A table on ASIO’s passport confiscation powers

One power often used by ASIO after 9/11 was its ability to cancel passports to prevent suspected terrorists from travelling overseas. Technically DFAT withdraws the passports, but as a result of adverse ASIO assessments.

Unlike ASIO’s coercive questioning powers or its ability to issue adverse assessments for visa applications (resulting in the indefinite detention of over fifty refugees), very little has been written about its passport-confiscation powers.

Here is a rough table of how many Australian-passport holders have had their passports confiscated, or returned, each year as a result of ASIO security assessments.

This table presents the figures as best as I can ascertain, and I have placed question marks against any numbers in the table that do not come directly from an ASIO annual report. Unlike its coercive questioning powers, there is no mandatory requirement that ASIO report when it issues security assessments for passports, so the available information is fragmentary. The sources are listed in detail at the bottom of the post.

Year Number of passports confiscated Number of passports returned
2015-2016 62 (over 275 in total?) ?
2014-2015 93 (over 213 by this point?) ?
2013-2014 45 (over 120 by this point?) ?
2012-2013 18 (over 75 by this point?) ?
2011-2012 7 (over 57 by this point?) ?
2010-2011 7 (over 50 by this point?) 1 (maybe 3?)
2009-2010 8 10
2008-2009 ? ?
2007-2008 2 ?
2006-2007 ? ?
2005-2006 8 ?
2004-2005 13? (total 33 by this point) ?
2003-2004 6 (total 20 by this point) ?
2002-2003 ? ?
2001-2002 ? ?


2015-2016 annual report

Adverse security assessments issued for 62 passports (P.52).

2014-2015 annual report

Adverse security assessments issued for 93 passports (P.22).

2013-2014 annual report

Adverse security assessments issued for 45 passports (P.iii).

2012-2013 annual report:

Adverse security assessments issued for 18 passports (P.16).

2011-2012 annual report:

No information about passports in the annual report, but the last INSLM report says 7 were cancelled during this period.

2010-2011 annual report:

Adverse security assessments issued for seven passports (P.24).

Three were subject to new assessments (P.25).

One was Mamdouh Habib, who was issued a non-adverse assessment on May 2011 (P.31).

According to this article, over 50 were confiscated by this point.

2009-2010 annual report:

Adverse security assessments for eight passports (P.22) (See also p.24 of 2010-11).

10 people were issued non-adverse assessments and had their passport rights renewed (P.23).

2008-2009 annual report:

No mention of passports.

2007-2008 annual report:

Adverse security assessments issued for two passports (P.19).

2006-2007 annual report:

No mention of passports.

2005-2006 annual report:

Adverse security assessments issued for eight passports (P.4).

By end of reporting period, 14 people were having their passport refusal reviewed by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (P.31).

2004-2005 annual report:

No mention of the number of passport refusals for the year. But it was probably 12 or 13 (see below)

Total 32 adverse security assessments for passports between November 2001 and June 2005 (P.3).

One was Mamdouh Habib, on 25 January 2005 (P.19).

33 adverse assessments had been issued in total, but ASIO withdrew one (P.21).

By end of reporting period, eight people were having their passport refusal reviewed by Administrative Appeals Tribunal (P.21).

2003-2004 annual report:

Adverse security assessments issued for six passports (P.3).

Total of 20 passport refusals since November 2001 (P.3).

Bilal Khazaal’s passport cancelled on 1 February 2002 (P.18).

Maher Khazaal’s passport cancelled on 23 December 2003 (P.18).

2002-2003 annual report:

No mention of passports.

2001-2002 annual report:

No mention of passports.

Update 1:  I initially wrote that ASIO’s power to cancel a passport was introduced after 9/11. I was mistaken, according the this book the power existed long before 9/11, but was rarely used. On 5 December 2013 I changed the text to reflect this.

Update 2: This transcript from the Security Appeals Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal provides some insight into the decision-making involved when ASIO cancels a passport, and of the appeals process. Added on 5 December 2013.

