SYDNEY - United States authorities have uncovered a plot to set up a flight training school in Kiribati and suspect the man behind it may have had links to September 11 mastermind Mohammed Atta.
Since details of the plot emerged, media reports say Kiribati has asked for Australia's help to fight terrorism.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations said the man involved, Wolfgang Bohringer, was considered a "person of interest" and that he had close connections with a US flight school used by Atta, who masterminded the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
Mr Bohringer surfaced in the Pacific nation about a year ago and began talking up plans for a resort and flight school on Fanning Island - a remote outpost with no phones, no functioning airstrip but among the islands closest to Hawaii.
Mr Bohringer even had talks with Kiribati President Anote Tong, who was sceptical about his development plans.
"You've got to be wary of very, very good proposals. The temptation is there to go ahead, but I submit a procedure, all investors are checked out," Mr Tong said.
"We received information that maybe there was a little more to the proposal than there might appear to be."
Bill Paupe, who runs his own aviation business in Honolulu and is Kiribati's Consul in the US, said the flight school plan made no sense.
"Why would anybody want to set up a flight school there? It would be expensive, everyone would have to be brought in, they would have to be housed and fed. It didn't make any sense at all. I mean, no sense," he said..
"A rationale for setting up a private training school in such a remote location would be to get beyond the reach of regulatory agencies, whether it be the United States Federal Aviation Administration or the New Zealand or Australian civil aviation authorities."
The FBI briefed Mr Tong about its suspicions and warned small countries like Kiribati could be vulnerable to terrorists.
. "I think it may put the onus on the countries that would be threatened to assist us in providing that security. I think it is in their interest," Mr Tong said.
"I think it demonstrates how vulnerable small countries can be.
"We don't have the resources to be able to monitor everything and everybody that goes through our system but it has made us a lot more alert, I think.
"So we do look to neighbouring countries like New Zealand, Australia ... we do have relations with the Australian Federal Police."