Around 150 Australians are fighting with militants in Syria and Iraq, raising fears of a terrorist threat if they return home.
Foreign minister Julie Bishop said she had cancelled a number of passports on the advice of security agencies in a bid to reduce the security threat to Australia. She did not say whether the passports were cancelled to prevent Australians leaving or returning.
“Our best estimate is that there about 150 Australians … who have been or are still fighting with opposition groups in Syria and beyond,” Ms Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
In Syria, she said, it seemed that had moved from supporting the more moderate opposition groups to the more extreme ones including the brutal group Isis, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – the al Qaida splinter group leading Sunni militants in Iraq. It is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Iraq’s ambassador to Australia, Mouayed Saleh, said Australians who fought for Isis should be stripped of their citizenship.
“If they join Isis, absolutely,” he said. “The whole world … would not allow people to join these savage forces.”
He welcomed Australia cancelling passports of suspected militants and urged authorities to remain vigilant. He said he was not personally aware of any Australian fighting in Iraq.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison said revoking citizenship could not be ruled out and militants living in Australia as permanent residents could expect to have their visas cancelled.
Australian police have charged several people in recent months with recruiting fighters and supporting the uprising in Syria. Some have been prevented from leaving Australia on suspicion that they intend to fight.
“We are concerned that Australians are working with them, becoming radicalised, learning the terrorist trade and if they come back to Australia, of course it poses a security threat and we’re doing what we can to identify them,” Ms Bishop said.
Prime minister Tony Abbott said Australian citizens suspected of fighting in the Middle East would be kept under surveillance if they returned.
“We are redoubling our vigilance at our borders to try to ensure that jihadists do not gain access to our country or are monitored if they have the right of access to this country,” he said.
“I don’t want anyone to think this is just a difficulty in a faraway country that has no consequences for the wider world.”
Australia sent 2,000 troops to support US and British forces in the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Ms Bishop said neither the United States nor Iraq had yet asked for Australia’s help in the latest crisis but Australia would give five million Australian dollars (£2.7m) to the United Nations to provide food, medical assistance, tents, access to clean water and hygiene kits to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence in north and north-west Iraq.
The Syrian conflict has attracted Australian fighters like no other Middle Eastern crisis.
Lebanese-Australians have been overrepresented in jihadist violence both in Australia and Lebanon. Lebanon’s proximity to Syria has allowed easy access for Lebanese-Australian extremists.