Australian PM Tony Abbott announces fresh security crackdown

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday announced a national security crackdown that could deny welfare payments to people seen as potential threats, strip the passports of those with dual nationality and curb travel overseas.

Abbott, bruised politically and facing pressure for dramatic action after surviving a leadership challenge this month, unveiled the measures in the wake of a hostage siege in a Sydney cafe that left three dead in December.

He said some personal freedoms would have to be curtailed to fight what he called a rapidly growing threat from radical groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"For too long, we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt," Abbott said. "We will never sacrifice our freedoms in order to defend them, but we will not let our enemies exploit our decency either."

He was speaking a day after the release of a damning report into the siege, in which two hostages and a radical self-styled sheikh who had sought to align himself with ISIS were killed.

The conservative Abbott said new laws would remedy failings exposed in the areas of immigration, welfare, policing and intelligence by clamping down on those who supported radicals, especially recipients of welfare.

The laws will also target so-called "hate preachers", he said, citing as an example the radical but non-violent Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Abbott explicitly linked welfare to terrorism, accusing dozens of Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq of having been on the dole, adding that payments to "individuals assessed to be a threat to security" could soon be cancelled. "People who come to this country are free to live as they choose. Provided they don't steal that same freedom from others," he said.

Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has been on heightened alert for attacks by home-grown Islamist radicals since last year.

It raised its national terror threat level to "high" for the first time last year, when hundreds of police conducted raids after receiving information that ISIS supporters planned to hold a public beheading.

At least 20 of the 110 Australian citizens who had travelled to fight with ISIS in Syria had been killed, Abbott said.

Abbott last year committed Australian aircraft and special forces to assist in the battle against ISIS in Iraq, adopted tough new laws on foreign fighters and gave security forces greater powers.