AUSTRALIA has been singled out as a target for "forest jihad" by a group of Islamic extremists urging Muslims to deliberately light bushfires as a weapon of terror.
US intelligence channels earlier this year identified a website calling on Muslims in Australia, the US, Europe and Russia to "start forest fires", claiming "scholars have justified chopping down and burning the infidels' forests when they do the same to our lands".
The website, posted by a group called the Al-Ikhlas Islamic Network, argues in Arabic that lighting fires is an effective form of terrorism justified in Islamic law under the "eye for an eye" doctrine.
The posting - which instructs jihadis to remember "forest jihad" in summer months - says fires cause economic damage and pollution, tie up security agencies and can take months to extinguish so that "this terror will haunt them for an extended period of time".
"Imagine if, after all the losses caused by such an event, a jihadist organisation were to claim responsibility for the forest fires," the website says. "You can hardly begin to imagine the level of fear that would take hold of people in the United States, in Europe, in Russia and in Australia."
With the nation heading into another hot, dry summer, Australian intelligence agencies are treating the possibility that bushfires could be used as a weapon of terrorism as a serious concern.
Attorney-General Robert McClelland said the Federal Government remained "vigilant against such threats", warning that anyone caught lighting a fire as a weapon of terror would feel the wrath of anti-terror laws.
"Any information that suggests a threat to Australia's interests is investigated by relevant agencies as appropriate," Mr McClelland said.
Adam Dolnik, director of research at the University of Wollongong's Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, said that bushfires (unlike suicide bombing) were generally not considered a glorious type of attack by jihadis, in keeping with a recent decline in the sophistication of terrorist operations.
"With attacks like bushfires, yes, it would be easy. It would be very damaging and we do see a decreasing sophistication as a part of terrorist attacks," Dr Dolnik said.
"In recent years, there have been quite a few attacks averted and it has become more and more difficult for groups to do something effective."
Dr Dolnik said he had observed an increase in traffic on jihadi websites calling for a simplification of terrorist attacks because the more complex operations had been failing. But starting bushfires was still often regarded as less effective than other operations because governments could easily deny terrorism as the cause.
The internet posting by the little-known group claimed the idea of forest fires had been attributed to imprisoned Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Suri. It said Al-Suri had urged terrorists to use sulphuric acid and petrol to start forest fires.