Counter-terrorism teams at Australia’s international airports have been “recalibrated” with almost $50 million in federal government funding to increase their focus on foreign fighters returning from the warzone in Syria and Iraq, alongside checks for those travelling to join Islamic State.
Australian Border Force chief executive Roman Quaedvlieg said the change, made over the past month, reflected fears that those who returned might bring with them both combat experience and the more radical ideologies the terrorist group promoted. “The focus when the Counter Terrorism Unit was established was on the outbound travel because that was where the foreign fighter problem was manifesting but we’ve recalibrated,” he said.
“When they come back in, presumably battle-hardened, more extreme, my fear is that they will form a leadership role in the community.”
Established in August 2014 with almost $50 million in federal government funding, these units are now based at all eight Australian international airports. Responding to automated alerts on passengers as well as making real-time assessments of potential threats, they play a key role in preventing those travelling to join the roughly 110 Australians thought to be fighting with Islamic State.
In December, ASIO director-general of security Duncan Lewis said this number appeared to have reached a plateau, while about 40 more Australians were thought to have died on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
While he declined to provide any figures for the number of people intercepted travelling to join the conflict, Mr Quaedvlieg said relatively few had come back and “we can’t describe it as a flow back as yet”.
Despite a brief surge in the numbers of women, so-called jihadi brides, mid-last year, most of those suspected of travelling to join the terrorist group were young men, he said.
Those leaving the country also now appeared to be taking more measures to avoid detection, including cleaning their mobile phones of the extremist material that often flagged the intentions of others over the past few years.
Counter-terrorism officers have also been surprised at the amount of undeclared cash carried by travellers to the Middle East. Under Australian regulations, passengers must declare any sum of $10,000 or more, but many had been found to be carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, Mr Quaedvlieg said.
“I think we’ve detected $6m-$7m in undeclared cash carried by passengers to high-risk destinations,” he said. “It’s a lot of money and my concern is … even if 10 per cent of that undeclared currency is intended for illegitimate purposes, that can fund a lot of terrorist activity in the Middle East.”
The potential threat posed by experienced Islamic State fighters returning to Australia has long been one of the key fears expressed privately by senior law-enforcement and Muslim community leaders.
A senior sheik at a Sydney mosque in which some of those attending prayers actively recruited for Islamic State said the city’s Muslim clerics were working constantly to halt the terrorist group’s spread.
Sheik Abu Adnan, from Markaz Imam Ahmad in the western Sydney suburb of Liverpool, said: “We are working hard … to eradicate this kind of ideology.”
The mosque’s leaders were working closely with their community to help counter the terrorist group’s influence, but they said while they condemned “these extremist ideologies”, they could not control those who attended the public prayer sessions it held.
The Weekend Australian has previously revealed a group of Islamic State sympathisers known as The Crew was recruiting worshippers at Markaz Imam Ahmad.
Counter-terrorism authorities are also understood to have spent months monitoring the activities of the group, whose members prayed at the mosque but appear to have had no association with its leadership and to have held their meetings elsewhere.
Members of The Crew also attend other mosques and prayer halls across the city, and it is impossible to know exactly how far their influence has spread.
One man recruited by The Crew struck up a friendship with its members after being approached by another attendee at the mosque. The Crew later used encrypted mobile phone technology to put him in touch with others higher up the hierarchy of Islamic State.
Ultimately, the man was prevented from flying only through the actions of his then girlfriend, who duped him into believing that his flight had been cancelled. Soraya (not her real name) called the recruiters “cowards”, saying they operated on the fringes of established mosques and without the authority of their leaders.
Law-enforcement authorities have spent years grappling with the issue of how best to steer people away from the influence of potentially violent extremists.
In recent months, there has been a shift in thinking away from top-down government-led strategies towards supporting grassroots efforts led by communities themselves.
Clarke Jones, the co-director of the Australian Intervention Support Hub, said: “We introduced all sorts of forced intervention from the government but at the end of the day kids jack up at that, it can alienate them further.”
Families and communities often represented the frontline in the battle against international terrorism, Dr Jones said.
In the past fortnight, he had received news of a 15-year-old girl stopped by her family from travelling to Syria, after being convinced to do so largely by her boyfriend. “Whatever we do must not increase the alienation these people are dealing with,” Dr Jones said. “It really needs to be developed from the ground up.”
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