Australian special forces have been operating in several African countries over the past year gathering intelligence on terrorist activities, a report said yesterday.
The Sydney Morning Herald said 4 Squadron of the elite Special Air Service (SAS) had mounted dozens of clandestine operations in places such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya in a role normally carried out by spies.
Citing a government source, it said the missions by the previously unknown squadron were believed to involve terrorism intelligence gathering amid concerns about the threat posed by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia.
They are also aimed at developing rescue strategies for evacuating trapped Australian civilians while assessing African border controls and exploring landing sites for possible military interventions.
The information gathered flows into databases used by the US and its allies, it said.
The Herald added that the operations have raised serious concerns among some sections of the military and intelligence communities that the troops do not have adequate legal protection or contingency plans if they are captured.
“They have all the espionage skills, but without [the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s (ASIS)] legal cover,” one government source said.
According to the newspaper, ASIS officers are permitted under Australian law to carry false passports and, if arrested, to deny who they are employed by.
Australian Defence Force members, such as the SAS, on normal operations cannot carry false identification and cannot deny which government they work for.
Australian Minister of Defense Stephen Smith refused to confirm the group’s existence “because we don’t want to put at risk either operations or our national security.”
However, he said that all Australian operatives overseas did their job within the law and had proper protection.
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