Update 3: Added data for 2013-2014 on 13 November 2014. Also fixed up the data for 2011-2012 based on the last INSLM report, which then required adjusting the “total __ by this point?” numbers.

Update 4: Added data for 2014-2015 on 29 October 2015.

Update 5: Added data for 2015-2016 on 15 October 2016.

Does al-Shabaab pose an internal terror threat to Australia today?

In light of the massacre in Nairobi and yesterday’s conclusion of the appeals process for the Holsworthy Barracks plotters, it’s worth revisiting what threat al-Shabaab may pose within Australia.


Al-Shabaab came to public attention here in 2009 with Operation Neath, an investigation which resulted in five Melbourne men being charged with planning a mass shooting at Holsworthy army barracks in Sydney. Three of the men, all linked to al-Shabaab, were found guilty and sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment.

The appeal decision this week again confirmed the danger this plot posed. The three convicted terrorists all tried to argue that the prosecution was a farce, one of them claimed he was set up by an undercover cop, and another claimed the judge was biased. Had their appeals succeeded it would have cast doubt on one of Australia’s largest terrorism investigations and damaged the legitimacy of Australia’s domestic counter-terrorism efforts.

Instead, the three appeal judges found their arguments baseless and upheld all of the convictions and sentences. They court also rejected the prosecution’s appeal attempt, who claimed that the sentences were not severe enough.

The planned Holsworthy attack demonstrated al-Shabaab posing a serious internal threat, though an indirect one, as the plot was an example of a self-starting terrorist cell emerging autonomously from what began as an al-Shabaab support network.

This was an al-Shabaab-linked plot, in that the cell members had raised money for al-Shabaab, sent people to train with them, and sought their endorsement for attacking Australian targets. However it was not an “al-Shabaab plot”, as the Somali jihadist organisation did not provide practical support or endorse the planned attack. They advised against the plot as it risked damaging their support base.

The terror attack in Nairobi potentially demonstrates that al-Shabaab has an increased willingness and capability to attack outside of Somalia, raising the possibility that its threat to Australia is higher now than it was when the Holsworthy plot occurred.

Is this the case? One cause for concern is that al-Shabaab’s relationship with al-Qaeda has changed. At the time of the Holsworthy plot, 2009, al-Shabaab was not a formal affiliate of al-Qaeda. However, in February 2012 al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda officially merged, meaning that “the constraints that previously held al Shabab back from sanctioning an attack, are in all likelihood removed.”

Therefore, if another group of Australian al-Shabaab supporters asked their permission for an attack, they would now be more likely to receive it.

However, my view is that there is less likely to be substantial connections between al-Shabaab and Australia today than there was prior to 2009, for four reasons.

First, al-Shabaab’s already limited popularity in the global Somali diaspora has declined in the past few years. Al-Shaabab is now less likely to be viewed as a nationalist resistance to the 2006 Ethiopian invasion and more as an extremist group, one that was partly responsible for the horror caused by the 2011 famine by attacking aid organisations.

Second, over the past year Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed Godane, has been killing many foreign jihadists in Somalia as part of an internal power struggle. This was the power struggle that resulted in the death of Omar Hammami, their most famous American member. Consequently, al-Shabaab is less welcoming to aspiring Western jihadists than it was when the Holsworthy plot occurred.

Third, the Commonwealth has proscribed al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation in August 2009, making it easier to take legal action against its supporters.

Finally, Operation Neath resulted in the imprisonment of a key facilitator, Saney Aweys. This is significant because well-trusted intermediaries are very-often needed to connect aspiring jihadists with established jihadist organisations. Given the relatively small size of Australia’s jihadist scene, there aren’t usually many of these facilitators around at any one time, and curbing the activities of a small number of such individuals can have a large impact.


So, my take is that there are now less likely to be groups of Australian jihadists who are well-connected to al-Shabaab, and that we can therefore make an informed guess that al-Shabaab poses less of an internal threat today than it did in 2009.

The bad news is that if such groups do still exist and intend to carry out an attack, al-Shabaab, as a formal affiliate of al-Qaeda, is now more likely to support them.