SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Thursday for the first time exercised sweeping new security powers allowing it to block citizens from traveling to overseas conflict zones such as those in Iraq and Syria, where dozens of Australians have joined Islamist militant groups.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop designated the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa province in Syria off limits as part of a push to combat what the government says is growing radicalization among young Australian Muslims.
It is the first use of new security powers obtained by conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, under which Australian citizens traveling to any area overseas declared off limits can face up to a decade in prison.
“Under the provisions of our foreign fighters legislation, I have today declared Al Raqqa province an area where a listed terrorist organization is engaging in hostile activity,” Bishop told Parliament.
“This now makes it an offense under Australian law to enter or remain in the province of al-Raqqa without a legitimate reason. Anyone who enters or remains faces a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.”
In September, the United Nations demanded that all states make it a serious criminal offense for their citizens to travel abroad to fight with militant groups, or to recruit and fund others to do so, in a move sparked by the rise of Islamic State.
Security analysts have put the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, traveling from scores of countries around the world, in the thousands.
Australia is on high alert for attacks by radicalized Muslims or by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East, having raised its threat level to high and undertaken a series of high-profile raids in major cities.
Abbott has said that at least 70 Australians were fighting in Iraq and Syria backed by about 100 Australia-based “facilitators”.
The government, which recently warned that the balance between freedom and security “may have to shift”, is also introducing controversial data retention laws it says are needed to tackle security and criminal threats.
Critics say the data laws go too far in compromising privacy, will be too costly and could lay journalists and whistleblowers open to hefty prison sentences.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie