7 January 2015

Australian Spy Agency: ISIS has “proven resilient” and remains a threat despite recent military operations against it in Syria and Iraq

Daniel Hurst
January 5, 2014

Asio: Isis still a threat despite coalition successes in Syria and Iraq
A member loyal to Isis waves its flag in Raqqa, Syria, in June 2014. Photograph: Reuters

Islamic State (Isis) has “proven resilient” and remains a threat despite recent military operations against it in Syria and Iraq, according to a brief of evidence compiled by the Australian spy agency.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) provided the assessment as part of the process of declaring al-Raqqa province in Syria as the first “no-go zone” under the government’s new foreign fighter laws.

A parliamentary committee is reviewing the government’s decision, announced in early December, to designate the area as off limits to Australians. Citizens who enter or remain in al-Raqqa face jail terms of up to 10 years – unless the travel is solely for a legitimate reason such as a bona fide visit to relatives.

The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, has told the intelligence and security committee she made the declaration because she was satisfied that Isis, which is listed as a terrorist organisation under Australian law, was engaging in hostile activity in al-Raqqa.

Bishop provided the committee with a copy of Asio’s “statement of reasons”, which she said she had carefully considered before making the decision.

The statement said Isis, also known as Isil, had been operating in Iraq under various names since 2003 and had been active in the Syria conflict since late 2011.

“Since January 2014, Isil has focused on capturing and consolidating control over large areas of Iraq and Syria. It operates across much of Iraq and Syria, but is based in the Iraqi provinces of Ninewa and al-Anbar and the Syrian province of al-Raqqa, which serves as its de facto capital,” the statement said.

“Isil’s activities in these areas of Iraq and Syria, and calls by Isil’s leadership, have attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including Australians, who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join Isil and engage in hostile activity.”

On Sunday the prime minister, Tony Abbott, made a surprise visit to Iraq to discuss the campaign against Isis.

The group sought to replace the Iraqi and Syrian government by capturing territory and the declaration of a caliphate spanning the established Iraq-Syria border and had launched frequent attacks on civilians, the Asio statement said.

“Isil has proven resilient, having survived its earlier near-extinction at the hands of an international coalition that fought it for eight years,” it said.

“Despite recent military operations against it in both Iraq and Syria, it remains an ongoing threat and conducts daily attacks throughout its areas of operation in Iraq and Syria.”

The statement included a list of videos released by Isis showing beheadings, including five featuring American or British citizens.

“On the basis of the above information, Asio assesses that Isil is engaged in hostile activities in al-Raqqa province, Syria,” it said. “This assessment is corroborated by information from reliable and credible intelligence sources.”

In a human-rights statement attached to the declaration, the government said the listing was “compatible with human rights because it is a lawful, necessary and proportionate response to protect Australia’s national security”.

The government said the declaration promoted the safety of Australians, including those seeking to travel to al-Raqqa and those who might be at risk by people who returned from the region with terrorism capabilities. The prosecution “must disprove any legitimate-purpose defence raised beyond a reasonable doubt, in addition to proving the elements of the offence”, it said.

Labor supported the declaration of al-Raqqa and the passage of a series of counter-terrorism laws, but has been forced to defend its approach after mounting criticism from News Corp’s Daily Telegraph.

Saturday’s Telegraph front page carried the headline: “Vows of death: Aussie jihadist brides schooled in terror as Labor helps them slip net”.

The story argued Labor was “responsible for watered-down terror laws that make it harder to jail returning jihadis”. It said the government wanted to ban travel to certain counties but Labor insisted it be only to specific regions within countries, “which is almost impossible to prove”.

The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, issued a statement describing the coverage as “inaccurate and irresponsible”, noting that the laws “were agreed to by a bipartisan security committee chaired by the government”.

“These laws were passed by the government, with the bipartisan support of the opposition,” Dreyfus said.

One of the changes recommended by the security committee, and accepted by the government, was to remove a clause in the bill that explicitly enabled the foreign affairs minister to declare an entire country as an effective no-go zone.

Dreyfus said al-Raqqa was the only region declared under the legislation so far and there was “nothing stopping the government from declaring any further areas today if this is needed”.

“The opposition continues to offer the government its bipartisan support on national security. We hope the government continues to share that commitment,” he said.

The justice minister, Michael Keenan, said on Sunday a new hostage video released by Isis was “just another example of the barbaric terrorist organisation that we have committed to degrading and destroying”.

Keenan said the government was “doing everything we can here in Australia to contain and control the very small number of people who might fall under their influence”.

Legal groups and Islamic community representatives have previously raised concerns that the no-go zone provisions could allow people to be jailed for travel unconnected to hostile activities, would have a disproportionate effect on Australian Muslims, and the exemptions were not broad enough.

The parliamentary joint committee on human rights argued in October that the new declared area provisions were likely to infringe on rights to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, freedom of movement, the prohibition against arbitrary detention, and non-discrimination.

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