Australian officials yesterday said a reported plot to kill the Australian and English cricket teams at the Ashes last year was a stark reminder that sporting events could become the next big terrorist target.
Australian cricket players and officials said they had no idea about a plot reported by the Sunday Times newspaper that two of the suicide bombers in the attacks on London's transit system last year had also discussed gassing the dressing rooms of both teams at the Edgbaston cricket ground.
Terrorism experts cast doubt on the plausibility of the reported plot, saying the gas to be used, sarin, was extremely hard to make and store and that it would be more likely that terrorists would target the entire crowd at a sporting event than just the teams.
Australian officials said security for the next Ashes series, to be held November-January throughout the country, was being boosted to combat the threat of terrorism.
"Whether this particular report is true or not, we have to again remind ourselves of the reality that there are people around who want to do us in, who do want to do damage to Australia and what Australia stands for," Prime Minister John Howard said.
Less than two weeks ago, Howard warned that two stadiums that were packed with fans for separate football code finals could be prime targets for terrorist attacks, though he added there was no specific intelligence of a plot.
Stephen Gough, the chief executive of the Melbourne Cricket Club which will host the fourth Ashes test starting Dec. 26 at the landmark MCG, said security planning included a potential attack on the crowd.
"I think that generally if something is going to happen, it is going to impact on all," Gough told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio. "So therefore in terms of our precautions, it is right across the stadium, players and the public."
Fans to the series-opener starting on Nov. 23 in Brisbane are being advised to arrive early and expect to be searched before entry, said Graham Dixon, the chief executive of Queensland Cricket. It will be the first of five five-day matches, each of which are expected to attract tens of thousands of supporters daily.
"We certainly don't want to alarm people but we're taking our responsibility very seriously," Dixon said.
Australia cricket captain Ricky Ponting said his team was satisfied with the security measures taken by his country's cricket authorities, which had "a track record of keeping us informed and acting on security information when and if the situation warrants."
"We are totally confident in the security precautions Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association take on our behalf," Ponting said in a statement from India, where the team is preparing for the Champions Trophy.