return to letters list

For some time now there have been reports that Australians have been travelling to Syria to help “rebels” by either fighting with them or acting as assistants. Recently it has become clear that the rebels include an al-Qa’ida group (al-Nusra Front) and that Australians (mostly Lebanese dual citizens) have joined that group, which has been proscribed by the United States as a terrorist agency – but NOT (apparently) by Australia, although ASIO has reportedly been aware of its activities and the involvement of Australians for over a year.

Although one suspects that the government may be concerned that a “tough” response would have possible adverse effects in electorates in Western NSW, there is no obvious reason why Australia has failed to proscribe al-Nusra. Nor is there any reason why Australians involving themselves with an al-Qa’aida group should not be subjected to interrogation and possible imprisonment. On last night’s ABC TV news (see text below) the head of ASIO said

“we have every reason... to be alert to the fact that there continue to be people within our midst who would plan ill for ordinary Australians.”

Note also that Attorney General Dreyfus stated

"Some of these Australians regrettably are going to assist or work with or join terrorist organisations that are proscribed in Australia," Mr Dreyfus said. "That's against Australian law for good reason and that's obviously a concern."

There are other implications, including in regard to immigration and asylum-seeker policies. Most important, perhaps, is the warning by a visiting Muslim scholar (published in The Australian) that the lesson from the UK is to take pre-emptive action to minimise the risk of terrorist acts in Australia. While it is too early to determine the cause of the explosions in Boston, they may well reinforce the need for pre-emptive action here in regard to Australians with close connections to groups supportive of Islamic terrorist activity.

Des Moore

Carr should be alert to the dangers of returning extremists
(Letter published in the The Australian, 16 April 2013.)

You report that Foreign Minister Carr told Sky News it was a “big concern” that about 200 Australians have joined an extremist Islamic group in Syrian fighting, but said he could not comment further on  “matters of security and intelligence” (“Concern as Aussies join Syrian uprising”, 15/4).  Why not? Surely he can indicate why the government has failed to list the group as a terrorist organisation .

He should also say that the government will question and if necessary detain the extremist Australians when (if) they return from Syria. As your reporter indicates, ASIO and the Federal Police are  concerned that some will come home infused with extremist ideology.

This at a time when ASIO’s budget has been cut by 4 per cent despite the increased security issues it handles. And when a visiting Muslim scholar from Britain advises us on the lessons from that country, then pre-emptive action is needed.

Des Moore, South Yarra Vic

Concern as Aussies join Syrian uprising
Paul Maley, The Australian, April 15, 2013

A RAPID increase in the number of Australians travelling to Syria to fight with al-Qa'ida is a serious concern to security agencies that have been forced to invest significant time and resources monitoring the emerging threat.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr yesterday confirmed reports in The Weekend Australian that there has been a sharp spike in the number of dual Australian nationals fighting with rebel groups in the Syrian uprising.

It was reported on Saturday that up to 200 had taken up arms against the regime of Bashir al-Assad, with about 100 believed to be fighting alongside the Al Nusra front, al-Qa'ida's affiliate in Syria.

Senator Carr said the presence of Australian nationals on the battlefields of Syria was a "big" concern.

"We are all aware of it," he told SkyNews's Australian Agenda.

"I probably can't go further because I can't comment on matters of security and intelligence but the relevant agencies are fully appraised of this." Senator Carr said Syria had become a magnet for jihadists, and decades of repression by the Assad regime had fomented frustration which was now taking violent expression.

The Foreign Minister said there was "a big investment of time and resources" going into countering the problem of Australians in Syria. "It's clearly a potential threat to Australia."

Security agencies such as ASIO and the Australian Federal Police worry that Australians who travel to fight with jihadist groups in Syria will come home infused with extremist ideology as well as the skills, training and international contacts to impose that ideology violently.

Senator Carr also confirmed the government was considering adding al Nusra to the list of banned terror groups, making membership illegal.

"We're discussing that with the British, the French and the Americans," Senator Carr said.

