Australia needs to bring its citizens and their families back from Syria and Iraq
26 Oct 2019|

Australia is not alone in declining to bring home from Syria our citizens who fought with Islamic State and their families. The French government is just one of numerous Western governments that have taken a similar position, so we’re in good bad company.

The reason, we’re told, is that it’s the least bad choice. The security situation in Syria is too dangerous to put officials at risk to collect our citizens, and the men and women who travelled there to join IS have made their choices and must now live with the consequences.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has told us that he’s been advised that some of the Australian women in Syria are ‘hardcore’ and ‘have the potential and capacity to come back here and commit a mass casualty attack’.

The public debate has centred on what to do—or not do—with around 20 women and 40 children in camps in the Syrian region that is being wrestled over by Syrian, Russian, Turkish and Kurdish forces, as well as a small number of male IS members held in prisons or detention camps in Syria.

And that’s the problem. Our government, along with many other Western governments, is thinking about this problem as if the small number of IS-associated Australian nationals who are now in Syria are the only ones who are prepared to fight with or support jihadist terrorist groups in the Middle East. The assumption is that this is just a legacy problem flowing from the demise of IS’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Unfortunately, that’s just plain wrong. IS no longer operates a brutal state-like caliphate, but it’s still a resilient and capable terrorist organisation. Its fighters are already using the chaos in Syria to escape from camps and get back to business. And the security and governmental situations in both Syria and Iraq are creating ideal conditions for its resurgence and regrowth.

The mass protests in Iraq over government corruption, the continued Shia–Sunni grievances and resurging Sunni anger, and Iran’s support to militias that undermine Iraqi sovereignty are just some of the reasons Iraq is returning as a renewed source of terrorist violence and instability.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is tightening his grip, including over the Kurds who fought IS so successfully. But even with Russia’s help, he won’t be able to control Syria in a way that prevents the presence and activity of numerous terrorist groups, including IS and al-Qaeda offshoots. His brutality will be a source of motivation for people to support such organisations.

So, we’re dealing with a long-term terrorist insurgency in both Syria and Iraq, not with the tail end of a problem that is now solved. This brings two very different factors into play that our government—and other like-minded governments—should be thinking about when they’re deciding what to do with our nationals.

First, the Australian men, women and children now in prisons, detention centres and camps in Syria and Iraq should not be seen a fixed, finite stock of people to be dealt with. Instead, we need to think of them as part of a continuing flow of people who will seek to fight with or support terrorist groups there.

The failure to think this way is not new. Since 10 September 2001, the coalition of nations fighting al-Qaeda and later versions of jihadist terrorism have focused on body counts of slain terrorists as if that will eventually solve the problem, despite seeing the number of people recruited into terrorist groups continue to grow. What we do now can either increase that flow or slow it.

The second factor is one of geography and technology. Our public debate is all about the risk that having returned fighters, supporters and their families back in Australia would pose to our security. And there are real risks here, as we have heard.

But there’s another risk we aren’t talking about. People in Syria working with terrorist groups don’t need to travel home to pose a direct security risk for us here on the streets of Australia. They can do that via the internet from right there in Syria.

We know this from painful experience already. Neil Prakash, who’s now imprisoned in Turkey, is the obvious example. He recruited Australians to fight with IS through extremely effective online campaigns and internet propaganda and became one of Australia’s most wanted terrorists as a result. He also exhorted Australians to rise up and attack non-Muslims ‘before they attack you’. And he was allegedly involved in planning terror plots here in Australia. All of it was done from the comfort of his locations in either Iraq or Syria with IS.

Leaving foreign nationals, including Australia’s, in Syria and Iraq where they can organise, incite attacks, recruit and create propaganda is a very bad idea given that we’re in a long campaign against these groups that pose a risk to our own communities as well as to the people of Iraq and Syria. Remember that in September 2001 it was a small group of foreign nationals in Afghanistan with the freedom to think, organise and act who started this whole thing.

Bringing fighters—male and female—and their supporters, spouses and children back to Australia carries obvious risks. However, Australian laws provide many paths for bringing members and supporters of terrorist groups to justice and we should use all of them here. We have highly developed law enforcement, community service, mental health and educational agencies and private-sector groups that are far better placed to manage the damaged people we will bring back than the creaking and broken systems in Syria and Iraq.

Leaving our nationals in Syria and Iraq will keep them in an environment that is conducive to the creation of tighter and more radical networks among themselves and with others than they have now. It leaves them in control of children who have already likely been exposed to horrific brutality and who are now living in conditions that are ripe ground for extremist recruitment.

Our public debate is emphasising the prospect of some of the Australian women conducting a mass casualty attack here in Australia. But let’s also consider our responsibility to avoid an attack in 2025 and attacks in 2026, 2027 and 2030 organised by some very hardcore young fighters. Right now, those potential future fighters are small children in Syria. If we leave them there, they will have every reason to be highly motivated against Australia because of how we dealt with them and their families back in 2019.

In determining the fate of Australians in Iraq and Syria, we need to look beyond our own quiet satisfaction that bad people are getting what they deserve. Acting in accordance with our values and taking responsibility for managing our own citizens, including by holding those who have engaged in acts of terrorism to account, is the best way of demonstrating that the IS narrative of a decayed West that is anti-Muslim is wrong. In contrast, leaving our nationals there reinforces the terrorist narrative and also gives all of them—the men, women and children—little hope of a path to the exit from an extremist future.

Australia’s security will be best served by bringing them home and using all the means of our government and society to hold them to account and then rehabilitate them. This will take that rarest of commodities—political courage—and require clear public communication of the overall set of risks we face and the options we have in dealing with them. But that’s what good public policy is about.

So, let’s get beyond the slogans and the fear and do what’s in our long-term national interest.