Foreign fighters in Syria and the challenges of reintegration
13 May 2014|

Last week I suggested that Australia takes two steps with regard to those Australians fighting in the Syrian conflict, who’ve been trained by extremist groups and gained battlefield experience.

First, our government should release a comprehensive statement outlining its position on the Syrian foreign fighter issue. There’s no one place for people to find out exactly what Australia’s approach is— what the applicable laws are, the government’s reasons for being concerned about Australian involvement in the conflict, what the government’s strategy is, and what people can do if they have concerns.

Secondly, to get the message through we should have a national awareness campaign about the dangers of citizens travelling to Syria. It should be led by the police working with relevant community-based organisations.

On Friday, the Home Affairs Committee of the UK House of Commons released a useful report on counter terrorism. It’s worth reading for the sensible suggestions it makes on de-radicalisation, and how to engage with citizens who are vulnerable to extremist ideologies.

But what caught my eye was a recommendation on a rehabilitation program for British foreign fighters returning from Syria. The Commons Committee cited the work of Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, who found that a substantial number of foreign fighters move on to international terrorism: on average, one in nine foreign fighters returned home to take part in a domestic terror plot.

The threat posed by British citizens or residents fighting in Syria was set out to the Committee by Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism: ‘Some of those people may pose a threat when they get to Syria and they may, from their base in Syria, plot attacks back in the UK. Others may pose a threat to us when they travel back from Syria themselves and they plan attacks here, either under the instruction of people outside this country or at their own initiative’.

The UK Home Affairs Committee made this recommendation:

The Government needs a clear strategy for dealing with foreign fighters on their return, which may include help to come to terms with the violence they have witnessed and participated in, as well as counter-radicalisation interventions. We are concerned that their experiences may well make them vulnerable to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder thereby increasing their vulnerability to radicalisation. We recommend that the Government implement a programme … for everyone returning to Britain where there is evidence that they have fought in Syria. The engagement in this strategy should be linked to any legal penalties imposed on their return. In developing the strategy the Government must work with mental health practitioners and academia to ensure that the programme best integrates those returning from conflict zones such as Syria.

Those responsible for countering violent extremism in Australia might usefully study the kinds of rehabilitation programs developed for British foreign fighters returning from Syria. We should ensure that those Australians who’ve been exposed to jihadism are reintegrated back into mainstream Australian society. Given the one-in-nine figure cited above, such a program should be developed now: as Attorney General George Brandis pointed out last month to a Washington audience, ‘I am sorry to have to tell you that per capita, Australia is one of the largest sources of foreign war fighters to the Syrian conflict from countries outside the region’.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI.