Australia's spy chief says 400 'high priority' cases are still being monitored

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Australia’s domestic intelligence agency ASIO has a workload of around 400 “high priority” cases which it is monitoring, the nation’s spy chief has confirmed.

ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis said that while he had “no specific information about any particular attack planning in this country that would be reflective of what happened in France”, ISIS propaganda and radical elements had been successful in recruiting young Australians to their cause.

He added that there was “there is no guarantee… no way in the world” of ruling out the possibility of an event in Australia similar in scale to Friday’s atrocity in Paris, which left over 130 people dead and hundred injured.

“We have had … three attacks involving fatalities and six thwarted attacks in the last 12 months,” Lewis told the 7.30 Report. “To put that in some sort of historic perspective, that represents just over two-thirds of the attacks or planned attacks that we’ve had in this country over the last 15 years. So in the last 12 months we’ve had two-thirds of the attacks in the last 15 years.”

The attacks in Australia so far were all so-called “lone wolf” operations: the stabbing of police officers at Endeavour Hills police station in Melbourne by Numan Haider, who was shot dead; the Martin Place siege, and the shooting of a police force accountant in western Sydney this year by Farhad Jabar Khalil Mohammad.

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies say they have disrupted another six planned attacks since the terrorism alert level was raised to “high” in September last year. At that time it emerged there had been a plot to kidnap a member of the public from the streets of Sydney, behead them while draped in an Islamic State flag and then post the video online.

The audacity and sophistication of the Paris attacks suggests the attackers were highly trained, not only because of the methods involved but because of their ability to keep their intentions hidden from authorities. Some reports have suggested the attackers were trained in Syria by ISIS specifically for the Paris attacks, and experts have warned that this raises the possibility that there are other groups out there.

Earlier this year ASIO announced it was monitoring around 400 high-priority cases and that number had not changed, Lewis said. He said: “Fortunately, those returning from the Middle East are nowhere near the same sort of numbers that we have seen in France, but it is always a matter of concern and it’s something we’re watching very closely.”

On how they were managing to stay on top of the 400 high priority cases, Lewis said:

Well it’s a challenge and it requires high prioritisation. We do prioritise and I think we have been pretty successful to date around that, but again, I reinforce the point that there are no guarantees in this business. You work as hard as you can within the priorities that you assign and within the resources that you have. We’ve been extraordinarily well resourced over the last couple of years in the intelligence community, but it does require prioritisation and some very, very careful planning.

The full interview with Lewis is here.

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