Australian security agencies 'disrupted six terrorist attacks in 10 months'

Hostages fleeing the Lindt cafe last December. Photo: Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

A total of six terrorist attacks have been foiled since the national terrorism alert level was raised in September 2014, prime minister Tony Abbott said today.

The news came as he announced agreement on the national Counter-Terrorism Strategy between state and territory government leaders.

“Australians currently face the most significant threat from terrorism in our nation’s history,” Abbott said. “In September 2014, the National Terrorism Public Alert level was raised to HIGH – which means a terrorist attack is likely.

“Since then, there have been two attacks in Australia, and security and law enforcement agencies have disrupted a further six attacks. Twenty three people have been charged as a result of eight counter-terrorism operations – almost a third of all terrorism-related charges since 2001.”

The two attacks have been the siege at Martin Place and the stabbing of two police officers in Melbourne by a teenager who had been under surveillance by police in what was reportedly a two-year operation. The teenager was shot dead by police after he had stabbed two officers and was making threats against the prime minister.

A scene from the counter-terrorism raids last September

A plot to behead a member of the public after snatching them from the street in Sydney was disrupted last year. Last September, some 600 police were involved in a vast counter-terrorism operation involving dawn raids on homes in Sydney and Brisbane. In December, two men were arrested in Sydney following a counter-terrorism operation in which documents were allegedly found that could facilitate a terrorist attack.

In January, police around the country were put on alert and advised to take further steps to ensure their personal security. And in April, Victorian police and the AFP arrested three men in connection with a suspected plot to target police officers involved in ANZAC commemorative activities.

The counter-terrorism strategy released today includes measures to try and stop the radicalisation of young Muslims and challenge the spread of extremist ideologies.

The report highlights the danger of “lone actor” attacks, carried out by people not necessarily connected to or coached by organised terrorist groups. “This does not mean that lone actors operate in perfect isolation. They may be inspired by extremist ideology and terrorist groups’ public calls for small-scale, but high-impact, attacks. Because these attacks may only involve minimal planning, preparation or resourcing they are harder for agencies to detect and disrupt,” the report says.

It lists the number of Australian citizens who have travelled to, and returned from, the Middle East, motivated to support terror-related organisations.

“Some will support terrorism: for example, by actively recruiting others to terrorism. Some may plan to commit terrorist attacks themselves.

“Where possible, those who return will be prosecuted and imprisoned. Where this is not possible, security and intelligence agencies will have to monitor and manage these returnees.”

Similarly, terrorists taking advantage of the powers of the internet will be under scrutiny, where terrorists can “spread propaganda, connect with each other, groom and recruit people, and plan and execute terrorist attacks”.

The report calls on community leaders, providers of online services and the media to play their own role in limiting the availability of terrorist propaganda via the internet.

“Australian governments have committed funds to enhance the work of communities, the private sector and international partners to undermine the online propaganda of violent extremists. This work will also include research to better understand the impact of violent extremist propaganda on Australians and strategies to empower community and civil society voices that combat terrorist ideology.”

In the May budget, the government put $1.2 billion worth of funding towards strengthening anti-terrorism measures, including increasing intelligence capabilities and creating new laws to make it easier to stop Australians joining terrorist groups.

$450 million of the package was dedicated to intelligence measures to protect Australia and Australians.

The counter-terrorism strategy will centre around five main pillars: Challenging violent extremist ideologies, stopping people from becoming terrorists, shaping the global environment, disrupting terrorist activity within Australia, and effective response and recovery.

Despite the strengthened efforts, the government says, “there can be no guarantees that a terrorist attack will not occur. Therefore, we are continuing to develop our capabilities and resources to effectively respond to, and recover from attacks.”

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