Acting on FBI tip, Australia arrests alleged Islamic State financier

Melbourne raids follow a heightened terror alert earlier in September and the tabling of new security laws in Australia's parliament. 

Julian Smith/AP
A police officer, left, speaks with two people outside of a house where a man was taken into custody during a counterterrorism raid in Seabrook in suburban Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. The man was arrested after police said he provided money to a US citizen fighting alongside extremists in Syria.

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues.

Security forces in Australia carried out a new round of antiterror raids today, resulting in the arrest of a 23-year-old man in Melbourne on suspicion of funding a US citizen to fight for Islamic State (IS).

The man, named by The Associated Press as Hassan El Sabsabi, is accused of sending about $12,000 to a US citizen he met on social media, in order to help fund his travel to Syria, where IS and other jihadist groups are active. Mr. El Sabsabi was arrested today after an eight-month investigation by Australian police, who were tipped off by the FBI.

“This is a terrorism financing case — we didn’t assess there being a significant community safety risk, or a significant risk to our officers,” Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton said. Police from the state and federal level raided seven properties in Melbourne Tuesday.

IS has gained international notoriety for a series of beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers in Iraq and Syria, and the declaration of its caliphate. Earlier this month, Australia raised its terror level to the second highest category out of four. Days later, hundreds of policemen carried out anti-terror raids in Sydney and Brisbane in an attempt to foil an alleged plot to abduct and publicly behead citizens there. At least 15 people were arrested, and the plot was linked to IS.

Australia is now preparing to join the US-led coalition that’s been striking against IS in Iraq and Syria. Canberra is expected to sign off on its involvement in Iraq as early as today, reports Reuters.

Last week Australia’s Parliament introduced new antiterrorism laws, which would make it easier for the government to detain suspected terrorists and search their homes. The legislation could also allow authorities to force Australians returning from conflict zones to prove they hadn't engaged in terrorist activity, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims at least 150 Australian citizens are in the Middle East right now, either fighting or supporting the Islamic State and other militant groups, Reuters reports. At least 20 people are believed to have returned home to Australia, posing potential security risks. Another 60 people have had their passports revoked. 

After an Australian man suspected of terrorist ties was shot by police last week after stabbing two officers, Mr. Abbott announced that the "delicate balance" between freedom and security at home "may have to shift" in light of a heightened terror risk, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

Australia is not immune to terrorism. Over 200 of its nationals perished in the 2002 Bali bombings, and 36 were killed in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in July. But Tuesday's stabbing is the first of its kind in Australia, and it follows the largest anti-terror raid in Australian history last week to foil an alleged IS plot....

“Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we’re used to, and more inconvenience than we’d like," [Abbott] told Parliament....

The uptick in apparent terrorist activity in Australia – and the government’s response – has sparked some heated debate. An editorial in the Australian Monday called for the creation of “new tools” to fight terror threats and said new laws shouldn't stifle free speech.

The threat of terrorism, even at home, is one that we must be alive to. The vast majority of Australians want governments to do all they can to guarantee their safety and to eradicate evil. Tony Abbott has spoken of the need to recalibrate the balance between freedom and security. The new counter-terrorism laws are not an attack on free speech; they are a protection against an evolving threat….

This newspaper supports freedom-of-speech campaigns and has long advocated the principle that the public has a right to know what their government is doing and why. The Australian’s journalists take this responsibility seriously…. Like all media outlets, we need to abide by laws that protect the names of people involved in legal action and respect existing police and security laws….

[T]he threat of terror in Australia is genuine and it requires new laws to deal with it effectively. Journalists should acknowledge these new threats and understand that, above all, Australians want to live as freely and as safely as they possibly can. It is incumbent upon government to find the right balance between these aspirations.

Elaine Pearson, the Australia director for Human Rights Watch, falls on the other end of the debate. She wrote in an opinion for The Guardian last week that Australia’s proposed antiterrorism laws could suppress freedom of speech and make it harder to hold the government accountable for its actions.

Punishing those who leak security information or publish it can be problematic because it suppresses information that may be vital for the exercise and protection of human rights, accountability and democratic governance. Some of the most significant revelations of human rights violations come from disclosures of once-secret information relating to the misconduct of security agencies. If this amendment passes, lawyers, journalists and activists could be prosecuted simply for doing their jobs of holding the government to account….

Prime minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in 2012 at the Institute for Public Affairs in which he referred to the coalition as the freedom party. “Essentially, we are the freedom party,” he said. “We stand for the freedoms which Australians have a right to expect and which governments have a duty to uphold. We stand for freedom and will be freedom’s bulwark against the encroachments of an unworthy and dishonourable government.”

These new laws do indeed encroach upon freedom of speech and a free press by seeking to retaliate against those who publish information about special intelligence operations. Abbott should not let hysteria over terrorism be used to thwart the freedom agenda he once claimed to hold so dear to the coalition’s heart.

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