By GREG ANSLEY
CANBERRA - The Australian Government has confirmed that its embassy in Pakistan issued a visa to al Qaeda's former military commander a month before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.
The attacks were masterminded by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, now held in a secret CIA prison after his capture in February last year, and may have been the reason al Qaeda deferred a suspected attack on Sydney airport.
The Government has also conceded that it can never guarantee that terrorists will not evade even the stringent measures that have been imposed since the 2001 attacks.
"Nobody can guarantee it will never happen," Attorney-General Philip Ruddock told Channel Nine's Today breakfast programme yesterday.
"All you can do is use your best endeavours, through your security agencies, to identify everybody who is of concern and try and identify all the aliases and assumed names that they might try and use."
Confirmation by Mr Ruddock that a tourist visa was issued by consular officials at the Islamabad embassy to one of the world's most hunted terrorists has come in the heat of an election campaign in which terrorism and national security are playing a central role.
It also follows the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta by Jemaah Islamiyah, a group with links to al Qaeda, and has hardened belief that the nation has become a target for terror.
The Government leaped on the revelation to show that terrorists were targeting Australia before the nation's involvement in Iraq, in contrast to Labor claims that involvement in the Gulf had increased the risk of attack.
"It happened, interestingly enough, before the 11th of September, 2001, and does underline the fact that al Qaeda had an interest in this country before the terrorist attack on New York and Washington, and before the involvement of Australia in Iraq," Prime Minister John Howard said.
Al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had told biographer Hamid Mir that he had visited Australia and New Zealand in 1992 in a bid to raise support for the organisation throughout the region.
But Mr Ruddock said that when the alias used by Khalid became known the visa was cancelled and there was no record that the key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden had visited Australia under his own name or any of his known aliases.
At the time the visa was issued, in August 2001, Khalid was known to have been using 24 aliases.
Details of Khalid's visa were revealed yesterday by The Australian newspaper, which said the visa had been provided despite the terrorist leader's involvement in the first World Trade Centre bombings in 1993.
The Australian said senior regional intelligence officers who had studied the Khalid case believed he was targeting Sydney airport - where he intended to meet two other al Qaeda operatives - but might have been sidetracked by the planning of September 11.