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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15206

Mr CAUSLEY (2:48 PM) —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister update the House on his recent discussions regarding cooperation in the global fight against terrorism?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the member for Page for his question. I know this is an issue that concerns him, his constituents and, indeed, most Australians. The government is very active in making a strong contribution to the war against terrorism, and this was a considerable focus of my recent visit to the Middle East. While I was in Saudi Arabia, I took the opportunity of focusing my visit very substantially on the need to take decisive action against al-Qaeda. I was, of course, in Riyadh just a few days after the al-Qaeda bombing had taken place in which quite a number of people were killed, including, I note, one Australian—and another Australian was injured. I was interested in the response of the Saudi government to this particular incident because not only is Saudi Arabia now taking more decisive and energetic action to counter al-Qaeda but the Saudi foreign minister made it clear to me that the al-Qaeda attack in Riyadh had had a decisive effect on public opinion in Saudi Arabia, turning that public opinion very strongly against al-Qaeda.

It is not a secret that there has been quite a lot of sympathy for al-Qaeda in many parts of Saudi Arabia. Honourable members will recall that most of those involved in the September 11 attacks were Saudi citizens, and Osama bin Laden himself, although he is not any longer, has been a Saudi citizen. The fact that the bombing in Riyadh had such a decisive effect on public opinion, turning it against al-Qaeda, I think it has to be said was one positive outcome from a dreadful act. The Saudis are continuing to focus very much on issues that I think are very important such as the financing of terrorism more generally and, to be specific, the use of financing of Islamic charities and Islamic schools in different parts of the world as a front for funding terrorist training and al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda related organisations.

There has been much speculation, including, of course, that coming from the United States, about the presence of al-Qaeda people in Iran. During my visit to Iran, in my conversations with all those I met there—with President Khatami, with the head of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani, with the Foreign Minister and the Supreme National Security Council head, Rowhani, I made the point that the Iranians should never underestimate the strength of feeling and the strength of passion in the broader international community to destroy al-Qaeda. I reminded the Iranians that Australians had been killed on September 11, Australians had been killed in Bali and an Australian was killed in Riyadh, and that this was not just an American obsession, this campaign against terrorism, it was something shared in just about every corner of the earth. It would be a matter of enormous and profound concern to the Americans but also to us if the Iranians did not take decisive action against an al-Qaeda presence in Iran.

The Iranians told me that it was their view that al-Qaeda people could get across the border, because Iran has a very large border. But they insisted that al-Qaeda was an enemy of the Iranian regime and the Iranian regime was al-Qaeda's enemy and that they were doing what they could to apprehend and to deport to their countries of origin al-Qaeda people within Iran. So I emphasised to the Iranian government also—

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Griffith!

Mr DOWNER —that the Americans have concerns that al-Qaeda personnel in Iran had knowledge of the Riyadh bombing before it took place and that this was another illustration of the global concern about a possible al-Qaeda presence in Iran. In every case, the people I spoke to said that Iran was determined to take action against al-Qaeda. I am pleased to report to the House that very soon after I left Iran the Iranian government arrested a further, I think, nine—but several, anyway—al-Qaeda people in Iran, and, if I may say so, that is a good sign. But, of course, we will just have to wait and see over time how effective the Iranians are in dealing with al-Qaeda.

I took the opportunity this morning on my return to Australia to telephone Secretary of State Colin Powell, to discuss with him this whole question of the efficacy of Iran's efforts to deal with al-Qaeda. I know that the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries appreciate the very significant role Australia plays throughout the world in the war against terrorism and the influence Australia was able to bring to bear on a country like Iran, in encouraging Iran to be a good deal more decisive in the action it takes against al-Qaeda than has been the case in the past.