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March 23, 2004

Australia Presents Tempting Target For al Qaeda

By J.M. Berger

After Spain's startling electoral intrigue, al Qaeda (or its Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah) may be eying Australia as its next political target of opportunity.

Polling indicates that incumbent Prime Minister John Howard has seen his support plunge in the year since the Iraq invasion, which Howard supported with Australian troops.

INTELWIRE ExclusivesThis week, Howard's position worsened substantially in the first real test of how the Madrid 3/11 attack is playing worldwide. 65 percent of Australians polled said that the nation's support for the Iraq war had increased the possibility of a terrorist attack there.

Mark Latham, Howard's Labor Party opposition, vowed this week to pull Australian troops out of Iraq if elected. The opposition seeks to call an election as early as September.

An Australian television prominently reported Monday that al Qaeda possesses suitcase-sized nuclear weapons. With its proximity to Southeast Asia, Australia is more viscerally on the front lines of the terror war than the U.S. or Britain. With Howard's support already slipping and fears running high among the population, the country is a prime candidate for a Madrid-style "October surprise" in late August (presuming a September election does take place).

The fallout from Madrid continues to be far more severe than anyone could have imagined. Whether or not al Qaeda was responsible for 3/11, and whether or not another attack takes place, fear of terrorism is already visibly shaping the electoral process around the world.

A political assassination in Afghanistan over the weekend led to hundreds of deaths and a new outbreak of revolt. And last week's disastrous attempt to capture Ayman al-Zawahri ended in a humiliating defeat for the Pakistani military.

In Indonesia, election concerns are also paramount, but the political climate is notably different in battle-scarred Indonesia than in Australia, which has yet to suffer a large-scale, high-casualty homeland attack.

It's clear that al Qaeda is not scattered and "on the run" as Western authorities and media experts have argued in recent months. Qaeda's military position remains surprisingly potent, and its political position is arguably much stronger now than it was before 9/11 and before the Iraq invasion.

A successful effort to influence the outcome of Australia's elections would potentially tip the scales even further, opening an entirely new chapter in world politics. If Howard's administration loses due to al Qaeda's intervention, the Bush and Blair administrations will be the next targets — likely on a spectacular scale.

Editor's Note: al Qaeda is believed to have several ongoing plots in progress at any given time, based on a mixture of forethought and opportunity. The above analysis is not meant as a blanket prediction of a specific event, but rather as an indication of broader strategy concerns.

Correction: An earlier posted version of this story incorrectly listed the date of the Australian election as June. The mistake has been corrected in this version of the story. INTELWIRE regrets the error.

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