Let disenchanted Australian jihadists deter others from taking up arms

Returned jihadists may be a useful tool in countering violent extremism in Australia, as The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

We shouldn’t make it too difficult for fighters to come home. While the passports of some home-grown jihadists have been cancelled to disrupt their travel, no mechanism should prevent them returning home where they can be monitored and/or prosecuted.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory, provides for every individual to not be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his or her own country.

This is not to say that returned foreign fighters, often armed with new combat skills, should be given free rein. They contravene a range of Australian laws and should be prosecuted appropriately.

These calls to enlist their help, come a week after Immigration Minister Scott Morrison visited a western Sydney couple whose sons Omar, Bilal, Hamza and Tala ElBaf recently arrived in Syria with a view to fighting with Islamic State. These aspiring foreign fighters may not be in for the jihadi adventure they had imagined.

None of the brothers was on any watch lists which would have alerted immigration authorities to them. Family friend and Muslim community leader Dr Jamal Rifi described the brothers as simple, with two being obese to the extent that they’re unlikely to be included in fighting as they’d envisaged.

Similarly, an Indian student recently returned to India from Iraq disillusioned with Islamic State; instead of taking part in combat as desired, he was charged with fetching water and cleaning tasks.

The Institute for Economics and Peace recently published the 2014 Global Terrorism Index, providing empirical data on terrorist incidents around the world.

The institute is an initiative of Australian IT entrepreneur Steve Killelea. In launching the index, he argued that one way of stopping future jihadists is to get returned individuals to freely talk about why they’ve become disillusioned.

It’s not a bad idea. There’s no suggestion of the Australian Defence Force and federal police risking the lives of their own personnel to retrieve individuals who have willingly and knowingly entered a war zone in Syria and Iraq.

Instead, efforts should focus on the ones who want to come home because they are disillusioned or just tired of fighting.

Not only will this promote national security and public safety, this will also provide law enforcement, social services and civil society with an opportunity to provide de-radicalisation and reintegration programs. Once certain that returned foreign fighters have been de-radicalised and no longer pose a threat to security, they may actually be a useful tool in engaging with those at risk of radicalisation themselves.

Current community engagement programs aimed at de-radicalisation often engage esteemed community leaders with age and experience. While this is a useful tool, many young people are reluctant to listen to paternalistic authorities. Instead, some wannabe jihadists may respond better to returned foreign fighters who’d explain the harsh, unpleasant and disappointing realities of Islamic State. This may convince them to rethink the appeal of political violence.

It’s not difficult for jihadists to imagine or present a romanticised idea of Islamic State in an absence of cold, hard facts. Allowing returned foreign fighters to fill this void by explaining the harsh, unpleasant or disappointing realities may be enough to dissuade would-be jihadists.

Not all foreign fighters know what they’re getting themselves into. Islamic State is bound to be disappointing or traumatising for many who make it out alive. This is an opportunity to entice these disillusioned individuals away from political violence to for the benefit of themselves and the wider community.

This option won’t be for everybody. Some fighters may stay loyal to the cause. But some may want to redeem themselves. They would be a powerful voice against extremism borne out of their real-life experience in Syria and Iraq.

This article originally appeared in The Canberra Times.

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