FRAN KELLY: Julie Bishop, welcome to Insiders.
JULIE BISHOP: Good morning.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, do we know how many Australians are active participants in these wars and how do we know that?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, Fran, I think this is one of the most disturbing developments in our domestic security situation for quite some time. We are aware that there are a number of Australians who are heading to both Syria and Iraq to join up with these Jihadists, particularly the ISIS or ISIL group defined by savagery and brutality. And we estimate that there are about 150 and we gained this information from the cooperation of intelligence agencies around the world.
In April, I travelled to Lebanon and Jordan and met with not only the leadership but also the leads of the intelligence agencies there and discussed levels of cooperation because a number of Australians are travelling through Lebanon to reach Syria and now we’re concerned that they’re moving from Syria into Iraq. Other countries are likewise deeply concerned about this and I’ve been having discussions for quite some time with counterpart foreign ministers in Malaysia, South East Asia, Europe, the United States and it’s a global issue but we are particularly concerned with the reports of Australians who are heading off not only to train but to take leadership roles in radicalising others and of course the fear is that they will come back to Australia with these newfound abilities and talents in terrorism.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, given the concerns, and as you say you've had - been in discussions for quite some time on this, we know this week, because images were posted on Facebook, at least two Australians were, it seems, involved in the murder of Iraqi civilians in this latest fighting in Iraq. One of the men, Khaled Sharrouf is a convicted and jailed - has been convicted and jailed here in Australia on terrorism. He left the country last year for Syria on his brother's passport. How did that happen? Why wasn't he being monitored and does that suggest security is too lax?
JULIE BISHOP: We have adopted a whole of government approach to this issue and as we did with Operation Sovereign Borders in relation to stopping the people-smuggling trade we have adopted a whole of government approach where our relevant agencies and ministers and departments are involved in coming up with solutions, analysing the issue, reviewing situations including the circumstances where Mr Sharrouf left Australia on his brother's passport.
FRAN KELLY: How did that happen though? How was a convicted terrorist, jailed terrorist, allowed to get out of the country even if it was under his brother's name?
JULIE BISHOP: It won't be helpful for me to go into specific security arrangements and intelligence matters; suffice to say we can confirm he left Australia on his brother's passport. I have cancelled a number of passports when it's been reported to me that Australians are seeking to leave or in fact are seeking to come back from fighting in particularly Syria, but as I said, we are receiving reports that they are also in Iraq where ISIS is fighting the Iraqi security forces and so we are doing what we can across government.
It is a topic that is engaging the Australian Government at every level. Our National Security Committee is discussing this matter and we are working out ways to ensure that Australians are safe from what I find to be a deeply disturbing development in our domestic security. But there are many dimensions to the conflict in Syria and Iraq. There is a humanitarian crisis that is unfolding and Australia is playing its part in supporting agencies that are providing humanitarian support for those displaced people as a result of the conflict.
There's the sectarian nature of this conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias and then of course there's the emergence of this particularly barbaric form of terrorism in this ISIS group, so barbaric that even Al-Qaeda is distancing itself from its activities.
FRAN KELLY: I'll come to some of those other elements but to stick with the notion of the Australian jihadists, you've said you've cancelled a number of passports. How many passports have you cancelled so far and is that the policy now to revoke passports?
JULIE BISHOP: A number of passports have been cancelled. I won't go into the details but it's quite a few and this has been the practice of previous governments, previous Labor governments also cancelled passports when the intelligence was presented to indicate that this person was a threat to our security and I will continue to monitor the advice of our intelligence agencies but I do act and do cancel passports when I receive such advice, and we are considering…
FRAN KELLY: And, Minister, how do we know who poses a threat? How do we prove that?
JULIE BISHOP: We have our intelligence agencies both in Australia and overseas cooperating with other intelligence agencies and these people's activities are being monitored and assessed all the time. So, we are ever vigilant to ensure that Australians are kept safe from those people who are seeking to take up with terrorist organisations and join these Jihadist movements overseas. Now, it's deeply disturbing and that's why the Australian Government is taking this very seriously and is adopting a whole of government approach so that all relevant ministers, agencies and departments are involved in seeking to solve this problem.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, Australia is sending a small force to Baghdad, how many soldiers are going or are there and what will they be doing?
JULIE BISHOP: It's a small element of our SAS and they are there purely for the purpose of ensuring that our diplomatic staff at the embassy in Baghdad can leave if that becomes necessary. Now we have in place arrangements with the United States, who have a much bigger presence in Iraq. We already have an arrangement that they will assist should we need to evacuate but we thought it prudent to have our own SAS specialist element there to assist if need be.
I spoke to our ambassador, Lyndall Sachs, last night. I've spoken to her from time to time to ensure that our staff are safe. She says the situation in Baghdad is tense but calm. There was a very big demonstration yesterday in the streets but that seemed to go off peacefully and she assures me that our staff in Baghdad are safe and secure. There are contingency plans in place should they need to evacuate but we thought it best to have some Australian soldiers there to assist as well. They're there with the consent of the Iraqi Government, of course.
FRAN KELLY: Can you confirm a report this morning suggesting that the Australian embassy staff are currently shredding documents in case our embassy and those documents might fall into the hands of ISIL fighters?
JULIE BISHOP: Our embassy is making contingency plans should we have to evacuate them. But at this stage there is no discussion about that beyond putting in place those contingency plans. The ambassador assures me that we have a core element there. They are still doing diplomatic work including consular work, although that is limited because, as the Australian Government has said on numerous occasions, Australians should not travel to Iraq and if they are in Iraq they should be making plans to leave. If they are staying, because they're a long-term resident or a dual-national or working with a company, then they must ensure that their personal safety is taken care of.
