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Friday, January 05, 2007

Police hunt Aussie trained by al-Qa'ida

The Australian January 05, 2007

AUSTRALIAN Federal Police are investigating claims an Australian is among a group of 12 Western recruits training with al-Qa'ida terrorists in Pakistan's lawless northwest.

The group is reported to have been nearing the end of a year-long terrorist training course in tribal Waziristan, a hotbed of militant Islamic insurgents.

One possibility, canvassed yesterday by terrorism expert Clive Williams, is that the suspected Australian is missing former soldier Mathew Stewart.

The allegation that an Australian was with al-Qa'ida surfaced in an article published in Newsweek magazine last week.

It reported that a man identified as Omar Farooqi, who claimed to be a senior Taliban liaison officer to the al-Qa'ida terror group, said he had just completed five weeks helping to train and indoctrinate a group of foreign recruits.

Farooqi is quoted as saying the mission for the foreign recruits was to act as "underground organisers and operatives for al-Qa'ida in their home countries".

He said the other foreigners were two Norwegian Muslims and nine Britons. The AFP said it was following up on the claims.

"The AFP is aware of media reports of 12 people described as Westerners undertaking training in Pakistan.

"The AFP treats all reports of terrorist training activity seriously. Through its international network, the AFP regularly liaises with partner law-enforcement agencies overseas in regard to a range of trans-national crime issues and that includes terrorism," a spokesman said.

Mr Williams, one of the country's leading terror experts, told The Australian yesterday that the person identified as the Australian al-Qa'ida trainee was most likely Mr Stewart, a disaffected former soldier.

Mr Stewart, who served in East Timor as a peacekeeper, returned home depressed after witnessing atrocities there, according to his mother, Vicki Stewart.

In August 2005, federal police visited Mr Stewart's family on Queensland's Sunshine Coast as part of an investigation into an al-Qa'ida video aired on the al-Arabiya network purportedly showing a disguised man speaking with an Australian accent.

In it he threatens: "As you kill us, you will be killed. As you bomb us, you will be bombed."

Ms Stewart denied the voice was her son's, and said they had not been in contact with each other for several years.

Mr Williams said Mr Stewart's value to al-Qa'ida would be more for propaganda than as a terrorist operative.

"The main value of Mathew Stewart to them (terrorists) is his ability to be used in videos and encourage others to join," he said, adding that one of the biggest concerns for Australian security agencies would be keeping checks on people of Middle Eastern origin who had slipped offshore for terrorist training.

The existence of terrorist training camps along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan was relatively well-known by Australian and other Western security agencies, Mr Williams said.

Federal Opposition homeland security spokesman Arch Bevis called on the Howard Government to immediately investigate claims of Australian links to al-Qa'ida and to focus on the terrorist problem in Afghanistan.

"If these reports are accurate, then it represents a real and present threat to Australia. Suggestions by some experts that the al-Qa'ida operative may be a disaffected former Australian soldier are particularly worrying," Mr Bevis said.
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