Dylan Welch July 22, 2011
The Opera House in Inspire.
AUSTRALIAN citizens continue to travel to Yemen to meet and train with al-Qaeda associates, which may explain why the use of an image of the Sydney Opera House in an online terrorism magazine has so startled Australia's counter-terrorism officials.
The image, revealed by The Age yesterday, was used to illustrate the introduction to a section on bomb making in the latest issue of Inspire, an English-language magazine published by associates of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The group, based in Yemen, has played a role in all the recent high-profile terrorist attacks in the US and Europe, including the Fort Hood shooting, the failed Times Square bombing, the ''underwear bomber'' plot and last year's cargo bomb plot.
Australia's intelligence agencies and police are treating the image with concern because of the possibility it might encourage ''lone wolves'' - people who commit terrorist acts without direct contact with terrorist groups. Such people are particularly difficult to detect.
''[Inspire] is trying to equip usually disgruntled young men with the skills they need to develop weapons of destruction: how to construct a bomb; how to use weapons,'' federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said yesterday.
The image will also concern Australian intelligence officials because of the role al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plays, along with Yemen, in the global jihad - attracting Western-born Muslims who can be trained in the Middle East and then sent back to the West to undertake attacks.
Worryingly, Australians are among that group of travellers. It is known that several dozen Australians have travelled to Yemen, had contact with elements of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and then returned here in recent years.
Western intelligence agencies also struggle to monitor these people, as they tend to fly to Middle Eastern hubs such as Dubai and then drop off the radar, with concerns they have taken land routes to Yemen. It is hard to track them in Yemen.
Monash University terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton said Yemen was a useful haven for al-Qaeda, given the lack of central government control coupled with ready access to reliable infrastructure.
''[It's] a wild west-type state that's reachable and there's no control of the borders. And the chances of people tracking your transit [to Yemen] are very low,'' he said.
Western intelligence agencies also continue to monitor whether the explosive-training camps al-Qaeda has run in Afghanistan and Pakistan are being set up in Yemen. Intelligence sources have told The Age that it remains to be seen whether al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has that capacity, but the potential for Western recruits in Yemen to receive such high-end training is a concern.