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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15460

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (2:04 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Would the Prime Minister inform the House of the advice available to the government about when Australia first became a terrorist target for al-Qaeda?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I thank the member for Blair for what is a very important question. It is clear that Australia has been an al-Qaeda target since at least November 2001. We know this because on 3 November 2001 Osama bin Laden first made specific reference to Australia when he criticised Australian troops in East Timor, who were there under UN auspices, as a `crusader force'. Bin Laden specifically mentioned Australia on two subsequent occasions, most recently following the Bali attacks. A recent statement on 21 May by bin Laden's spiritual mentor and deputy al-Zawahira confirmed that Australia remains a terrorist target. I can now inform the House that new information has come to light very recently indicating that al-Qaeda explored possible targets in Australia in 2000 or 2001. These reports indicate that al-Qaeda's interest in mounting attacks in Australia actually predated the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

Al-Qaeda's targeting of Australia does not derive from our military involvement in Afghanistan or Iraq. Rather, al-Qaeda's interest in attacking Australia derives from the fact that we are a Western nation with Western values that are abhorrent to the militant theology which is at the heart of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has a transparent self-interest in trying to attract support for its terrorist cause by seeking to present its inhumane attacks as a response to specific events such as East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. This new information of course relates to past planning and past events.

I want to reassure the House that it has not resulted in a change to current threat levels either in Australia or for Australian interests abroad. No specific or other intelligence has been received indicating any current plan for an attack in Australia by al-Qaeda or any other group that might warrant a change in the assessed terrorist threat level within our country. The government remains committed to doing everything possible to protect the safety of Australians from terrorism. If any information were to come to light which caused the government to change the assessed terrorism threat to Australia, the public would be advised without delay.

Finally, I inform the House that at my request the Leader of the Opposition was specifically briefed on this new information on 26 May by the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.