Brandis flags changes to spy powers

Australia’s spy agencies could be given broader powers to prevent would-be jihadists from travelling abroad to fight in religious conflicts such as those in Syria and Iraq.


Attorney-General George Brandis on Wednesday met with Islamic leaders in Canberra to outline the government’s proposed changes, which will be introduced to parliament this month.

Around 60 Australians are known to be fighting with terrorist groups in Syria and northwestern Iraq, where the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) is waging a jihadist campaign.

Senator Brandis said these Australians and around 90 others actively involved in the war-torn region posed a serious risk to national security and it was vital no others were allowed to join.

“The radical Islamist ideology propagated by organisations such as ISIL … holds nothing for young Australians,” he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

The government has partnered with Islamic community leaders – described by Senator Brandis as “agents of peace” – to help discourage those influenced by radical groups from taking up arms.

Senior sheikhs from across the country pledged to use the holy month of Ramadan to preach a peaceful message to their communities, saying this issue crossed cultural divides.

“I’m sure everybody in Australia is concerned with people who are being attracted to their cause, and who sympathise with the struggles that they are having in the name of Islam,” Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem from the Australian National Imams Council said.

The proposed legislation will primarily affect the powers extended to Australia’s domestic spy agency ASIO and its overseas counterpart ASIS.

Senator Brandis said the changes would break down the “bizarre situation” whereby the two agencies couldn’t exercise the same powers despite working together on a case.

Amendments to freshen up the outdated telecommunications law are also expected, as are changes to terrorism provisions of the criminal code to ensure there are “no gaps”.

The government wants to detain and charge Australians returning from battlefields abroad with terrorism crimes that carry stiff jail terms.

There could be obstacles to this, but Senator Brandis said the government was “absolutely determined” that Australians are protected from the troubles in the Middle East.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus had been consulted about the legislative changes and Labor’s support was expected, he added.

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