Australia On Alert After Gov't Warns Of 'Credible' Terror Threat

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The Australian government has issued an unprecedented warning to citizens that terrorists could launch attacks on home soil within the next two months.

Based on information received in recent days, Justice Minister Chris Ellison said the threat was linked to al Qaeda and associated groups.

He described the threat as non-specific in terms of dates or targets, but "credible."

The warning has prompted a flurry of meetings at state and federal level of law enforcement and other agencies, and state premiers have urged Australians to be cautious, but not alarmed.

Opposition figures have been briefed, and expressed support for the government's stance.

A recently upgraded security coordination center in Canberra has gone onto a 24-hour watch status.

Security experts believe Australia is a prime target for terrorist attacks for a number of reasons.

Dr. Sandy Gordon, a former head of Australian federal police intelligence, said that Australia's position at the forefront of the war on terrorism led by the U.S. placed it "very much in the sights" of terrorists.

"Although we're very small, we're very effective in terms of particularly the Special Forces capability that we're able to bring to bear [in Afghanistan]," added Gordon, who is visiting fellow at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Australia's geographical location is also relevant, in particular its proximity to Asia, where al Qaeda and affiliated groups like Jemaah Islamiah (JI) are active.

"In a sense, that raises our profile beyond, say, a country like Canada," Gordon told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Al Qaeda's involvement in Southeast Asia has come increasingly to light over the past year. Operatives or sympathizers have been exposed - and in many cases arrested - in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

In Indonesia, Australia's immediate neighbor to the northwest, some Islamists have portrayed Australia as America's regional sheriff.

Canberra's leading role in a peacekeeping mission in predominantly Catholic East Timor - which became independent from Indonesia earlier this year - remains a sensitive point in the Islamic country.

Although it's still unclear whether the primary targets of the men who bombed nightclubs in Bali last month were Australians, Americans or Westerners in general, about half of the 190 or so people killed in the attack were Australians.

Australians have also died in other terror attacks around the world, including those in the U.S. on Sept. 11 last year.

But terrorist attacks on Australian soil have been few and far between. The most serious was a bombing at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney back in 1978 during a Commonwealth heads of government meeting, in which three people were killed.

Since then, there have been a handful of other attacks, including one against an Israeli mission in Sydney in 1982 and another at a Turkish consulate-general in Melbourne in 1986.

Terrorism experts, and others like the U.S. ambassador, have been warning for months now that Australians should not feel they are immune from terrorism as a result of their geographical isolation.

But this week's warning is believed to be the first time the government has come out with a specific warning of a threat to Australians at home.

In his statement, Ellison said the threat was not related to recent police and intelligence raids on the homes of Muslims suspected of links to JI.

It was also not connected to the arrest in Western Australia on Monday night of a Muslim convert in connection with an alleged plot to bomb Israeli diplomatic missions in Canberra and Sydney, he added.

In a taped message last week attributed to fugitive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Australia was warned that it had made itself a target both because of the East Timor episode and because of its involvement in the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Other U.S. allies were also named and threatened in the message.

Meanwhile, three international schools in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, are to remain closed Wednesday because of terrorism fears.

The Jakarta International School - one-third of whose more than 2,000 students are Americans - the British International School and the Australian International School have been shut for several days.

School officials said the closures were pending a satisfactory response to requests for the government to step up security. They have already reported some improvements.

Late last week the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta said it had received "credible information about possible targeting of schools in Jakarta associated with Western interests" and advised Americans to "consider avoiding school attendance at this time."

After the warning, U.S., British and Australian diplomats met and asked the Indonesian police to upgrade the provision of security at the various campuses.

Jakarta International School principal Niall Nelson said in a statement that the decision on when to reopen depended on the host government's response.

He noted that in addition to armed security guards employed by the school, armed police had also now been posted outside the institution, which may re-open on Thursday.

Peter Hoggins of the British school said there was "an obvious increase in the number of police" at the school on Tuesday and this would be enhanced further by Wednesday.

"We hope to reopen on Thursday if the security provision continues to be satisfactory."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow