By TONY WALL
A world authority on terrorism has warned that New Zealand is a "cleaning and conditioning station" for Islamic terrorists conducting a holy war and that a suspected network uncovered in Auckland is not the only one operating in this country.
Yossef Bodansky, director of the United States Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, said he had been aware for some time of Islamic terrorist activity in New Zealand.
Mr Bodansky said he had corroborating evidence that a clandestine network of Afghan refugees uncovered in Mt Albert during a people-smuggling investigation in March was linked to terrorist networks inspired by Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden.
He said a small number of other networks continued to operate here.
Senior police intelligence officers refused to comment on the revelations yesterday.
Mr Bodansky, who is also director of research at the International Strategic Studies Association and a former senior US Defence Department adviser, said the Mt Albert group's activities and structure were identical to those of bin Laden's followers throughout the world. The cell had "all the characteristics of a high-quality, Afghan-based terrorist network."
Significantly, he said, none of the members of this network had been apprehended.
The Weekend Herald revealed last month that when police discovered the Mt Albert cell, they found evidence suggesting a conspiracy to attack the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney during the Olympic Games.
The lounge of the Mt Albert home had been converted into a virtual command centre, a street map of Sydney highlighted access routes to the reactor and a notebook contained details of police security tactics for the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland.
Mr Bodansky agreed to speak to the Herald on aspects of his research but said some confidential information could not be disclosed because of his work with the US Congress.
He said it was alarming that the Mt Albert group was discovered accidentally.
"This suggests that this and other dormant terrorist networks might have escaped discovery and monitoring so close to the opening of the Sydney Games.
"Hence, the security authorities ... must operate on the presumption that this was neither the first nor the last terrorist network lurking in and around Australia and New Zealand."
Mr Bodansky said there was independent confirmation that members of the Auckland group - including veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - had telephoned their superiors overseas, mainly in Pakistan, who were known terrorist leaders.
Mr Bodansky, author of the book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, said bin Laden was a "spiritual guide" and source of inspiration for the jihad (holy war).
Others were responsible for the "practical" aspects of getting the jihad implemented.
New Zealand was used as a staging post for terrorism because of its liberal society and "relaxed security environment," he said.
It was an attractive place for terrorists to come to gain refugee status and residency to get "clean" documents so they could travel the world easily.
Mr Bodansky warned that New Zealand's role in overseas conflicts opened it up as a possible target for Islamic terrorists.
"New Zealand is not a friendly country to them. In Timor, you have prevented the jihad from unfolding, in Bosnia you supported the US. You are not in the good guys' camp."
He said existing networks could, if the need arose, strike here, most likely targeting foreign diplomatic delegations or consulates.
Mr Bodansky said the Auckland network was not the first bin Laden-related network to be exposed in connection with the Sydney Games.
In March 1999, one of bin Laden's senior commanders, Hamoud Abaid al-Anezi, arrived in Melbourne, linked up with Iraqi refugees and began combing the Muslim community for young militants to join a jihad in Kosovo and Chechnya.
Mr Bodansky said al-Anezi's other mission was to set up a foundation for a network to strike out during the Olympics.
He said that around the same time, a Saudi or Yemeni operative of bin Laden arrived in Fiji to join a small group of Muslim militants and prepare for future terrorist operations, most likely in connection with the Olympics.
A New Zealand lecturer in religion and terrorism, Professor Jim Veitch of Victoria University, said he agreed that New Zealand was seen as an attractive proposition for Islamic terrorists, particularly those looking for "rest and recreation."
Professor Veitch said he was not surprised by Mr Bodansky's revelations.
New Zealand was a useful place for terrorists, who could use it as a "secure place" because of its relative naivety on fundamentalist Islamic affairs.