Is the tide of Islamic fundamentalism now washing at our own door? One of the worlds most-wanted terrorists has visited New Zealand without being arrested by security authorities here, despite his involvement in attacks that have killed or injured more than 900 people. BEN VIDGEN and IAN WISHART report:
New Zealand security agencies were placed on high alert prior to the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland after the discovery that Palestinian terrorist leader Abu Nidal was in the country. Security sources spoken to by Investigate confirm the terrorist was "sprung" by a former Israeli security official who was part of a group of Israeli tourists in Queenstown.
And direct confirmation has also come from a Nelson doctor, Neal McCullum, whose Israeli friend was directly involved.
"Our friend, who speaks fluent Arabic, had been in the cafeteria [in Queenstown] when she had overheard some men talking in Arabic and had been disturbed at the nature of their conversation.
"She then approached a member of the tour she was with, a man whod previously worked in security for El Al [the Israeli national airline], and described what shed heard."
The security expert observed the group of men for a moment, and then identified one of them as Abu Nidal, the reputed head of the Abu Nidal Organisation. However, the former El Al guard had no desire to become involved in any international intrigue in New Zealand and was reluctant to report it. Dr McCullum says he strongly urged the female Israeli tourist to at least contact New Zealand security agencies, and report the Abu Nidal sighting to the Security Intelligence Service.
The SIS quickly picked up on Nidals trail, as he hadnt yet left New Zealand, and "I was told it was the biggest joint operation involving the SIS, the police and the Army," says McCullum, now living in the lower North Island.
So what happened next? Nothing. Nidal was placed under extensive surveillance but wasnt touched, "apparently because he was travelling on a diplomatic passport."
But there may be another reason why one of the worlds most-wanted terrorists went unmolested in New Zealand: some intelligence sources claim Nidal was secretly working for the Israelis, stirring up trouble in certain areas that Israel could then use as an excuse for a military strike on Palestine targets.
Before dismissing the idea that Israels Mossad intelligence agency could be so devious as to deliberately help an Arab terrorist group in order to further its own agenda, consider this: when investigators probed the collapse of the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International in 1991, they found not only evidence that Mossad was banking with BCCI, but also that payments had been made from the Mossad accounts to Sri Lankas Tamil Tigers rebels and the Abu Nidal Organisation.
Of course, it is not beyond the realms of probability that Nidal, whose real name is Sabri al-Banna, was being played for a sucker by Mossad.
In an interview with British author David Yallop, Nidal professes a hatred for Israel that seems entirely plausible:
"My family was the richest in Palestine. My father was the richest man. He owned over six thousand acres. His lands reached from south of Jaffa to the Gaza Strip. All that land.
"And all that land was confiscated by the Jews. You tell me. How much of my own land should I accept from the thieving Israeli government in return for giving them this peace?
"Where our orchards were, immigrant Jews now live. The home that I grew up in is now a District Court for the Israeli Army. What should I accept in return for giving these people peace? The ground floor?"
And yet, even Yallop floats the possibility that Nidal was working for Israel.
He recounts an interview with Abu Iyad, the Palestinian terrorist responsible for planning the attack on the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.
"Our discussion moved to how Abu Nidals organisation had been penetrated for many years by Mossad," writes Yallop. "Penetrated to such a degree that Abu Iyad, the head of the PLO intelligence and counter-intelligence, with all that implies, told me of his conviction that frequently the targets selected by Abu Nidal have been chosen by Mossad.
"He cited an example of Mossad targeting: Arafats PLO representative in London, Said Hammami. At the time of Said Hammamis murder in January 1978 he was in the middle of very secret negotiations with members of the Israeli government."
The negotiations, the PLO intelligence chief told Yallop, would have seen a ceasefire in the Palestinian conflict and a recognition of Israels right to exist. This scenario was anathema to extremists on both sides who wanted no compromise.
" A long time before Saids murder he was warned by British Special Branch that he was on Mossads hit list. They told him their information came from the CIA. Said was also told by British security that the British Government had warned the Israeli Embassy that all known Mossad agents would be kicked out of Britain if the Israelis started getting the guns out," Abu Iyad told Yallop.
"The implication was clear," Yallop reports: "Prevented by the British from doing the job themselves, Mossad had whistled up Abu Nidal."
Indeed, despite its public hatred for Israel, most of the Abu Nidal organisations attacks have been on the PLO and other Arab terror groups. Some time after his interview with Yallop, Abu Iyad was himself murdered in Tunis - by the Abu Nidal group. In the shifting world of intelligence and Maxwell Smart, enemies today may be friends tomorrow and enemies again by Friday.
