Australia to boost security laws and spy agencies' powers

Attorney-General George Brandis.

Australia plans to strengthen its national security laws and enhance the powers of its spy agencies in the wake of growing concern about waves of Australian Islamists returning from fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Attorney-General George Brandis met Muslim leaders at Parliament House yesterday to discuss the changes, saying the religious and community heads were "partners" in the fight against Islamic extremism.

After the meeting, he said the government would give its intelligence agencies greater capabilities to track the online activities of extremists. The government will also increase the scope of the domestic Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to share information with its overseas counterpart, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.

"The Abbott government is absolutely determined that the troubles in the Middle East will not have an impact on Australia's domestic population," he added.

The changes, largely proposed by a parliamentary committee last year, will be introduced to Parliament in the next two weeks. A separate Bill would compel telecommunications companies to retain data for two years, to assist police in investigations.

Australia has among the highest number of Islamic fighters per capita in the Western world. At least 10 Australians have died in the fighting in Syria and Iraq, and about 150 are believed to be participating in the conflicts. The latest would-be militants included two Sydney teenagers aged 16 and 17, one of whom reportedly told his mother he was "going fishing" before secretly heading to Iraq last week.

The government has already cancelled the passports of Australians believed to be planning to fight in the Middle East. Citizens face up to 25 years in jail if they fight for organisations deemed terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said last month that she had spoken to regional partners such as Malaysia, to discuss enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation.

"It's a global issue but we are particularly concerned with the reports of Australians who are heading off not only to train, but to take leadership roles in radicalising others," she told ABC Television. "The fear is that they will come back to Australia with these new-found abilities and talents in terrorism."

Islamic leaders in Australia have pledged to deliver messages of peace to their communities.

An Australian expert on Islamic extremism, Professor Greg Barton of Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre, said most of the Australians going over were young men from Turkish and Lebanese backgrounds.

"Some have been radicalised recently, some are in families that have been caught up in extremism for several generations... Some have gone to Syria and were radicalised once they are there."

This article was first published on July 03, 2014.
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