Australian officials Monday said they were aware of 12 people within the community who they believe could commit an act of terror, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull convened a meeting to discuss national security.
Canberra has become increasingly concerned about the prospect of lone-wolf attacks by individuals inspired by groups such as Islamic State, and a tightening of counter-terrorism laws is underway.
Six attacks in Australia have been foiled over the past year, according to the government, but several have not, including a police employee shot in the back of the head in Sydney last month by a 15-year-old reportedly shouting religious slogans.
The Australian Federal Police’s counter-terrorism chief Neil Gaughan told ABC television that a group of 12 men and boys capable of committing an act of terror were being closely watched.
“I think there can be no doubt that there’s a small group in Sydney that are engaged in activity which wants to upset the Australian way of life,” he said.
The national broadcaster said the 12 were part of a larger group of 19, seven of whom were in prison.
Some of those under surveillance were subject to control orders, which prohibit their movements and communications, because police believed there was an “unacceptable, high risk they will commit a terrorist attack”, Gaughan added.
“Our first point of call in relation to these investigations is where there’s been a criminal offence committed we arrest, charge and prosecute,” he said. “If we don’t meet that threshold, the next step we look at is a control order.”
The revelations came as Turnbull met in Canberra with his national security committee after returning from several overseas summits where terror concerns dominated following Paris attacks that left 130 dead.
His return coincided with a poll in The Australian newspaper showing that Australians overwhelmingly fear a similar attack at home, with 76 percent of the 1,573 interviewees believing a terror event was either inevitable, very likely or likely.
Authorities raised Australia’s terror threat alert to high just over a year ago, introduced new national security laws, and have since conducted several counter-terrorism raids.
The moves followed Melbourne police shooting dead a “known terror suspect” who stabbed two officers in September 2014, just one day after IS militants called for Muslims to indiscriminately kill Australians.
And in December, Iranian-born self-styled cleric Man Haron Monis and two hostages were killed following a 17-hour siege at a central Sydney cafe.