May 03, 2011
AUSTRALIAN security and counter-terrorism agencies are sharpening their focus on local militants with connections to Yemen.
It's where the terrorist group al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula is seen as the most likely perpetrator of future terror strikes against the West after the death of Osama bin Laden.
Between 20 and 40 Australians known to have travelled to Yemen in recent years are being monitored by the authorities, a senior security official said yesterday.
Some are believed to have had direct contacts with al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its leader, the dual US-Yemeni citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, or to have trained in AQAP's terrorist camps.
Authorities have monitored telephone and email communications between some of the Australians and Yemeni militants, while others have been monitored actively participating on jihadist internet forums.
One Australian who travelled to Yemen to study in an Islamic school was later found to have made a propaganda video featuring footage of bin Laden and posted it on a pro-al-Qa'ida website.
Australian officials share the view of their foreign counterparts that bin Laden's killing is likely to prompt reprisals.
"I think what it may do is radicalise a proportion of people who otherwise would not become radical," an intelligence source said yesterday on condition of anonymity.
"It may mean a couple of operations that are in the pipeline will be brought forward and that others which were not previously being planned will now be planned."
The source added that any retaliatory attacks were far more likely to occur abroad than in Australia.
Bin Laden's death has provoked mixed reactions within the Australian Muslim community. Most Islamic groups and leaders welcomed his death and the prospect for a phasing down of the decade-long war on terror, which many viewed as a war on Islam.
Sydney cleric Sheik Khalil Chami said yesterday he had encountered little sympathy for the al-Qa'ida chief.
"No one can offer any argument that this person (has) done anything good for us. The people who've been hurt most of all (by terrorism) is Muslims," he said.
However, the Sydney branch of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir lashed out at the US and Western governments, which it described as "the real terrorists".
"The reality is that Osama bin Laden was fighting in resistance to Western aggression against, and subjugation of, the Muslim world," said a Hizb ut-Tahrir statement.
The group's Sydney spokesman, Uthman Badar, told The Australian most Muslims did not believe bin Laden was behind the September 11 attacks on the US, and felt a sense of grief and sadness over his death.
Asked whether he believed there would be retaliatory attacks, Mr Badar said: "Maybe. There are always people who will respond emotionally." However, he said he did not believe any such reprisals would occur in Australia.
Counter-terrorism analyst Lydia Khalil, a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australia must adjust its domestic counter-terrorism focus as the al-Qa'ida threat migrated from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia.
"AQAP in Yemen and al-Shabaab in Somalia are seeking to transform their narrow national conflicts into part of the global jihad and have welcomed foreign fighters, particularly from the US, Europe and Australia," Ms Khalil wrote in an ASPI paper in March.
Even before bin Laden's death, US intelligence officials had assessed that al-Qa'ida's Yemeni offshoot was more of a threat than the core organisation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, describing AQAP as "more agile and aggressive" and the more potent threat to Western interests.
Ms Khalil wrote that AQAP had been responsible for all of the major terrorist plots against Western targets in the past two years, such as the attempt to blow up a US airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and the plot to put parcel bombs on two flights bound for the US in October last year.