Dual citizens involved in terrorism and “hate preachers” such as Hizb ut-Tahrir are in the sights of federal government plans to toughen up national security.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned the threat from terrorism at home and abroad, amid the rise of groups such as Islamic State, is now much greater and becoming harder to combat.
In his first national security statement, delivered at the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Canberra, Mr Abbott said the nation must also confront a growing threat from home-grown extremism.
“By any measure the threat to Australia has worsened,” he said on Monday.
The number of Australians fighting with terror groups such as IS, as well as known sympathisers and supporters of extremism, had dramatically increased, as had the potential threat from home-grown terrorism.
The number of high priority investigations had risen to 400 – double what it was 12 months ago.
“Even if the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq stopped today, there is now an Australian cohort of hardened jihadists who are intent on radicalising and influencing others,” Mr Abbott said.
Under proposed changes, the Citizenship Act will be amended to strengthen the power of authorities to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals.
“Australians who take up arms with terrorist groups, especially while Australian military personnel are engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, have sided against their country and should be treated accordingly,” Mr Abbott said.
But while there are already limited powers that allow citizenship to be revoked, there have been just 16 cases since 1949.
Australian nationals would also risk losing privileges – including restricting travel, denying access to consular services and access to welfare – if they were found to be involved in terrorism. Immigration department boss Michael Pezzullo said the government was looking to expand the grounds upon which revocation of citizenship could occur.
The department will also conduct a review that will include recommendations on strengthening the legal and policy framework around visas and citizenship. Mr Abbott again singled out the Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir, saying terrorism advocacy laws would be strengthened to target “hate preachers”.
“Organisations and individuals blatantly spreading discord and division – such as Hizb ut-Tahrir – should not do so with impunity,” he said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar said his organisation had operated in Australia for over two decades without contravening a single law.
“Tony Abbott says he will take action against `hate preachers’, naming my organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir.
But we have already been scrutinised for 15 years,” he wrote in a comment piece published on Monday by The Guardian.
“Every investigation has produced nothing untoward, nothing prosecutable.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the proposed measures deserved careful consideration, but liberties of citizens should only be reduced when existing arrangements proved inadequate.
But Australian National University terrorism expert Clarke Jones described the proposals as window dressing, saying they were unlikely to make Australia more secure.
“In reality, new measures may even go the other way and exasperate the underlying causes of violent extremism and further damage Australia’s already fragile social cohesion,” he said.
Mr Abbott also said the national terror alert system would be upgraded and a national counter-terrorism co-ordinator would be appointed.
New programs would also be introduced to counter terrorist “propaganda” and the ability of IS to churn out up to 100,000 social media messages a day.
Mr Abbott described it as the “contagion that’s infecting people and grooming them for terrorism”.
Summary: what the terrorism review recommended
The government quarantine security agencies such as ASIO, the AFP and ASIS from its efficiency dividendDevelop a new counter-terrorism strategy in close consultation with states and territoriesAppoint a National Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator to chair a new counter terrorism group advising governmentSeek state and federal agreement on a new Counter Violent Extremism strategy to tackle radicalisation in AustraliaEstablish and expand community and public-private partnerships to better reach at risk and radicalised individualsThat the Attorney-General’s Department coordinate the government response to foreign fighters returning to Australia
Read the full text of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s speech here: