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Australia Announces Security Crackdown Amid 'Rising' Terrorist Threat

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks about his nation's new anti-extremism strategy on Monday in Canberra, Australia.
Rob Griffith
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks about his nation's new anti-extremism strategy on Monday in Canberra, Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has introduced a raft of tough new measures aimed at countering what he called the rising threat of terrorism.

Abbott announced the national security crackdown one day after the release of a review of Australia's counterterrrorism operations and a report on a deadly attack in a Sydney cafe in December that left three people dead.

Under the proposed measures, the Australian government would be able to revoke the citizenship of anyone holding dual nationality who fights alongside extremists. Abbott said the government would review measures to stop anyone suspected of traveling overseas to fight, or prevent from them from re-entering Australia. There would also be tougher restrictions on hate speech and on inciting racial or religious hatred. Abbott said he would appoint a new anti-terrorism czar under the new strategy.

The prime minister warned that the terrorism threat in Australia is escalating, saying at least 110 Australians have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside extremists, and that at least 20 have been killed.

"The terrorist threat is rising, at home and abroad, and is becoming harder to combat," Abbott said. He added that terrorism today involves little more than a camera phone, a knife and a victim.

Australia was gripped by news in December when a gunman, pledging allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, held 18 people hostage at popular cafe in the heart of Sydney. Police stormed the shop after a 17-hour siege. Three people were killed in the attack, including the gunman, Man Haron Monis. The security services faced harsh criticism for failing to identify Monis as a threat — he had a criminal record for sexual assault and accessory to murder charges and was out on bail.

Abbott said the Iranian-born Monis should never have been allowed into Australia and should not have been allowed out on bail or to get a gun. Some of the new measures introduced will stiffen the country's immigration laws, and will cut off welfare payments to anyone believed to be involved in terrorism. Australian citizenship is an extraordinary privilege, Abbott said, adding that people who come to the country are free to live as they choose, "provided they don't steal that same freedom from others."

These new measures build on anti-terrorism legislation passed by Australia last year. They are similar to those unveiled in the U.K. in September and France in November. Today, France confiscated the passports of six nationals who were allegedly planning to travel to Syria to fight alongside jihadis. The BBC saystheir passports will be confiscated for six months.

Australia's Muslim community had harsh words for Abbott's speech. The Wall Street Journal reports that Muslim leaders did not respond immediately to the prime minister's statements, but released a statement over the weekend that was signed by more than 60 Muslim organizations. It accused Abbott of "bullying" Australia's highest Islamic leader, Ibrahim Abu Muhammad, for allegedly supporting radicals, and said the prime minister was making "politically convenient threats" of a security crackdown.

Abbott, who barely survived a leadership challenge in earlier this month, was also criticized as overreacting by some members of the opposition. But Annabel Crabb, chief online political writer at the Australian Broadcasting Corportation, says the new strategy is based largely on recommendations from the national counterterrorism review.

"The review is an interesting read," Crabb writes in an editorial. "It sets out the most comprehensible account I've yet seen from government about how law enforcement agencies have changed since September 11, and cuts through the rhetoric on terrorism to explain where resources are being used."

She adds: "It's clearly an escalating threat situation. Anyone carrying on today about how Tony Abbott is just cooking it all up to save his own skin is thinking wishfully."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.