lines of inquiry include the ongoing conflict between warring families in south-western Sydney and a personal conflict between him and another high-profile underworld figure over a woman.

Two weeks later, there was another gangland shooting. Omar and Tarek Zahed were leaving Auburn’s Bodyfit gym when they were sprayed with dozens of bullets, killing Omar and leaving Tarek, the Comancheros sergeant-at-arms, in hospital. He is in a stable condition.

Gangland detectives had warned both the Zahed brothers and Ahmad they were marked men in the weeks before they were shot. Police say they all refused to lay low.

On Saturday morning, Belmore man Rami Iskander became the latest fatality in Sydney’s underworld since the start of last year.

The nephew of Mahmoud Ahmad, Iskander, 23, was shot dead as he returned just before 4am to the townhouse he shared with his pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter.

Investigators are working on two main theories – that Iskander’s threats to avenge his murdered uncle’s death led to him being killed, or that he was involved in the Zahed brothers’ shooting and was murdered for revenge.

A perceived slight on another organised crime figure’s wife is another theory.

All three recent shootings have followed a modus operandi that’s become familiar even to casual observers. The assassins wait for their target outside a location they are known to frequent, then open fire with dozens of rounds of ammunition. Invariably, two high-powered stolen cars are found on fire in nearby suburbs a short time later.

Since the killings began, NSW Police have appealed for public information, hounded gangsters with Serious Crime Prevention Orders designed to restrict movement and communications and formed numerous strike forces.

The latest, Taskforce Erebus, announced on Monday – which combines the three most recent murder investigations with a broader crackdown on the drug trade – has resulted in 13 arrests and the seizure of eight firearms, plus quantities of the drugs ‘ice’, heroin, and cannabis.

Whether or not it can actually de-escalate gang violence in Sydney remains to be seen.

NSW opposition police spokesman Walt Secord says the government has “dropped the ball on gangs” by reacting slowly to the growing body count since mid-2020.

NSW opposition police spokesman Walt Secord.Credit:James Brickwood

During 2020 and 2021, he says, police were preoccupied with the state’s COVID-19 response, which led to them “taking their eye off the ball”.

“Police were spending all this time enforcing public health orders, making sure people were wearing masks and things like that. And that’s the time when these criminal gangs flourished”.

He also slammed what he sees as a growing acceptance that gang violence is a part of life in western Sydney.

“If there had been 13 homicides in Sydney’s east, or the city’s north shore, the government would have had a much [more] prompt, efficient, effective response,” Secord says.

NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb addresses the media on May 11 about the latest shooting in south-west Sydney.Credit:Nine

This follows leaked government documents saying organised crime was running rampant across Australia and that agencies were struggling to fight it. NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith, who delivered the secret briefings to cabinet ministers and senior public servants, claimed that: “With the current legislation and the current powers, we’re [police] swinging a pool noodle and they’ve [crime bosses] got guns.”

NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb insists that contrary to these reports organised crime was under control.

“There is a small number of people that [are] causing this and we are tasking our police – with an increased presence in south-west Sydney and north-west Sydney – to respond to them, door knock them and make sure they comply with their conditions,” Webb said at a fiery press conference following Ahmad’s death.

New police powers to search the homes and vehicles of anyone convicted of a serious drug offence in the past decade were rolled out in a pilot program on Monday after passing Parliament in November. Secord wants it instigated statewide – something Police Minister and Deputy Premier Paul Toole says the government is open to, but not until the two-year pilot is evaluated by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

Toole says the investigation and disruption of organised crime “has been a constant and ongoing focus” for NSW Police. “Many of these investigations run for months and years and have continued right through the COVID-lockdown period.”

Bennett remains optimistic.

“We’ve got a good handle on who’s who, but getting to that point where we can prove it in court, that does take a bit of time. There’s a lot of work in gathering the evidence we have to collate to get before a Supreme Court murder trial.”

Those behind the killings have no such worries about admissible evidence.

“They operate on a far lower standard of proof,” Bennett says.

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