AS Australia grapples with a fresh wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in the wake of domestic extremists turning to the Syrian civil war and its evolution across the Middle East, the Australian government has ramped up talk of new security and surveillance powers to counter the uncertain size and nature of Australia’s Muslim mercenaries.
Monitoring foreign-bound jihadists has become a new priority for the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop.
Australia’s Attorney General George Brandis on Friday met with leaders of the Australian Muslim community, who responded with anti-extremist sermons across the nation in an attempt to reel in the stunning response from young Islamic Australians.
Brandis told local media that there are approximately 150 Australians “who are actively involved either in participation in war-fighting in Syria or northern Iraq or are in Australia having returned or facilitating those who are seeking to travel there or who we think might be about to attempt to travel there.”
“Now, in the Syrian and northern Iraqi theaters - and I’m told I’m at liberty to say this - our latest intelligence tells us there are about 58 Australians who are there at the moment engaged in war-fighting,” Brandis said.
Hidden Fighters Yet even as legislators prepare to push through new powers to prevent their return to Australia, a source within the Australian Defense Force (ADF) said to Xinhua recently there are more than three-times more Australian-born militants in the Middle East than the official figure given last week by Australian officials.
Uncertainty over the volume and intention of Aussie jihadists highlights the sense of confusion here, with Australia once again finding itself beneath the shadow of an unknown enemy.
Speaking from Canberra, under condition of anonymity, the former military officer and long-time Australian Defense Force ( ADF) analyst told Xinhua that official government figures are ‘ vastly under-reported’ and that the “true figure of Australian nationals fighting across the Middle East is closer to 400.”
However, Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia Inc (IFAA), told Xinhua that government figures are more likely to be inflated than covered-up.
“I believe that the numbers are much smaller. You may recall that the Australian authorities arrested and seized the passports of a hand full of people whom they claimed were traveling to join the fight in Syria just a few weeks ago. This implies that they are actively monitoring and are very quick to act.”
Trad told Xinhua the dramatic tone of national discourse was a familiar response to a government facing policy pressures closer to home.
“I believe that the authorities are ramping up the rhetoric on this matter as a diversion from the very austere proposed budget measures to get people talking about security fears instead of the impact of the budget. We have seen these tactics employed before over a long period of time and here they are being played up again. “
With Prime Minister Tony Abbott preparing to come down hard on the “growing number” of Australian citizens fighting alongside militants in Syria, and more recently affiliated with ISIS ( Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, expressed now as the ‘ Caliphate’) in Iraq, Xinhua was told that the Australian public and its Western allies are being kept in the dark over the true figure of Australian nationals currently acting as foreign combatants in Middle Eastern conflicts.
“The real reason Australia’s national security committee is drafting punitive measures against Australian Islamic fighters... is the uptake of homegrown militants standing far higher than the official figure of 150 given by Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop,” Xinhua was told.
Anxiety here, reminiscent of the height of paranoia generated in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and the 2002 attack in Bali, has coalesced around the reportedly rising numbers and the relatively high-profile of Muslim Australians taking up arms in Syria and Iraq.
The Cabinet will sign-off on a series of measures that will give The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and other spy agencies greater surveillance powers. Surveillance has reportedly increased and a number of passports have been canceled, although the concern remains that there are too many holes in a net that allowed convicted Sydney terrorist Khaled Sharrouf to use his brother’s passport to skip through customs officials to join ISIS in Iraq.
“The government will shortly introduce new legislation giving our security agencies greater powers to counter the terrorist threat. The government will not hesitate to take strong action against any person or any group that is a threat to our national security,” Bishop has said.
Australia may have good reason to play-down the disturbing number of its nationals on the ground in the increasingly bloody conflicts in Syria and Iraq, with US President Barack Obama this week expressing dismay at the reported number of fighters, already the highest-per capita source of any Western nation.
The office of Julie Bishop referred Xinhua to the office of the Attorney-General, citing his repeated claims to local media that described the official number as somewhere around 150 Australians associated with extremist activities in Iraq and Syria. The minister for Foreign Affairs called it “one of the most disturbing developments in Australia’s domestic security agenda.
However, Keyser ridiculed the government’s heavy-handed response, telling Xinhua Australia’s young Muslims were neither soldiers nor radicals.
“Australians who may wish to take sides in this conflict are not trained fighters, they are not trained to deal with the terrain or the harsh conditions. This is not a computer game.”
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