BANGKOK -- Australia is emerging as a major breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorists, and this has prompted a swift and tough response from Canberra to protect the country against the rise of Islamic State, Syria's Jabat Al Nusra and other terrorist groups.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Aug. 5 that sweeping new anti-terrorism laws will be introduced, while existing measures, passed following the London bombings in 2005, will be extended. He also earmarked 630 million Australian dollars ($549 million) and new, wide-ranging powers for government spy agencies, and wants to introduce tougher penalties for offenders. Then, on Sept. 12, Abbott raised Australia's terror alert to "high" as he unveiled a fresh military commitment to assist the U.S. in rooting out the Islamic State group in Iraq by force.
"For some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift," Abbott told Australia's parliament on Sept. 22. "Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we are used to and more inconvenience than we would like," he added.
His actions incensed critics, who said the measures have gone beyond the limits to individual freedom that any democratic nation could tolerate. But there are also academics and moderate Muslims who argue that they are necessary for the country.
"Australia is without doubt a definite target of radical Islamic groups," said Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technology University.
The government says security agencies have warned about the rising threat of an attack on Australian soil. It estimates that at least 200 young Australians -- mostly from Lebanese and Afghan immigrant families -- are fighting for terror groups abroad and at least 16 of them have been killed in conflicts in the Middle East so far. Perhaps the most notorious among the growing number of Australians fighting for radical Muslim groups is Khaled Sharrouf. In August, the convicted Australian terrorist posted a gruesome photo on Twitter of his seven-year-old son holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Some blame the inaction of previous governments that allowed radical preaching in mosques, as well as the distribution of terrorist propaganda, which have radicalized hundreds of young Muslims in the country.
Jamal Rifi, a Sydney medical doctor and Muslim community leader who has emerged as the face of moderate Islam of Australia, said he had come across local preachers who took a "hard line in their interpretation of the sacred text." They use religion to "alter the mind and to imprint certain ideas in these young people about the first year of the Syrian revolution," he said. Islamic State threatened to murder the doctor and his family in August, he told the Nikkei Asian Review, for daring to openly criticize his fellow Muslims.
"The Australian government must introduce legislation that will jail people preaching and distributing pro-terrorist propaganda," he said Gunaratna. "It must also enact laws that allow the blocking of Internet sites and jailing of people found guilty of issuing pro-terrorist propaganda."
He said Australia successfully helped its northern neighbor Indonesia fight terrorism after two deadly bombings in 2002-2005 -- one in Bali and another on the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Australia provided security expertise through the federal police and helped provide funding to build up Indonesia's anti-terrorism capacity. These efforts helped neutralize the threat presented by the Southeast Asian radical group Jemaah Islamiyah, which conducted the attacks.
Now, ironically, Gunaratna says that a lot of radical propaganda on the Internet that was being read in Southeast Asia emanates from Australia, and the fact that the material was written in English made it accessible to more people.
Australia has often been supportive of U.S.-led attacks on suspected terrorists. It was one of the original "Coalition of the Willing" brought together by former U.S. President George W. Bush to support the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Australian fighter jets are now carrying out air strikes in the Middle East. Abbott has already committed 200 troops to Iraq and U.S. President Barack Obama asked the nation for more at the Group of 20 leaders' summit in Brisbane last week.
Abbott is not the only country head who is legislating against the threat of terrorism. John Key, New Zealand's prime minister, announced his own anti-terrorism legislation and budgets on Nov. 5. He said there are 30-40 New Zealanders who are potential terror threats or involved with Islamic State.
But in Australia, a large number of politicians and legal and human rights commentators have attacked the severity of Abbott's proposed laws as well as the return of Australian forces to the Middle East.
"The core issue here is whether the steps this government is taking at home and abroad are being properly considered and calibrated to meet the reality rather than the hype, to achieve properly defined outcomes rather than draw us into yet another counterproductive military engagement," said opposition Labor lawmaker Melissa Parke in parliament on Sept. 22.
Critics point to police raids, such as the ones conducted on Sept. 9 that targeted the country's 500,000 strong Muslim community but failed to yield anything.
The government said more such raids can be expected but Abbott's political opponents claim that the focus on the threat of terrorism has been largely politically driven. The government's ratings have been sagging in opinion polls since it proposed unpopular budget cuts in May. Fighting terrorists at home and abroad could help distract voters from other problems, they said.
Abbott's proposed bills -- some of which have yet to be presented to parliament -- would give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the nation's domestic spy agency, too much power, analysts said. These include more legal protection to the ASIO and its officers, as well as making it easier for ASIO to detain suspects and ban organizations that it suspects have links to terrorist groups. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the country's overseas intelligence agency, will be given explicit permission to spy on Australian citizens abroad.
New laws will also extend punitive measures against the media and allow jail terms of up to 10 years for journalists and whistleblowers who "recklessly" disclose information related to a "special intelligence operation."
This adds to existing laws that allow journalists to be jailed if they report on the operations of ASIO. These restraints are not something that any other democratic nation permits, according to an article written by George William, a law professor at the University of New South Wales that was published on the Australian National University's online East Asia Forum.
New laws being discussed will also give the government wide data retention rights, requiring Australian telecommunications companies to retain customer data for two years. The legislation was introduced into parliament on Oct. 30 by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who explained that "access to metadata plays an essential role in almost every counter-terrorism, cyber security and organized crime investigation."
Rifi agrees with most of the government's proposals but warned that the administration's core failure was a lack of consultation with the Muslim community during the drafting of the new legislation. This was an mistake, he said, that was compounded by a lack of urgency in identifying programs to help combat the radicalization of Muslim youth.
A government budget of A$13 million has been set aside to help moderate Muslim community groups, he said. "There is no sign of any community projects being approved and funded, and we are almost in December, when the country shuts down for about two months. During this time, more of our boys will be radicalized and sent overseas, possibly to their deaths," he lamented. "Right now every week counts."