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Prime Minister confirms agencies knew for some time about Spanish al Qaeda links.



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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.

 

It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.

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PM

 

Thursday 4 September 2003

Prime Minister confirms agencies knew for some time about Spanish al Qaeda links

 

MARK COLVIN: But first this evening, the Prime Minister confirme d today that Australian agencies have known for some time about links between a top al-Qaeda suspect being held in Spain, and two men in Australia. 

 

At the same time, Mr Howard said that the Australian Federal Police had requested to interview the terror suspect, Abu Dahdah a short time ago, and were still waiting for a response. 

 

So what's the reason for the delay? 

 

The Police say it's not a question they can answer for operational reasons. 

 

But Labor's Foreign Affairs Spokesman, Kevin Rudd, is calling for answers from the Federal Government. He says it looks like Australia has had its eye off the ball. 

 

Peta Donald reports. 

 

PETA DONALD: Last night, this program told the story of the Spanish court documents, linking a top al-Qaeda suspect in jail in Spain, Abu Dahdah, with two men in Australia. 

 

The Melbourne Cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Omran, had been telephoned by Abu Dahdah, and mentioned in his diary. 

 

The Sydney man, Bilal Khazal, from the Islamic Youth Movement, is described in the documents as a close associate of Abu Dahdah. 

 

Abu Dahdah was taken into custody in Spain shortly after the September the 11th attacks two years ago.  

 

The information about his alleged Australian connections was available to the Spanish court from April last year, or earlier. 

 

Through a translator, Abu Dahdah's lawyer, Jacobo Teijelo told Nick McKenzie, that Australian authorities have shown no interest in his client. 

 

(Sound of Jacobo Teijelo speaking) 

 

JACOBO TEIJELO: (translated) If Australian authorities had any interest they would have sent people to interrogate my client like other countries have. For example, Belgian investigators asked him questions for seven hours. He gave answers to every single question they put to him. He wouldn't hide anything from anyone who’s interested in talking to him. 

 

NICK MCKENZIE: And so your client wouldn't have a problem then if Australian authorities were interested in him? 

 

(Sound of Jacobo Teijelo speaking) 

 

JACOBO TIEJELO: (translated) No problem with anyone. Of course, he's open to approaches from anyone who wants to ask him anything. 

 

PETA DONALD: Abu Dahdah's possible connection with Australia has been in the public arena for almost two years. 

 

Melbourne's
Herald Sun newspaper ran a front-page story in November 2001 saying the terror suspect had telephoned a Muslim leader in Australia. 

 

So why haven't the Australian Federal Police or ASIO been to Spain to interview the prisoner? 

 

John Howard was asked about the issue, by Louise Maher, on ABC Local Radio in Canberra this morning. 

 

JOHN HOWARD: They're not revelations to the Government. 

 

The Government agencies have known about these contacts for some time and as indicated by the Federal Police, the two people concerned are described as people of interest to our authorities and on top of that the Police have sought the permission already of the Spanish authorities to interview the man in Spain. 

 

LOUISE MAHER: When did they do that? 

 

JOHN HOWARD: They did that a little while ago. I'm not going to say exactly when, but it's my understanding that it had been done a little while ago, it’s my understanding it’d been done a little while ago. 

 

LOUISE MAHER: That they sought permission. Have they been granted permission? 

 

JOHN HOWARD: We're still waiting to hear so I'm told. 

 

LOUISE MAHER: Do you expect there will be any problems getting permission to interview Abu Dahdah? 

 

JOHN HOWARD: I would not think so. 

 

PETA DONALD: So the AFP made the request a little while ago, after knowing of the allegations for some time.  

 

The Prime Minister was pressed further. 

 

LOUISE MAHER: Can you tell us the time gap between when the Australian authorities were made aware of these links and when they sought permission to interview? 

 

JOHN HOWARD: I would not be able to tell you that without further checking, no. 

 

PETA DONALD: Labor's Foreign Affairs Spokesman, Kevin Rudd, is not taking that for an answer. 

 

KEVIN RUDD: The ball is well and truly in John Howard's court. 

 

This is the Prime Minister who talks about national security, day in, day out. A Prime Minister who is first class at the rhetoric of national security. 

 

I think what the Australian public want to see is some reality, a bit of practicality. 

 

PETA DONALD: Do you see that there could be any reasonable explanation for why the Australian authorities are yet to interview this terror suspect in Spain? 

 

KEVIN RUDD: If there is a reasonable explanation for the delay in interrogating what has been described as a key al-Qaeda operative in Spain with alleged links with Mohammad Othman, who has had a central role obviously in the September 11 attacks, if there is a reasonable explanation for this delay for Australian authorities investigating this individual and interrogating him, that reason hasn't been conveyed yet to either the Australian Opposition or to the Australian public. 

 

PETA DONALD: The Federal Police say it's an operational matter and they can't comment any further. 

 

MARK COLVIN: Peta Donald