Home > PM was told war would spur terrorism
PM was told war would spur terrorismby Open-Publishing - Monday 23 August 2004
by Tom Allard
The Federal Government was warned repeatedly by intelligence analysts before the Iraq war that the conflict would harm the war on terrorism by fanning Islamic extremism and spurring terrorist recruiting.
An investigation by the Herald, which has included interviews with several serving and retired intelligence figures, has uncovered that John Howard and his senior colleagues were briefed on the dangers, verbally and in written reports.
Yet the Prime Minister told Australians on the eve of the conflict that the war would lessen the terrorist threat, contradicting his intelligence advice.
The revelation raises serious questions about the inquiry into the intelligence services commissioned by the Government and conducted by Philip Flood. The inquiry never mentioned the warnings about an increased terrorist threat.
"They were very, very aware of our views," one former intelligence analyst said. "We believed it would inflame extremism and increase terrorist recruitment."
The source said these views were relayed in written reports and in verbal briefings to Mr Howard and his ministers in the months and weeks leading up to the conflict.
The sources said senior Government members were constantly being briefed on al-Qaeda and terrorism, including the impact of the Iraq war on the jihad being carried out by al-Qaeda.
Another intelligence analyst pointed to additional reporting on how the war would be viewed on the "Arab street" and elsewhere.
"We thought the Arab governments, the Gulf states, would keep a lid on demonstrations in the lead-up to the war. But we were sure, in the longer term, there would be a lot of anger towards the West," the analyst said. "We would see there was a risk here that this is going to provoke more support for terrorism and violent responses."
The assessments proved prescient. The war has led to a surge in anti-Western sentiment and has become a powerful recruitment tool for terrorists, as the Government now acknowledges.
"A lot of our terrorism reporting predicted what is going on at the moment," one of the sources said. "We were thinking about it and writing about it."
The sources also said the Government was told there was no operational link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and the Iraq war could not be seen as part of the broader global war on terrorism.
Mr Howard, unlike his US counterpart, George Bush, never played up the link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden but he did assure the public that the terrorist threat would be diminished by invading Iraq.
"Far from our action in Iraq increasing the terrorist threat, it will, by stopping the spread of chemical and biological weapons, make it less likely that a terrorist attack will be carried out against Australia," Mr Howard said in a televised address to the nation on the eve of the war.
Australian intelligence agents said their views on terrorism accorded with those of the British intelligence services.
It was revealed last year that Britain’s joint intelligence committee said one month before the war that "al-Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would he heightened by military action against Iraq".
Mr Howard has confirmed Australia received this advice and it went into the decision-making "mix", but has studiously avoided comment on what the Australian agencies told him on the subject.
Last night his spokeswoman said: "We will not respond to unsourced, non-specific allegations of this kind."
Asked by the Herald on July 15 about what the Government was told by its intelligence services about the war’s impact on terrorism, the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said he could not answer. "I don’t have that information with me here today. I didn’t come prepared to answer that question.
"Regardless of what intelligence agencies may or may not say, it isn’t the intelligence agencies that make the decisions. It’s the governments that make the decisions, and governments make the decisions not just on the basis of information provided by intelligence agencies."
Mr Howard attacked the Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, when he observed in March that the war had made participants, including Australia, bigger terrorist targets.
The Flood inquiry found the intelligence services did little by way of strategic assessment but never outlined what those assessments were. It also never canvassed what was said in verbal briefings to Mr Howard and senior ministers.
Labor yesterday reaffirmed its commitment to a judicial inquiry into the intelligence services, citing gaps in Mr Flood’s report.