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.
In Malaysia, Roche met four times with Hambali, a top operative of both Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah who allegedly was behind the Bali bombing. They discussed targets, including the Sydney Olympics, and Hambali gave Roche $3,500.
In Indonesia, Roche visited radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiah. Bashir did not want to know any details, Roche said, but told him to follow Hambali’s instructions.
Roche, who wears a full beard but no mustache, is described by people who know him as intelligent with a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and an apparent streak of naivete.
Born Paul George Holland in Hull, England, he legally changed his name to Jack Roche in 2001, in part because he hated his father. Roche was the maiden name of his mother, who died of cancer when he was 13. He left home at 17 and drifted from Britain to Germany to Australia, finding work as a laborer and taxi driver. He became an Australian citizen in 1978.
Roche says he was persuaded by Muslim co-workers in Sydney in 1992 to convert to Islam to overcome a drinking problem, and for the first time found a sense of belonging.
Among his earliest friends in the Muslim community were Abdul Rahim Ayub and Abdur Rahman Ayub, twin brothers from Indonesia who allegedly became the leaders of the Australian branch of Jemaah Islamiah. Roche adopted the name Khalid Sayfullah, Arabic for “Eternal Sword of God.”
Roche moved to Indonesia in 1993 and married an Indonesian, returning to Australia in 1995. In Australia, he met many times with Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar, the alleged founders of Jemaah Islamiah, and embraced their extremist views.
Roche’s entree into the wider world of terrorism came in February 2000, when the Ayub brothers sent him to Malaysia to meet Hambali. Roche’s journey demonstrated the close alliance between Jemaah Islamiah and Al Qaeda and the pivotal role Hambali, an Indonesian, played in linking the two.
Hambali invited Roche to go to Pakistan, and then to Afghanistan to receive training and become a holy warrior. Roche wrote his son that he was ready to die for the Taliban -- “the greatest sacrifice worthy of the highest reward from Allah.”
When Roche arrived in Karachi, he says, he was met at the airport by Bashir’s son, Abdul Rachim, then a student in Pakistan, who took him to meet Hambali’s longtime collaborator, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Abdul Rachim now teaches at his father’s Al Mukmin boarding school in Indonesia, a notorious recruiting ground for Jemaah Islamiah. He denies ever meeting Roche or Mohammed.
Authorities say Mohammed was involved in every major Islamic terrorism plot of the last decade until his arrest in March 2003. Roche says Mohammed arranged for him to travel to an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in April 2000. When he arrived at the camp, Roche was invited to join a group of men for lunch, and was surprised when he recognized Bin Laden.
“I sat down for a meal and I just started eating,” Roche said in a 2002 newspaper interview that was introduced in court. “I looked across and I said, ‘Whoa, that’s like the bloke on the telly.’ ... I nodded, he nodded.”
Roche exchanged a few words with Bin Laden, and described him as “a very nice man.”
At the time, Roche did not realize what high-level attention he was receiving. Atef, an Egyptian, was Bin Laden’s closest advisor until he was killed by a U.S. airstrike during the war to topple the Taliban in 2001. Adel, who was reportedly arrested last year in Iran, is believed to have been behind the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 that killed 224 people.
Roche said it became clear that their priorities for Australia were attacking Jews and forming a cell of Caucasian Muslims. Roche was told to recruit two white Australians and send them to Afghanistan for training, one to become a sniper and the other a bomber. He also was ordered to scout the Israeli Embassy and begin planning the assassination of prominent Jewish businessman Joseph Gutnick.
After his return to Australia, Roche says, he checked an FBI website and was startled to see that “five or six” of the people he had met were among the world’s most wanted terrorists.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I was really taken aback. I was thinking this is too much -- this is very, very deep.”
Roche feared that Al Qaeda would kill him if he tried to back out, so he said he decided to make it look as though he was following the terrorists’ orders while quietly informing on them.
In June of 2000, he traveled to Canberra with his 24-year-old son and a friend and videotaped the Israeli Embassy. Security guard Jeffrey Harrison challenged Roche in front of the building. In a conversation captured on video, Roche explained that he was interested in Canberra’s architecture.
“Is that what it is?” Harrison said. “I didn’t think you were going to bomb the joint or anything.”
“Oh no,” Roche said.
Harrison noted the incident in his logbook, but no one questioned the three men.
In Perth, Roche attempted to interest a Muslim friend in going to Afghanistan for weapons training, but when the man declined, Roche abandoned his recruiting effort. In early July, Roche says, he called the U.S. Embassy to offer information. Unable to interest the Americans, he called the Australian intelligence agency, known as ASIO, on July 14. Roche says he discussed meeting in person with an agent who used the name “Don” or “John.”
Soon after, the Ayub twins began complaining about Hambali’s interference in Australia, and Roche flew to Indonesia to sort things out with Bashir. Before leaving, he called his intelligence contact on July 19 to postpone their meeting.
Although Bashir has repeatedly denied that Jemaah Islamiah exists, Roche said there is no doubt that Bashir is the network’s leader.
Roche returned to Australia on Aug. 8 and called ASIO two days later. But the agent was no longer interested in meeting, and no one else from the agency contacted him.
Bashir, however, did call. This time he told Roche to stop his activities. Roche says he disengaged from the Ayubs and Jemaah Islamiah -- although he didn’t abandon the plot completely: He later bought two model rocket igniters that could be used as detonators, the prosecution said.
Bashir has been in custody in Indonesia since shortly after the Bali bombing and remains under investigation.
At one point, Roche confided in a close friend and fellow Muslim convert, Ibrahim Fraser, a former explosives expert in the mining industry. Fraser testified at the trial that Roche asked him where he could get TNT.
Fraser also tried to bring the embassy bombing plot to the attention of authorities. In September 2000, while in Southeast Asia, he said he called the Australian Federal Police in Singapore to report the terrorist plan. He left a message offering information but never heard back.
A police spokeswoman acknowledged last week that the office had received a message from a man named Ibrahim. She said an agent tried to call him back that day but gave up after not reaching him.
The Bali bombing on Oct. 12, 2002, awakened Australian authorities to the danger posed by Islamic extremists. On Oct. 30, tipped off by members of the Islamic community, police raided Roche’s home. They had learned his name from others in the Muslim community and did not know he had once offered information.
Roche spoke freely with police for nine hours. Videotapes show that the investigators didn’t know the names of many of the key players in the terrorist networks and needed Roche’s help to spell them.
Roche was jailed for 18 months before going on trial May 17 on charges of conspiring with Mohammed, Atef and Adel to blow up the Israeli Embassy. His own statements to police were the main evidence against him. Two weeks into the trial, he changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to nine years.
Prosecutors asked for a sentence close to the 25-year maximum. But Quail, his lawyer, pleaded for leniency. He said Roche believed that information he gave police in 2002 led to the arrest of Mohammed in Pakistan and of Hambali in Thailand. Roche will be eligible for parole in 2007.
In letters to journalist Colleen Egan written before the trial, Roche said that he was a “small fish” but feared he would be severely punished because of the Bali bombing. He accused prosecutors of engaging in “amateur theatrics” by having him handcuffed and shackled when bringing him to court.
“They flatter themselves with the minnow they have,” he wrote.