Personal freedoms will need to be redrawn, according to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who talked tough on security on Monday after the release of a report on the handling of a deadly siege at a Sydney café.
In his speech marking the report’s release, Abbott told his audience “the system has failed us”, and he warned of an “ominous” new “dark age”, while doubling down on his commitment to expand the power of law enforcement agencies to fight “terrorism”.
“For too long, we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt,” said Abbott, who among other things has pledged to revoke citizenship, crack down on immigration, and prevent access to other “privileges” such as welfare services.
“If there’s a choice between latitude for suspects or more powers to police and security agencies, more often we should choose to support our agencies,” said Abbott.
The idea of “home-grown terrorists” has had Australian authorities spooked in the wake of the “Sydney Siege”, and with the knowledge that Australia is one of the largest contributors of foreign fighters per capita to organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
About 4,000 foreign fighters from Western countries are currently active among ISIL’s ranks, according to the International Centre for the study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.
More than 20,000 people are also thought to have travelled from around the world to fight with ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
This includes at least 250 young Australians, with the government currently investigating more than 90 people who have left to join the conflict, and 100 more alleged to be providing funding and support.
These figures are significant for a country of 22 million people, with a Muslim population of about 400,000, particularly when compared to European countries with larger Muslim communities such as Spain or Italy and their low rates of people leaving for war.
Still, overall figures for foreign fighters are small, with the bulk of ISIL’s fighting force mostly drawn from Iraq, owing to the organisation’s origin as a Sunni Muslim militia.
Once they arrive, foreign volunteers are used by the organisation in a variety of roles, from front-line soldiers and checkpoint guards, to cooks, IT support, cleaners, and in some cases, wives for fighters.
What they do when they get there depends on their skills and suitability, according to David Connery, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“The motivations are very individual,” Connery told Al Jazeera. “Broadly speaking, some guys are committed to the idea of Islamic State. Others are committed to helping coreligionists fight oppression. Others want adventure.
“There was a story of a couple of really heavily overweight guys who just weren’t suitable for the rigours of combat. We don’t know how they were used, but ISIL needs people for all types of roles, even kitchen work.”
With a recent leadership challenge and falling ratings in opinion polls, Australia’s conservative government has seen national security as an area where it performs well.
As a result, a raft of new laws have been introduced that seek to expand security powers for law enforcement agencies and introduce new programmes.
“Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we’re used to, and more inconvenience than we would like,” Abbott told parliament last September while introducing the legislation.
The “foreign fighters” bill as it was known, introduced offences for travelling overseas to fight.
However, it also included provisions that effectively criminalised whistle-blowing and investigative reporting by introducing a 10-year jail sentence for publishing classified information relating to national security.
The most recent tranche of national security legislation that relates to mandatory data retention is under review by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is due to deliver its report this week.
The bill seeks to require internet service providers (ISPs) to retain the metadata of their clients for a “mandatory” period of up to two years.
Under the current system, ISPs already store metadata and regularly allow authorities access, but the new legislation will standardise the practise, and would require them to store information about their customers’ emails, telephone calls and text messages.
Challenging the law
While law enforcement agencies and Australia’s spy organisations have supported the move, others have not been so positive.
“As far as the industry’s position is, our focus is on trying to make it the least-worst option if it is introduced,” said John Stanton, chief executive of the Communications Alliance, the national industry body that represents a number of telecommunications companies.
Stanton told Al Jazeera there are questions about how effective the system will be.
As it will not apply to foreign-owned corporations, the system will not capture data from foreign-owned services such as Gmail, Skype and Facebook.
The Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA), Australia’s national union for journalists, has also been outspoken in its criticism of the new law, saying it represents another step in an ongoing attack on press freedom.
“We are very concerned by the data retention regime, because as it is currently presented, it will mean it will be impossible for journalists to keep their sources confidential,” Christopher Warren of MEAA told Al Jazeera.
The legislation will make investigative reporting extremely difficult as law enforcement agencies will be able to identify confidential sources by trawling a reporter’s phone record, which may in turn lead to prosecution in a manner that echoes that of reporters Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey in 2007.
The Herald Sun reporters were convicted of contempt of court after they refused on several occasions to give up the name of a confidential source.
Meanwhile, the government’s efforts to also provide a softer edge has been met with a mixed response by community groups.
Programmes on “countering violent extremism” are at the heart of the Australian government’s new policy, with Canberra seeking to create a “directory” of services to help identify and counter threats.
This includes a new federal grant that offers $50,000 to community groups to help “build the capacity to deliver” services under a programme called “Living Together Safely”.
But support has been tepid, particularly among the Muslim and Arab communities, as many have been confused by bureaucratic jargon and see the programme as placing the burden entirely on their communities.
Both the Arab Council of Australia and the Federal Islamic Council, along with the influential Lebanese Muslim Association in New South Wales state, have recently voiced concerns.
Randa Kattan of the Arab Council of Australia, a secular organisation, raised several concerns with Al Jazeera saying the initiative has been rushed, has lacked dialogue, and seemed to place the responsibility for detecting threats on community groups.
“The responsibility does not lie with one community – it lies with society as a whole,” said Kattan.
“It’s got to be a holistic approach. We don’t have a list of people who are going to be radicalised. No one knows. There’s got to be a way that we are all working together on this, not just the Arabs or Muslims.”
Kuranda Seyit, director of the Forum for Australia’s Islamic Relations, also said while initiatives to monitor young people were needed, getting results depended on careful planning.
“I think it’s not going to work, basically,” said Seyit. “If only because it will be very difficult to implement.
“Radicalisation is very complex. Finding the right people to do that is hard, and creating an effective directory with the right organisations, and the right people, is very problematic,” Seyit said.
Source: Al Jazeera