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Australia Fears Return of Battle-hardened IS Militants

Australian police question one of two men arrested on charges related to fighting with Syrian militants in a raid in the Sydney suburb of Birrong, Australia, Nov. 3, 2016.

Australian counterterrorism experts say the likely defeat of the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Iraq will raise the threat posed by jihadist fighters returning to Australia. The warning comes after the arrest in Australia of a 24-year-old man and a teenage boy on suspicion of breaching the nation's foreign fighter laws.

Australia’s gravest security concerns are stoked by homegrown extremists. Authorities estimate about 120 Australians have joined militant groups in the Middle East, and they worry that many could try to return home as the Islamic State terrorist group suffers more military defeats in Iraq.

Under Australian law, jihadis who have fought overseas face prosecution on their return home. Security officials say most are already known to them, but there are concerns that some will slip through Australia’s borders using false passports.

Islamic groups say those returning could be recruited to de-radicalization programs in Australia and help steer young people away from militant groups, which have become experts at disseminating propaganda online.

But Nick O’Brien, a former British counterterrorism officer who is the head of the Australian Graduate School of Policing & Security at Charles Sturt University, believes they will be a threat to Australian society.

“These people are going to be experienced fighters. They are going to have skills that they have picked up in Syria and Iraq in terms of terrorism and fighting," he said. "They will be able to train people because they have probably been doing some of that. They are going to be respected in certain parts of their community because of what they have done and what they have taken part in. So people are going to look up to them, and they are going to be totally indoctrinated in the way of IS.”

In recent years, Australian security agencies have carried about several raids, mostly in Sydney and Melbourne, targeting homegrown jihadis. The number of teenagers detained and accused of plotting terrorist acts is a particular concern to the authorities. In June, a teenager admitted to plotting to behead a police officer during Anzac Day commemorations in Melbourne.

A parliamentary committee endorsed new laws Friday allowing convicted terrorists to be kept in jail after their sentences expire if a court rules they pose an ongoing threat to society.

Some civil liberties groups say the new measures are an abuse of power.