Last week al-Qa'ida in Iraq announced it had merged with al Nusra.

Most of the Australians of concern to ASIO are Lebanese dual nationals who have crossed into Syria via Lebanon.

Spy agencies monitoring Australians fighting in Syria
ABC TV News, 15 April 2013,
Michael Brissenden, defence and national security correspondent, and staff

Photo: It is not clear whether Australians are supporting the rebel or government forces in Syria. (File photo) (AFP: Zac Baillie)

Related Story: Rights groups alarmed by spy agency 'power grab'

The head of Australia's domestic intelligence agency has confirmed investigations into hundreds of young Australian-Lebanese men who have joined the fighting in Syria. ASIO director general David Irvine says the fear is the young men are becoming radicalised by their experiences and that they may present a future terrorism risk once they return to Australia.

"We continue to be concerned about young Australians going overseas to fight on battlefields that don't necessarily have a lot to do with Australia," he said. "We are also concerned that young Australians go overseas and become quite severely radicalised in the extremist Al Qaeda-type doctrines.

"Our first and foremost concern is for the safety of those young Australians.

"But secondly, people who do develop the sort of skills that terrorists can use and more importantly the commitment that drives terrorism, that remains a concern."

Mr Irvine says most of the Australians are young males going to Syria either to fight or support the fighting in another way. He says most of them were born in Australia or came to Australia at a young age.

From our reading of what is happening in Australia we have every reason... to be alert to the fact that there continue to be people within our midst who would plan ill for ordinary Australians.
David Irvine

The ABC understands the majority of those young fighters come from families with strong ties in the north of Lebanon, particularly from the area around Tripoli. Many of them have family business interests in the regions and also family connections that reach across the border into Syria.

The potential for further radicalisation has worried ASIO for some time, but the number of those that are being directly investigated has doubled in the past year.

The war in Syria shows no sign of ending and, as one source said, these boys all have Australian passports and they can come and go as often as they like.

But while the number of Australians heading to Syria is in the hundreds, Mr Irvine says this does not mean all of them are directly involved in fighting. "That does not mean that hundreds of people go overseas, join the Al Qaeda affiliates, get an AK-47 and go and fight, many of the people are providing supporting functions, health, medical or whatever," he said. "They're supporting the struggle in ways that don't always involve picking up a gun."

ASIO made the comments today after conducting the first - and more than likely last - tour of the new controversial ASIO building on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was also there and echoed Mr Irvine's concerns. "Some of these Australians regrettably are going to assist or work with or join terrorist organisations that are proscribed in Australia," Mr Dreyfus said.

"That's against Australian law for good reason and that's obviously a concern."

Mammoth Building:
Photo:The new ASIO building sits on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. (ABC News)

The new ASIO building has a mammoth presence, sitting across the water from Parliament House - a testament to its importance in the overall hierarchy of government infrastructure.

It is what many would expect: a high-tech security building with state-of-the-art bio-security screening booths at the staff entrance.

At its heart is a 24-hour operations centre that can run off the grid for up to three days at a time.

It has its own water supply, sewerage system and generators fuelled by a 600,000-litre underground diesel tank.

For many it has become something of a metaphor for the unchecked growth of the intelligence community since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Built at a staggering cost of more than $600 million, the ASIO building was never scrutinised by the parliament - as other big public projects usually are - and it was also exempt from the usual public consultation process.

But Mr Irvine says the cost is justified.

"We are still conducting as many investigations into possible terrorism in Australia today as we were four years ago or five years ago," he said.

"The issue has mutated over the years... but as you know there are still extensive Al Qaeda mutations throughout the world.

"From our reading of what is happening in Australia, we have every reason not to be hugely alarmed or paranoid, but to be alert to the fact that there continue to be people within our midst who would plan ill for ordinary Australians."

The intelligence chiefs say the building is designed to meet Australia's intelligence needs for the next 60 years, in an environment that is as dangerous as ever.

return to letters list