CANBERRA, Australia – Australian authorities have received specific intelligence that terrorists are planning an attack on the country, Prime Minister John Howard said Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to increase the powers of Australia’s intelligence agencies.
Howard refused to give any details of the threat, saying he did not want to jeopardize counterterror operations, but he introduced a minor amendment to counterterrorism laws in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
“The reason for this amendment is that the government has received specific intelligence and police information this week which gives cause for serious concern about a potential terrorist threat,” Howard said at a nationally televised news conference in Canberra.
“We have seen material; it is a cause of concern; we have been given advice that if this amendment is enacted as soon as possible, the capacity of the authorities to respond will be strengthened,” he added.
There has never been a major terror attack on Australian soil but the country’s citizens and diplomatic outposts have been hit repeatedly in recent years by bombings — most notably in Indonesia, where Canberra’s embassy in Jakarta was hit by a 2004 suicide minivan bomb and dozens of its citizens have been killed in attacks on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 and on Oct. 1 this year.
Howard said the amendment meant that when prosecuting someone for planning a terrorist act, authorities would not have to identify a specific terrorist act.
It will also allow groups to be banned based on intelligence that it is preparing an unspecified terrorist act rather outlining details of a specific plot.
Aldo Borgu, an intelligence expert from the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the government may be planning to ban the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
“They now want to ban organizations that aren’t necessarily terrorist groups but might advocate terrorism,” Borgu said.
Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said in August that the government was considering outlawing Hizb ut-Tahrir as a counterterrorism precaution but had no legal basis to list it as a terrorist organization.
Britain banned the group — which has called for attacks against coalition forces in
Iraq as well as U.S. and Israeli interests elsewhere — after the July 7 bombings in London that killed 52.
Borgu noted, however, that the government did not increase the official threat level from medium despite Howard’s comments.
“The problem the government is going to have is explaining the inconsistency between the potential terrorist threat but not changing the threat alert level,” he said.
The government has kept the threat level constant since it was elevated to medium in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.