A day after Australia’s federal and state leaders called for “draconian” laws to give the police powers to search, arrest and detain terrorist suspects, officials said the measures were needed because of possible terrorist sleeper cells in the country.
“The London bombing was a wake-up call that there could be people who are living in our midst who might be capable of a terrorist act,” Prime Minister John Howard, leader of the center-right Liberal Party, said on Macquarie Radio.
Reflecting the broad political support for the new laws, Peter Beattie, the Labor Party premier of the state of Queensland, said, “In many senses they are draconian laws, but they are necessary laws to protect Australians.”
The head of the federal police, Mick Keelty, said the events in London, as well as Australia’s own intelligence, suggested that a suicide bombing was a possibility in Australia.
“All of us are very surprised at some of the things that have happened in the last, say, 12 months,” Mr. Keelty said on ABC Radio. “To find, for example, in the U.K. that we have got people who are home-grown terrorists is a big move from where we were, say, four years ago or three years ago.”
Australia has a small population of Muslims – fewer than 300,000 out of 22 million – and nearly half of them live in Sydney. It is generally a moderate population group, well integrated into Australian society and lacking the firebrand preachers in Britain.
Even so, Australian intelligence agencies were stunned in late 2003 when French intelligence officials alerted them that a man wanted in France for links to terrorist acts had been living in Sydney for five months, scouting potential targets.
Australia is considered a prime target for Islamic extremists because of the Howard government’s steadfast support for the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The proposed new laws will give the federal police the power to monitor and control the movements of anyone who has trained with a terrorist organization. A person could be placed under house arrest or be required to wear an electronic tag.
Mr. Keelty declined to say how many Muslim extremist suspects were being watched, but in recent interviews Australian police and intelligence officials have said they know of some 70 men who trained at camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Under the new laws, the police will also be able to detain a terrorist suspect for up to 14 days, without charges. The new laws were proposed by Mr. Howard, and were unanimously agreed to in a meeting he held Tuesday with the premiers of Australia’s five states and two territories. All of the premiers are from the center-left Labor Party.