The Australian government on Friday elevated its terrorism threat level to the second-highest warning in response to the domestic threat posed by Islamic State movement supporters.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the increase from "medium" to "high" on a four-tier scale on the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.
The domestic spy agency's Director-General David Irvine said the terrorist threat level had been rising in Australia over the past year, particularly in recent months, mainly due to Australians joining Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq.
"I want to stress that this does not mean that a terror attack is imminent," Abbott told reporters. "We have no specific intelligence of particular plots."
"What we do have is intelligence that there are people with the intent and the capability to mount attacks."
It is the first time that the threat level has been elevated above medium since the scale was introduced in 2003.
Abbott described the new setting as "broadly comparable" to the setting in Britain where the terrorism threat level was raised last month to the second-highest risk level on a five-tier scale.
He said the public would likely notice a greater police and security presence at airports, shipping ports, military bases, government buildings and large public events.
Some Islamic leaders argued the Australian Muslims, a 500,000 minority in a Christian-majority population of 23 million, are being unfairly targeted. Abbott denied this.
"Nothing that I have said today or nothing that I ever say about national security threats has anything to do with religion," he said. "This is about crime, potential crime and combatting crime."
The government warns that the Islamic State movement poses an unprecedented domestic terrorism threat. Australia will introduce tough counterterrorism laws in Parliament this month and announced $590 million in new spending on intelligence, law enforcement and border protection agencies over the next four years to enhance security, including a roll out of biometric screening at airports.
The Australian government recently identified Mohammad Ali Baryalei, an Afghan refugee from Sydney, as a senior member of the Islamic State group. He is reported to have recruited Khaled Sharrouf, the man whose photos of himself and his young son carrying severed heads went viral, and a 22-year-old woman from Australia’s northern beaches along with her husband, a dual Australian and U.S. citizen.
All told, Australia estimates at least 60 Australian citizens were fighting for the Islamic State group and another Al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nursa, also known as the Nusra Front, in Iraq and Syria. Another 15 Australian fighters had been killed, including two young suicide bombers.
Another 100 Australians were actively supporting extremist groups from within Australia, recruiting fighters and grooming suicide bomber candidates as well as providing funds and equipment, the government said.
Abbott said more than 20 Australian fighters had already returned from Middle Eastern battlefields.
The suspected brother of a suicide bomber killed in Syria and another alleged jihadist appeared in an Australian court on Thursday charged with funding and recruiting for Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Middle East.
The Associated Press