Abbott to Appoint Australia Anti-Terrorism Chief on Threats

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Australia will appoint a counter-terrorism chief to tackle the rising threat posed by extremists and seek new powers to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals fighting with militant groups, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

The government will also clamp down on organizations that “incite religious or racial hatred” and try to counter their propaganda with online material promoting Australian values, Abbott said in a speech in Canberra Monday.

The government raised the nation’s terrorism alert to the highest level in a decade in September, citing the threat posed by local supporters of Islamic State militants. Since then, more than 20 people have been arrested and charged in counter-terrorism operations, while officers in December killed a gunman claiming an allegiance to Islamic State following a siege in Sydney that also left two hostages dead.

Abbott’s warning of an intensified threat in Australia and abroad echoes that of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who said at the weekend the world is dealing with a “new phase” of global terrorism with an increased risk of domestic attacks in the West.

Abbott’s national security address comes a day after his government announced the findings of a review of the siege at the cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place. The probe by federal and state authorities investigated why gunman Man Haron Monis, a self-proclaimed Islamic cleric from Iran, was free on bail despite a history of violence and extremist sympathies.

Siege Review

The review proposed measures including an audit of firearms, closer scrutiny of visa applications, and greater government support for communities and service providers to recognize signs that someone may be radicalizing. It also recommended authorities should consider an accused person’s links to terrorist organizations or violent extremism in assessing bail applications.

Abbott said Monday the government will create a “simpler and clearer” terrorism alert system.

“The terrorist threat is rising at home and abroad, and it’s becoming harder to combat,’” Abbott said. Intelligence agencies are currently carrying out more than 400 high-priority investigations, more than double the number a year ago, he said.

U.S. Homeland Security’s Johnson said terrorism groups would previously train recruits to commit acts of violence and then send them into other countries to carry out plans. Now, such groups are using the Internet and social media to push people to carry out attacks on their own, he said, warning visitors to the Mall of America tourist attraction to be “particularly careful.”

Islamic State

Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition government in August committed an additional A$630 million ($493 million) over four years to counter-terrorism measures. The increased funding comes amid concern Australia’s economic growth is slowing, while the nation’s budget deficit is forecast to reach A$40.4 billion this financial year.

Abbott has sought to enact a raft of new laws to bolster Australia’s security, including legislation yet to be passed that will force telecommunication companies to retain users’ data for two years so it can be accessed without warrant by law-enforcement agencies. In October, parliament passed the Foreign Fighters Bill, aimed at stopping citizens from fighting with extremists in Iraq and Syria.

At least 110 Australians have traveled overseas to join I.S. in Iraq and Syria, with at least 20 having been killed, Abbott said.

The government will seek to amend the law so that dual nationals have their citizenship revoked if they take up arms with “terrorist groups, especially while Australian military personnel are engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The government is also examining whether to “suspend some of the privileges of citizenship” for Australian nationals involved in terrorism, including travel restrictions and loss of welfare payments.

(Updates with Mall of America threat in ninth paragraph.)
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