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Muscle ... the gang at Burwood Court. Photo: Kate Geraghty
When two men in traditional Middle Eastern dress sat down with the owner of a Bankstown restaurant recently, they were after only one thing.
At first they shared a hookah pipe and chatted amiably about religion, but the conversation quickly turned to extortion: they wanted $50,000 in exchange for ''protection''.
The terrified restaurant owner told Fairfax Media they asked him a menacing question he was sure was rhetoric: ''Have you heard of Brothers 4 Life?''
Influence from jail ... Bassam Hamzy.
It's a question many south-west Sydney communities are grappling with as the gang founded by the murderer Bassam Hamzy attempts to flex its muscles in Sydney again.
With shootings and gun crime reaching fever pitch, the group's insignia of two crossed AK47 machine guns has appeared at crime scenes with increasing regularity.
On Wednesday, a handful of young men, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the ''B4L'' logo, arrived at Owen Street in Punchbowl following the brutal execution of Bachir Arja, a petty criminal with drug links who was shot up to eight times on the front lawn of his mother's house.
In October, Yehya Amoud was shot dead as he and a friend, Bassam Hijazi, sat on Greenacre Road in an expensive Mercedes that bore the number plate ''B F L''. And in August, a 16-year-old boy was shot in the leg in a driveway scrawled with ''Brothers 4 Life'' graffiti. T-shirts with the insignia could also be seen being worn by people who were among the crowd during the violent Muslim protest in Hyde Park in September.
Underworld sources said the group was on a recruitment drive looking for young Middle Eastern men who could act as foot soldiers and carry out drug runs and criminal acts in exchange for protection and power.
A senior police office investigating gang activity, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the group had become more of a ''banner'' than a gang with a formal structure, making it impossible to estimate the number of members.
Unlike a bikie gang, there was no leader that succeeded Hamzy when he was imprisoned.
Young male criminals are increasingly using the banner as a means of creating muscle, generating fear and intimidation and galvanising each other during a period of spiralling shootings, extortion and gun crime.
''The name and the logo is more an identifier that they use for intimidation,'' the police source said.
The lack of defined structure had led to clashes and anarchic activity within the ranks as some fought for influence or conducted their own business to the chagrin of others.
Mr Amoud, 27, allegedly fell victim to such internal conflict. Fairfax Media understands his close friend, a relative of Hamzy's, turned on him on October 14 and sent a spray of bullets through the front windscreen of his Mercedes.
The pair, who had matching tattoos on their legs, had met earlier on the day of the shooting before relations soured.
Asked what caused the fallout, an associate said: ''Only those guys and God know.'' Associates said they knew who the gunmen was but weren't co-operating with detectives, who had yet to make an arrest.
One Middle Eastern underworld source said there was a power vacuum in the south-west that was about to ''explode''.
In the past four months, six men, including Mr Amoud and Mr Arja, had been brazenly executed on the streets as various conflicts bubbled over from drive-by shootings to full-blown murders.
In the mix were conflicts over drugs, families, extortion and even foreign policy and sectarian lines, the source said.
''The whole area is going to erupt pretty soon - Punchbowl, Bankstown, everywhere,'' he said. ''There are a lot of issues at hand at the moment and a power vacuum with younger guys challenging the old guys that want to hold on to the power. It's scary because these hits have been assassinations.''
He was positive there would be retribution for the shooting of Mr Arja - which he said was an in-house family dispute - because he was shot in front of his elderly mother, Malake.
''Even with criminals, there's a code of conduct,'' he said. ''Doing it in front of parents, wives and kids is not on.''
It had put a blanket of terror over law-abiding community members who feared being extorted or targeted.
A Middle Eastern community leader, Jamal Rifi, said people were aware of Brothers 4 Life but didn't know who was behind it because they operated well away from the gaze of the community.
''It happens off our radar so we are very much in the dark,'' he said. ''The feeling right now is that we are in a terrible place to raise our kids. We are going to too many funerals.''
BROTHERS 4 LIFE BORN BEHIND BARS
Brothers 4 Life was formed by Bassam Hamzy, who was jailed for life in 2002 for the shooting murder of Kris Toumazis outside the Mr Goodbar nightclub in Darlinghurst and further conspiring to kill a witness.
While in prison, he continued to exert huge influence. In 2008, it was revealed he had been using an illegal mobile phone from Lithgow prison to make more than 400 calls a day to run a $250,000-a-week drug ring, arrange kidnappings and co-ordinate the gang.
He was then moved to Goulburn Supermax where his influence has waned yet many members still bear tattoos of his name.
The group forged alignments with the Bandidos bikie gang and the 600-strong Muslim Brotherhood Movement in 2008, leading to clashes with rival gangs such as the Comancheros and Hells Angels.
The Muslim Brotherhood was later disbanded and the Bandidos lost some of its influence, leading to a lull in activity among the Brothers 4 Life in recent years.