By Rob Taylor
The Wall Street Journal
June 24, 2014
Australia Increases Counterterrorism Strategies to Combat Threat
CANBERRA — Australia has warned of a “disturbingly large” migration of Islamic militants from at home and elsewhere joining the conflict in Iraq, and said it was trying to increase regional counterterrorism cooperation to guard against any future threat they might pose.
Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, hinted at intelligence pointing to militants on the move internationally toward the Middle East to join the ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham rebels, who have seized control of large swaths of northern Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is promising tougher security laws giving Australian spy agencies more power to intercept communications to counter a growing threat of homegrown jihadists returning from conflicts in Iraq and Syria and using their skills to launch violent attacks.
Ms. Bishop said some of the militants were from Australia and neighboring countries, heightening concerns among security officials about a repeat of militant attacks launched more than a decade ago by al Qaeda and allies, including the Jemaah Islamiah group responsible for bombings in 2002 and 2005 on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali.
“We are working closely with a number of other nations to counter the threat of people returning who have been radicalized and who have trained as terrorists,” Ms. Bishop said told Australia’s parliament. “We are seeking to expand our counterterrorism cooperation with countries in our own region, including in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.”
Security analyst Sidney Jones, who directs the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, earlier this month warned that scores of Indonesian jihadists had been drawn by the success of ISIS and were considering travel to the Middle East. Around 50 Indonesians were thought to have already traveled to Syria, Indonesian counterterrorism officials were afterward reported as telling the Jakarta Post newspaper, although it was unclear if they had now moved into Iraq to join the ISIS offensive there.
Mr. Abbott earlier Tuesday said his government was considering all possible measures to tackle a growing threat posed by Australians thought to have left the country to fight or train with militant Islamic factions in Syria and Iraq, some of them thought to be in more senior positions. Australia has never seen a terrorist attack on home soil, but it has emerged as one of the biggest per capita source nations of extremists in the current conflict.
“This is not about religion. It’s about extremism, illegality and violence,” Mr. Abbott told government lawmakers. While the U.S. considers whether to launch military attacks in an effort to counter ISIS’s momentum, Mr. Abbott said there would be no repeat of a large scale ground action by Western nations of the kind that occurred against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in which Australian troops took part.
Ms. Bishop said around 100 Australians were thought to be fighting in Syria and Iraq. Among new security measures under consideration to counter any future threat, Canberra was likely to mirror measures taken in Britain to tackle the threat of returning militants—including stripping dual citizens of their Australian passports, while also handing greater powers to the country’s domestic spy agency to intercept computer traffic among suspected extremists and their associates.
The Australian newspaper last week reported that one Australian militant who fled the country for Iraq, Khaled Sharrouf, had taken part in the executions of Iraqi soldiers carried out by ISIS on the battlefield. Another with a record of militancy in Australia had also been killed fighting with ISIS, local newspapers said, although Australian foreign ministry officials wouldn’t confirm the death.
“We will not let our country down in rising to this latest national security challenge,” Mr. Abbott said.
Canberra was trying to step up counterterrorism cooperation with Indonesia established after the first Bali bombing in 2002 and which in the past has included Australian training for elite Indonesian antiterrorist police, Ms. Bishop said. Other would-be militants were also coming from Britain, Europe and the U.S., underscoring the need for international action.
“Recalling that a number of the convicted Bali bombers trained with al Qaeda, we are building on the strong counterterrorism relationship that was forged with Indonesia in the aftermath of the Bali bombings, including intelligence sharing, border and transport security, and law enforcement,” Ms. Bishop said.
The Australian Privacy Foundation, a civil liberties group, said new curbs on computer communications networks that could include, in extreme cases, the shutting down of an entire network by the country’s domestic spy agency risked a public backlash at a time when the Conservative government is already struggling in popularity surveys.
But Mr. Abbott said while the government respected individual privacies, security necessity outweighed worries about legislative plans to store the Internet and phone data of Australians for two years to aid spy agencies—concerns about which have mounted since revelations by U.S. security whistleblower Edward Snowden last year of Internet data snooping by major Western intelligence agencies.
“It’s important to ensure that our police and our security services have the means at their disposal to ensure that our community is safe,” Mr. Abbott said.