By JOHN ANDREWS
WORLD EXCLUSIVE - New Zealand detectives have foiled a possible terrorist plot to target a nuclear reactor in Sydney, venue for next month's Olympic Games.
Partly as a result of a police investigation in Auckland, Australian authorities may order the Lucas Heights reactor, on Sydney's southern outskirts, to shut down.
The plot may have been hatched by Afghani sympathisers of Osama bin Laden, the Western world's most wanted terrorist - a suggestion that is believed to have raised alarm in official circles.
Weekend Herald sources revealed that members of what appears to be a clandestine cell of Afghan refugees in Auckland continue to maintain direct telephone links with suspected terrorist organisations in their strife-torn homeland, including the Mujahadeen, a fundamentalist Muslim volunteer group.
Detectives in Auckland stumbled on the apparent reactor conspiracy during an investigation into people-smuggling by organised crime syndicates.
They conducted a series of house raids in March and found evidence suggesting a conspiracy to attack Lucas Heights:
* The lounge of a Mt Albert home was converted into a virtual command centre, complete with conference table and maps.
* A Sydney street map was found with the site of the 1950s era reactor and access routes to it highlighted.
* Entries in a notebook outlined police security tactics, standards and chains of command for the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990.
* Signs of a clandestine cell of refugees granted New Zealand residency.
Agreeing that the evidence had sinister overtones, a senior detective told the Weekend Herald:
"It is circumstantial and suspicious. If it was not for the Sydney games, they [Australian authorities] would not be so tetchy. There is quite a bit of interest there."
Copies of the seized material had been sent to Australia.
The detective said the fact that an Iranian refugee possessed police tactic notes could be construed as an attempt to work out how police would respond in certain situations.
Readers could conclude that police methods were similar throughout the West. The big question was: why did they have those notes?
"The worry is they can fly out, do the job and come back in," he said. "Why do this if you are trying to get away from the nastiness? There's something funny about them.
"The average refugees want to make a home for themselves, get away from difficulties they confronted in the past and relish peace and tranquillity."
The marked street map showing Lucas Heights was in the possession of a man from the Iran-Afghanistan region, who claimed he found it inside a National Geographic magazine he bought at a garage sale.
The messages on the map, seemingly in Western-style handwriting, appear to indicate the author has some knowledge of police surveillance measures.
It is understood no arrests have been made connected to any anti-reactor plot or anti-Western criminal conspiracy, but investigations are continuing.
Investigators believe that, while most refugees are probably genuine in their efforts to obtain sanctuary, the ultimate aim of those involved in clandestine cells is to support, finance and create mayhem in countries such as the United States.
New Zealand residency is especially attractive to them because they are more likely to avoid suspicion when entering target countries on New Zealand passports, said one investigator.
Police say the cell they uncovered consisted of about 20 mainly Afghani refugees in Auckland who, they believe, have been familiarising themselves with the Western way of doing things, possibly as a forerunner to foreign forays.
Delving deeper into the cell's affairs, detectives began to suspect some newcomers were using the relative obscurity and remoteness of New Zealand as a launching pad for more sinister activity.
They found strong indications that at least some had military training and were engaged in armed conflicts before being granted New Zealand residency.
Photographs of new New Zealand residents brandishing AK-47s point to their earlier lifestyles.
Officers believe some refugees granted residency have fought previously in hotspots such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and Sri Lanka.
The Auckland police investigation has revealed another worrying aspect - the frequency of trips supposedly near-penniless refugees have made to Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Bin Laden, for whom the United States Government is offering a $US5 million ($11.65 million) reward, is a multi-millionaire Saudi extremist living under the wing of the ruling Taleban in Afghanistan.
Accused of motivating Muslims worldwide to commit terrorist acts, he has told his followers that their only means to reach heaven was to attack the United States and Israel.
Department of Immigration statistics for the past two years show about 200 Afghanis had their applications for refugee status approved and 17 were declined.
Police revelations have prompted official alarm on both sides of the Tasman.
New Zealand law enforcement agents are liaising with their counterparts in Australia, the United States, Canada and Britain while trying to keep one step ahead of potential terrorists.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported calls in April last year for the Lucas Heights reactor to be shut down for the Sydney Olympics, as Atlanta authorities did with a smaller research facility there before the 1996 games.
The Herald quoted a leading anti-reactor campaigner as saying nuclear authorities in Australia acknowledged a potential terrorism threat when they increased security at the Lucas Heights reactor during the 1990 Gulf War.
Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper reported, also in April last year, that Australia's spy agency - the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation - was investigating claims that bin Laden was trying to recruit members in the city.
ASIO and counter-terrorist police were on alert following sensational allegations which emerged in a court case in which an Iraqi national was accused of attacking a family for refusing to join bin Laden's extremist Muslim group.
©: New Zealand Herald
The battle between freedom and fanaticism
By JOHN ANDREWS