Australia early al Qaeda target says Howard

CANBERRA - Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network had explored possible targets in Australia before the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday.

He said reports indicated that al Qaeda had been interested in mounting attacks in Australia in 2000 or 2001 - before the attacks in New York and Washington believed masterminded by the Saudi-born bin Laden.

"New information has come to light very recently," Howard told Parliament.

He did not give any details of possible targets, but Australia hosted the Olympics in Sydney in September 2000 - although the games passed without incident.

Howard said the new information backed his Government's decision to join the United States-led conflict in Afghanistan to hunt down bin Laden.

It also proved that sending troops to the United States-led war in Iraq had not put Australia more at risk, he said.

"Al Qaeda's targeting of Australia does not derive from our military involvement in Afghanistan or Iraq ... but from the fact we are a Western nation with Western values that are abhorrent to the militant theology which is at the heart of al Qaeda," he said.

Howard did not give any further details of the new information.

Australia was one of the first countries to join the US-led war on terror after the September 11 hijacked airliner attacks, including joining the conflict in Afghanistan against the Taleban, which was believed to be shielding bin Laden.

Australia's sense of security, built largely on its geographical isolation, was shattered last October when bombs on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Bali killed more than 200 people, including about 90 Australians.

Howard said the new information on al Qaeda's plans had not resulted in any change of the current threat level to Australia or to Australian interests abroad.

"No specific of other intelligence that we have received has indicated any current plans for an attack in Australia by al Qaeda or any other group that might warrant a change to the assessed terrorist threat level within our country."

- REUTERS

Herald Feature: The Sept 11 attacks

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