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Rethinking our stance

21 May 2015

Disillusioned jihadis represent our best chance of gaining insight into the strategies, targets, resources and weaknesses of Islamic State. That’s why we should rethink our stance on returning foreign fighters, writes Tim Legrand.

It is tempting to argue, as the Prime Minister has, that the safest thing to do with foreign fighters is to leave them to their fate with Islamic State. We should revoke their citizenship and bar them from ever returning to Australia, if the law allows, or otherwise incarcerate them for as long as possible.

Yet to give in to this easy logic, I suggest, is dangerous.

At present, government policy is unambiguous: without exception, those who have supported IS or other illegal groups in proscribed areas in the Middle East will be arrested and prosecuted if they attempt to return to Australia, where they face imprisonment of up to a life sentence under the Criminal Code.

There are, however, compelling national security reasons why we should rethink this simplistic strategy and give serious thought to developing a mechanism to facilitate the return of young disillusioned fighters back to Australia.

This is not a new approach. In the city of Aarhus, the Danish government has established a program to cautiously facilitate the return and reintegration of disillusioned foreign fighters back into their home communities. The program uses a partnership of welfare and policing agencies to strike a balance between public safety and community reintegration.

It is no carte blanche: those found to have committed crimes are duly prosecuted. Nevertheless, the program has attracted attention for its nuanced approach to using returned fighters to challenge the narratives at the heart of radicalisation.

This sort of approach offers real prospects for community safety and counter-terrorism efforts here in Australia for several reasons.

First, Australian agencies have found it difficult to acquire sufficient evidence to prosecute individuals they suspect of involvement in illegal activities in Iraq or Syria. Given the enormous difficulties in gathering physical evidence of crimes in Iraq and Syria for a prosecution in Australia, the use of witnesses might be the only realistic means by which those who have committed atrocities might be brought to justice. Eye-witness testimonies, by definition, can only come from those who are or have been illegally in Iraq or Syria.

Yet as things stand, disillusioned fighters attempting to return to Australia have every reason to stay off the radar and not volunteer evidence. With the current “no exceptions” policy to prosecutions, their only chance of retaining their freedom is to return surreptitiously. If arrested and questioned, there is clear a incentive to avoid implicating themselves by refusing to cooperate with the police. Of course, though the ACC have powers to coerce an individual to answer their questions, the results of such questioning are inadmissible in a prosecution.

This brings us to the wider issue of intelligence-gathering. Western intelligence agencies have struggled to acquire reliable and actionable intelligence on the membership, leadership, structures and resources of IS. For one thing, the ongoing fighting is amongst a motley matrix of group alliances, allegiances, enemies and enmities in Iraq and Syria, and as a result human intelligence - which is still more highly regarded than technical intelligence - has proven difficult to come by.

So it is entirely feasible that disillusioned jihadis offer Western intelligence agencies the best chance of acquiring insights into the strategies, targets, resources, alliances and weaknesses of IS. Indeed, policing and intelligence agencies have only a murky estimate of the number of Australians in Iraq and Syria of around 100, and that could well be much higher. Returned fighters should therefore be regarded as an important resource in our counter-terrorism strategy.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, disillusioned foreign fighters are uniquely placed to offer a credible and powerful counter-narrative to the Islamic State’s sophisticated online media message. In recent months, the Commonwealth has supported a series of community-based counter-radicalisation programs, and it is now seeking to fund a $21m counter-radicalisation social media campaign. This is long-overdue recognition that stemming the support for violent extremism will, in the long-term, be achieved by working alongside Muslim communities. The effectiveness of such counter-radicalisation campaigns can only be enhanced by disillusioned returned fighters: theirs is a credible and powerful voice of experience that can challenge and undermine the narratives of violent extremism espoused by IS.

I urge the Government to rethink its policy towards returning foreign fighters. If we maintain the current stance and disbar foreign fighters in perpetuity, we risk losing a significant opportunity to safeguard national security by acquiring improved intelligence, evidence and, most importantly, a cohort of individuals who are best-placed to offer the credible and powerful counter-narratives to those of violent extremism.

This piece was originally published in The Drum.

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