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Before 9/11, One Warning Went Unheard

An Australian convicted in a terrorist plot had tried to tell authorities about Al Qaeda in 2000.

June 07, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

PERTH, Australia — When Jack Roche telephoned Australia's intelligence agency in July 2000, he offered a tantalizing story: He had been to Afghanistan and ate lunch with Osama bin Laden. He had received training in explosives and plotted with Al Qaeda leaders to carry out a bombing in Australia.

A Muslim convert, Roche was prepared to become an informant, his attorney says, and provide information about Al Qaeda; its Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah; and their goal of staging an attack in a Western country.

But at the time -- 14 months before the Sept. 11 attacks -- no one was interested.

It wasn't until 2 1/2 years later that authorities decided to take Roche seriously and arrested him on terrorism charges. Last week he was sentenced to nine years in prison for conspiring with Al Qaeda leaders to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Canberra.

While many Australians applaud the country's first conviction under new anti-terrorism laws, Roche's case is a tale of intelligence failures that illustrates how poorly Western security officials understood the threat posed by Islamic extremism.

According to evidence presented in court, Australian and U.S. authorities bungled at least six chances to learn what Roche knew, including the whereabouts of alleged terrorist mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who, it is said, was even then plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. authorities had been trying to catch Mohammed since the mid-1990s.

"He had their phone numbers," said Hylton Quail, Roche's lawyer. "He had their e-mail addresses. He knew where they lived. He knew how they worked. He was like a spy who tried to come in from the cold and found the door was locked."

Roche, now 50, says he first telephoned the U.S. Embassy in Canberra to offer intelligence on Al Qaeda and was told to contact Australian authorities. An embassy official says Roche may have called, but the embassy has no record of it. Roche subsequently called the Australian Security Intelligence Organization three times to give information, but the agency never pursued his offer.

Prime Minister John Howard acknowledged last week that authorities had made a "very serious mistake" in turning Roche away. But he discounted suggestions that Roche's information could have helped prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, or the Bali bombings in 2002 that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

"There is no evidence that the material ... might have had the value some have implied," Howard said in a television interview.

Australian Atty. Gen. Philip Ruddock said the Roche case prompted the intelligence agency to conduct an internal investigation and obtain passage of a law allowing it to record all incoming calls from the public.

Authorities said that when they finally questioned Roche after the Bali bombing, they were surprised that he gave them so much useful information.

"Basically, he was putting a noose around his own neck by participating in those long interviews," intelligence agent Michael Duthie said outside the court, according to the newspaper the Australian. "Certainly, from our perspective, the type of information that he was passing on was fairly unique."

Authorities have long been stymied in efforts to infiltrate Al Qaeda, a closed society bound by adherence to a radical interpretation of Islam and a strict code of secrecy. But that is precisely the kind of access Roche could have provided, his attorney said.

Bin Laden's organization was especially interested in Roche because he did not come from an Islamic country, and it would have been easier for him to plot attacks in Western countries without raising suspicion.

A former Australian security analyst said intelligence agencies could have taken advantage of Al Qaeda's desire to recruit white Australians and used Roche to send agents to Afghanistan to infiltrate the network.

Roche, who joined Jemaah Islamiah in 1996, traveled to Afghanistan in 2000, believing he would fight on the side of the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Instead, he found himself meeting with a who's who of Al Qaeda leaders.

At a camp outside Kandahar, he had lunch with Bin Laden. He took a 10-day explosives course that ended with him using 15 pounds of TNT to blow up 27 wooden crates. He discussed possible Australian bombing and assassination targets with Mohammed Atef, then Al Qaeda's second-in-command, and Saif Adel, Al Qaeda's top military commander.

In Pakistan, Roche says, he met twice with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who had been wanted by U.S. authorities since 1996 for his alleged role in major terrorist attacks, including a foiled plot to hijack a dozen U.S. airliners in Asia and blow them up over the Pacific. Among the plans they discussed was attacking U.S. jets flying in and out of Australia. Mohammed gave Roche $4,500 to begin surveillance of the Israeli Embassy and other targets.

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