CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — New counterterrorism units have been working at Australia’s two largest airports since last week and had already prevented two suspected jihadists from leaving the country, officials said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday that the units operating at Sydney and Melbourne airports would soon be introduced at all Australian international airports to monitor the movements of travelers on security watch lists. Biometric screening of passengers will also be introduced at the airports.
“I’m advised that these new units have already intercepted at least one person of interest,” Abbott told Parliament. “This government will do — I’m sure this Parliament will do — everything that is reasonably necessary to keep our country safe.”
The move is focused on passengers arriving and leaving the country.
Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday that two men had been prevented this week from leaving Sydney and Melbourne for the Middle East on suspicion that they intended to fight.
Neither man had been on any security watch list and neither had been charged, he said.
Australian airport security had been tightened in response to convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf slipping out of Sydney Airport on his brother’s passport in December last year to join Islamic State fighters, Morrison said.
Sharrouf, 33, has since provoked international outrage by posting on his Twitter account a photograph of his Sydney-born 7-year-old son clutching the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Morrison described the security priority change at airport customs as “a big shift.”
“That means that on occasion, flights will be held, people will have to be unloaded, baggage will have to be taken off and that may inconvenience some passengers from time to time, but this is important for our national security,” Morrison said.
Abbott conceded this month that the nation’s border security was not good enough after a second suspected jihadist flew to the Middle East using a brother’s passport.
A 19-year-old Sydney man slipped out of the country, but was detained on arrival in the United Arab Emirates and deported. Sharrouf, whose passport had been canceled, left Sydney in a similar security breach.
The government this month proposed tough new counterterrorism laws as well as 630 million Australian dollars ($590 million) in additional resources over four years to help intelligence and law enforcement agencies cope with the scores of Australians who return home after committing terrorist acts overseas.
Some Islamic leaders argue Muslims, a minority of 500,000 in Australia’s population of 23 million, are being unfairly targeted.
David Irvine, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, Australia’s top spy agency, told the National Press Club on Wednesday that 60 Australians were fighting in Iraq and Syria for the al-Qaida offshoots Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nursa, also known as the Nusra Front. He said another 15 Australian fighters had been killed, including two young suicide bombers.
Irvine said another 100 Australians were actively supporting extremist groups from within Australia, recruiting fighters and grooming suicide bomber candidates as well as providing funds and equipment.
“In the past two years, the situation in Syria and Iraq has radically complicated the (terrorist) threat, adding energy and allure to the extremist Islamic narrative,” Irvine said.
Dozens of Australian fighters had already returned home, and “a good number of these” remained a concern to security authorities, he said.
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