As more than 31 major fires continued to rage in the Australian state of Victoria and the death toll approached 200, there was speculation on Tuesday that some of the blazes may have been set by Islamists waging a "holy war", or jihad.
No official has come out and voiced this suspicion, and most of the fires were attributed to lightning strikes during one of Victoria's hottest days on record. However, investigators have determined that some of the fires were deliberately set by arsonists, prompting Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to say that whoever was responsible for lighting the fires had committed "mass murder".
But bloggers have pointed to a report from September 2008 which warned that Australia had been singled out as a target for a "forest jihad" by a group urging Muslims to deliberately light bushfires as a weapon of terror.
According to the report in The Age five months ago, "U.S. intelligence channels earlier this year identified a website calling on Muslims in Australia, the U.S., 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, reportedly run 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."
'This Terror Will Haunt Them'
The posting instructs jihadis to remember "forest jihad" in summer months. The article in The Age reported, "It 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 allegedly 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."
The September report in The Age added that "Australian intelligence agencies are treating the possibility that bushfires could be used as a weapon of terrorism as a serious concern" and that "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."
The internet posting 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.
The fires which began February 8 have so far resulted in at least 181 deaths, and 100 people have been admitted to hospitals across Victoria with burns. At least 20 are in critical condition.
The fires occurred during an exceptional heat wave, on a day when several localities across Victoria experienced their highest temperatures since records began in 1859. The numerous fires are largely the result of lightning strikes – but some are suspected to be the result of arson.
These suspicions led police to declare more than half of the state a crime scene.
Forensic teams of investigators are now moving into burned out houses and farms, looking for evidence of how the infernos were started, and who could have lit them.
Prime Minister Rudd suspended parliament and toured the affected region. "What can you say? What can you say?" asked a shaken Rudd. "There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," he said.
Closing in on a Suspect
But police say they are closing in on an arsonist thought responsible for the Churchill-Jeeralang fire in Gippsland and other fires at nearby Boolarra, which killed at least 22 people. Specialist teams used in the aftermath of the Bali bombings have been recruited for the locating and identifying victims of the fires.
Police believe a man who lit fires around Boolarra last month, destroying 29 houses, is the same person responsible for the Churchill blaze. They intend to release an image of a man sought for questioning over the fires.
"We'll soon be in a position to provide face images of people we believe responsible," Morwell Detective Sergeant Brett Kahan said.