1 August 2003

Hijack alert based on one al-Qaeda source:

The warning that terrorists might try to hijack aircraft originating from Australia to attack the United States came from a single al-Qaeda operative only recently arrested and interrogated by US agencies.

Government sources have told the Herald the Americans passed on the news to Australian intelligence agencies in the middle of last week, but that ASIO had been against making it public because it saw the information as a 'single piece of intelligence which remained untested'.

But it privately briefed Qantas, a number of other airlines and the Australian Federal Police on the matter late last week.

Last night CNN named the source as Ali Abd al-Rahman al Faqasi al-Ghamdi (also known as Abu Bakr al-Azdi). He was one of the key organisers of the May suicide bombings in Riyadh.

It remains unclear if the idea of striking the US using aircraft hijacked from countries such as Australia, Italy and Britain was simply 'an idea in the operative's head', or if it had progressed to a planning stage, Government sources said. This would emerge from further interrogations.

However, the information was significant because it revealed al-Qaeda continued to see aircraft as targets, and that it had been testing airline security by seeking to adapt as weapons 'everyday items' , such as cameras, which passengers were still allowed to carry on to planes.

It is understood that ASIO and other Australian agencies were caught by surprise when the US embassy in Canberra advised them on Monday night, local time, that the US Homeland Security Department had issued the memo nominating Australia as a possible 'attack venue'.

ASIO immediately advised the Americans that it regarded the wording as inaccurate, and that the intelligence identified Australia as a possible launch-site for an attack rather than a target."

I've stayed with this story all day because the breaking shifts and changes exemplify a whole lot that is wrong with the War on Terror. The treatment of intelligence by Australia and the US throughout this exercise was more about the domestic impacts of the threat any assessment than any actual threat. The raw intelligence proves to be one individual. The raw intelligence is treated very differently in the two nations. In the US a heightened threat is an excellent technique for taking the heat off the administration. In Australia it's bad for the tourist business and reflects on the government's preparedness so suddenly our intelligence people are prepared to question this in a way they never questioned the Iraq assessment.

The most interesting thing is that our director-general of intelligence and security is suddenly in public disagreement with their department of homeland security and has questioned their comeptence. I cannot recall that ever happening before.

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