FRAN KELLY: Is there any chance, Minister…
JULIE BISHOP: Because we have a small staff there, there's only a limit to the amount of consular work that we would be able to provide to any Australians. The Baghdad airport is still operating, commercial flights are still operating. So, we urge any Australians that don't need to be there to come home.
FRAN KELLY: Is there any chance that Australia could agree to any greater military involvement in Iraq?
JULIE BISHOP: I don't envisage that situation. Certainly the Iraqi Government has not requested support, has not requested Australia to provide any military support. The United States has not requested us to do so. What we are doing is providing humanitarian support in the form of money. We've provided $5 million to the UNHCR and the world food program for immediate basic supplies, hygiene kits, water, food, shelter, for the 500,000 people it's estimated are leaving cities in north-west Iraq and this adds to those who have come in from Syria and also those who are displaced by the previous conflict earlier this year and it is a dire humanitarian situation in Iraq.
FRAN KELLY: And, Minister, it's widely regarded that the solution here is ultimately a political one but it's also reported that US officials have told senior Iraqi officials that the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, must leave office before America gets more involved. Is that your understanding and do you believe that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is not the leader Iraq needs now and he should step down? Is he under pressure to do that?
JULIE BISHOP: I understand that the United States have made it quite plain that they want to see much greater inclusivity in the Iraqi Government. The trouble stems from the fact that the Sunni leadership, the moderate Sunni leadership feel excluded from the Shia-dominated government and there are calls, not just from the United States, but from across the world, and I join with those calls, for a much more inclusive government that takes into account the concerns of the Sunnis, the moderate Sunnis who are currently feeling excluded. There must be a government of national unity and I know Prime Minister Maliki called for that during the week. Of course actions speak louder than words so we are encouraging the Government to include the Sunni leadership so together they can repel this particularly repugnant form of Jihadist group ISIS. And I do point out that ISIS…
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but let me just ask you, let me just ask you deliberately, do you think there is any chance of that, of the moderate Sunnis agreeing to be a part of anything with al-Maliki in place and as UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has warned that any greater involvement by western countries in this could be counter-productive, as they get involved with al-Maliki there, that the West will be seen as part of the enemy?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, that's not the case at present. My ambassador assured us that there is no anti-western sentiment currently in Iraq apart from obviously the Jihadists who are against everybody. But the thinking at present is that the Iraqi Government, it is a sovereign Government, must become more inclusive. Other countries are supporting the Iraqi Government's efforts to be more inclusive. There must be a political solution because this sectarian divide between the Sunni and Shia groups can spill out across the Middle East and that would be catastrophic. So, the world is urging the Iraqi Government to be more inclusive to find a political solution because a military solution would be devastating.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, on another issue, the Australian Government – there’s been an argument about changing the description of East Jerusalem from occupied to disputed. Can I clarify this; is it your policy that the term occupied territories shouldn't be used at all, even referring to West Bank and Gaza?
JULIE BISHOP: No, this debate was about East Jerusalem and it was a very mischievous attempt by the Greens to try and turn this into a much greater issue than it was. I have repeatedly and consistently said there's no change in government policy. We remain committed to the two-state solution and I've said consistently that we remain committed to UN Security Council resolution 242 which deals with the events of 1967. But we refer to that…
FRAN KELLY: So, just to clarify, Minister, because…
JULIE BISHOP: I’m - can you just allow me?
FRAN KELLY: … because you’ve said this a number of times though.
JULIE BISHOP: We refer to that geographic – can I just finish? We refer to the geographic location as East Jerusalem as previous governments have done. The previous government referred it to as East Jerusalem, former foreign ministers call it East Jerusalem, we call it East Jerusalem. The Greens call it occupied East Jerusalem and the Australian Government does not. But we have not changed our policy. I made that position quite clear to the group of ambassadors and representatives from Arab and Islamic countries that I met with on Thursday. We've not changed our policy.
FRAN KELLY: So, when Australia's ambassador to Israel, David Sharma, said a week or so ago, I think we call the West Bank the West Bank as a geographical entity without adding any adjectives whether occupied or disputed, we'll just call it what it is. Is that your policy?
JULIE BISHOP: Our policy is to commit to a two-state solution and we call East Jerusalem - East Jerusalem. We are committed to the UN Security Council resolution 242 that came into being after 1967 and other UN Security Council resolutions and our position has not changed.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, just finally on another issue, the Australian journalist, Peter Greste, who was locked up in Cairo in December, we'll find out tomorrow, the court will make a deliberation on whether he is released or whether he is convicted. I understand you've been speaking to the new Egyptian Foreign Minister. Any news, any indication on that front? Any good news for the Grestes?
JULIE BISHOP: Yes, well, I spoke to the new Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr Shoukri overnight. He has just been appointed because of the presidential elections and I re-emphasised our concerns about Peter Greste and the fact that he's been in detention since last year. I pointed out that he's the only foreign journalist in these circumstances and I made the representations again that we wanted him home as soon as possible. The Foreign Minister took onboard what I had to say.
This is a message that we have given at every level we can find in the Egyptian Government, whether it be the current or the interim government previously. Our Prime Minister rang the interim President and I know he's seeking to make contact with the new President, President El-Sisi. So we are making representations at every level in the Egyptian Government with a view to ensuring that Peter Greste is home as soon as possible.
FRAN KELLY: Julie Bishop, thank you very much for joining us on Insiders.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555