An example of Israels duplicity is found in testimony by former Mossad agent Ari Ben-Menashe, who reports that Israel, not the Palestinians, was really behind the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro.
"That was, in fact, an Israeli black propaganda operation to show what a deadly, cutthroat bunch the Palestinians were," he says.
A Palestinian working as a double-agent for Mossad was ordered to suggest "that it was time for the Palestinians to make an attack and do something cruel, although no specifics were laid out.
"Radi [the double agent] passed orders on to [terrorist leader] Abul Abbas, who, to follow such orders, was receiving millions from Israeli intelligence officers posing as Sicilian dons.
"Abbas then gathered a team to attack the cruise ship. The team was told to make it bad, to show the world what lay in store for other unsuspecting citizens if Palestinian demands were not met.
"As the world knows," says Ben-Menashe, "the group picked on an elderly American Jewish man in a wheelchair, killed him, and threw his body overboard. They made their point, but for Israel it was the best kind of anti-Palestinian propaganda."
Nor should such skulduggery come as a surprise if you recall the Iran/Contra scandal.
But New Zealands decision not to apprehend Abu Nidal may have been pragmatic as well as diplomatic: the repercussions of arresting a leading terrorist would be horrendous for a country not militarily or psychologically prepared for dealing with attacks on its interests overseas.
The fact that one of the worlds leading guerilla commanders could slip into New Zealand, apparently unnoticed by our security teams until a chance tip-off, speaks volumes about our ability to defend ourselves against the wrath of Islamic extremists: it is simply not something New Zealand is ready for.
Nor would it have been easy for New Zealand authorities to arrest Abu Nidal: unless Arabic-speaking witnesses could testify that they heard him planning a crime, whilst in New Zealand, it might still have been difficult capture him even with the legal support of extradition treaties.
Which raises questions over last months New
Zealand Herald exposť on an alleged plot
by somebody to blow up Sydneys Lucas
Heights nuclear reactor during the Olympic Games. "The plot may have been hatched by Afghani sympathisers of Osama bin Laden, the Western worlds most wanted terrorist - a suggestion that is believed to have raised alarm in official circles," reported the Herald in a frontpage "world exclusive" later picked up by major news outlets around the world. "Weekend Herald sources revealed that members of what appears to be a clandestine cell of Afghan refugees in Auckland continue to maintain direct telephone links with suspected terrorist organisations in their strife-torn homeland, including the Mujahadeen, a fundamentalist Muslim volunteer group.
"Detectives in Auckland stumbled on the apparent reactor conspiracy during an investigation into people smuggling by organised crime syndicates. They conducted a series of house raids in March and found evidence suggesting a conspiracy to attack Lucas Heights:
"The lounge of a Mt Albert home was converted into a virtual command centre, complete with conference table and maps.
"A Sydney street map was found with the site of the 1950s era reactor and access routes to it highlighted.
"Entries in a notebook outlined police security tactics, standards and chains of command for the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990.
"[There were] signs of a clandestine cell of refugees granted New Zealand residency."
Although four people have been charged with immigration offences, there is not enough evidence to charge anyone with anything more serious - not because the plot itself is not serious but because information on who might be involved is extremely scant.
The papers report, by investigative journalist John Andrews, was instantly downplayed by New Zealands Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton.
Anderton, who sits on the security, intelligence and external relations Cabinet committee, conveniently didnt bother to explain how a group of Islamic freedom fighters had come into possession of highly restricted New Zealand Police security material, telling the media the story was a beat-up and if there was a real security threat "I would know about it".
While other news media presumed Anderton and the Labour Governments dismissal of the story was more aimed at avoiding any backlash against the Afghani community in this country, it is also possible that the Government was mindful of New Zealands trade interests in the Middle East and anxious not to publicly offend Islamic trading partners by appearing to pay too much attention to the issue.
But despite having little money, police records indicate the 20 or so Afghanis under investigation had recently travelled through Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines - the latter two countries are both currently dealing with outbreaks of Islamic fundamentalist violence aimed at overthrowing the incumbent governments.
New Zealand intelligence also indicates some of the "cell" members have been photographed carrying AK-47 assault rifles, and that some of the refugees given residency in New Zealand have fought in world hotspots such as Chechyna, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
And what of Osama bin Laden? Officially, he is the most-wanted terrorist on the face of the planet, and it probably isnt totally a US overreaction. Some of the pictures in this article come from an anonymous website run by Osama bin Laden supporters in London.
Both there, and in published news reports in the mainstream media, bin Laden calls for a new crusade against Western infidels.
"This war will not only be between the people of the two sacred mosques and the Americans," bin Laden told a British TV crew in 1997, "but it will be between the Islamic world and the Americans and their allies, because this war is a new crusade."
In 1998, the Washington Post reported bin Ladens issuance of a "fatwa", or religious decree, which states: "These crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger and Muslims."
Of all of the fundamentalists, bin Laden has shown the greatest propensity for causing maximum loss of life. In short, he has a yen for the spectacular.
In February of 1993 the World Trade Centre in New York was torn apart by a massive explosion. Several Muslim extremists linked to Osama bin Laden were later convicted.
But although the blast caused massive damage, it would have been much worse if it had gone according to plan. The US Court heard that the group had prepared cyanide nerve gas that was supposed to detonate with the bomb and spread across central New York, killing some fifty thousand nearby residents and workers within minutes. Fortunately, the heat generated in the blast was so intense that it incinerated the cyanide gas before it left the building.
Two years later, US investigators caught wind of a plot by bin Laden supporters to plant bombs on 12 airliners over the Pacific Ocean, set to explode almost simultaneously.
Although the plan was foiled, those responsible remain at large.
In 1998, bin Ladens most devastating strike to date was made against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - more than 5,000 people were killed or injured.
What makes bin Laden difficult to deal with is the fact that he is an extremely wealthy Arab businessman who is choosing to put his money into efforts that previously required financing from Governments like Iraq or Libya.
Although the US has imposed sanctions on Afghanistan and launched retaliatory missile strikes on suspected bin Laden bases there, it is more difficult for Western intelligence to infiltrate an organisation with few ties to any state.
The FBI is also aware that bin Ladens organisation, al Qaeda, may now have access to nuclear weapons, stating that the group has "made efforts to obtain the components of chemical [and] nuclear weapons.]
To make matters worse, that nuclear weaponry is reportedly less than ten centimetres in length, but capable of generating a blast equivalent to ten tonnes of TNT. Explosive sniffer dogs at airports are not trained to sniff Plutonium.
Earlier this year - predating the NZ Police discovery of the Sydney reactor plot - the FBI issued a worldwide security alert that bin Laden was planning a possible attack on the Olympic Games. Which makes Deputy Prime Minister Anderton and Australian Prime Minister John Howards rush to dismiss the signficance of the threat even more inexplicable. What were they expecting, a signed note from bin Laden saying "Im coming to get you"?
The move to play it down may have far more to do with maintaining public confidence in the safety of major events like the Games, and not creating panic, than simple naivete on the parts of either Anderton or Howard.
As previously reported by Investigate, a massive explosive device was discovered at Aucklands Sheraton Hotel during the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference, apparently aimed at British Prime Minister John Major.
The device was defused without any public reference by Police or the New Zealand Government to its existence. Nor were the news media aware of it.
Despite John Howards public utterances however, and refusal to close down the Lucas Heights reactor for the duration of the Games, Australia is beefing up security around it, which they wouldnt do if they werent taking the issue much more seriously than they have indicated to the news media.
Four Blackhawk helicopter gunships are being stationed in proximity to the reactor.
The United States meanwhile is continuing to post a NZ$10 million reward for information leading to the capture and conviction "in any country" of Osama bin Laden or any of his associates pictured above, all of whom are wanted on charges relating to the embassy and World Trade Centre bombings. Full details of the fugitives and the rewards have been posted on a US Government website by the Diplomatic Security Service, at www.heroes.net, which could make for a lucrative payday for somebody.
Given that it is possible that some of bin Ladens men have been in New Zealand this year, it highlights the fact that the world is getting smaller everyday.
Intriguingly, the FBI reports that a notebook belonging to one of the wanted men contains the names and addresses of three Fijians, and the FBI is warning that bin Laden has built up an "extensive" South Pacific network.
Nor should the emergence of international terrorism on our doorstep come as a genuine surprise to thinking New Zealanders. The Security Intelligence Service is, after all, on record as saying it has twice thwarted attempts by foreign buyers to obtain nuclear weapons material from New Zealanders acting as "middlemen" in the deals.
The countrys "sleepy hollow" image provides a perfect cover for those involved in international intrigue, who want to discuss their global plans as far away from the CIA as possible.
Former NZ Special Air Service commander Alan Brosnan, now an instructor for the US State Departments Anti-terrorism Programme, says the FBI warnings about bin Ladens Pacific plans should be taken seriously.
"He certainly has the motive, and the means, to pull off such an operation."
The New Zealand Special Air Service has already had a taste of what we could be in for - NZ troopers were deployed in a secret mission against the Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Philippines, who also have ties to Osama bin Laden.
One of the SAS soldiers reminded Investigate that NZ and Australia are not far away from the action any more.
References to Islamic extremists in this article do not refer to members of New Zealands Muslim community