Why we should allow members of Islamic State to return
19 Mar 2019|

The recent announcement by an Australian woman, who is believed to be 24-year-old Zehra Duman from Melbourne, that she wants to return to Australia with her two children raised the usual hue and cry. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, though not directly addressing Duman’s case, said that he wouldn’t risk Australian lives to extract those who had gone to live in the so-called Islamic State caliphate.

The government’s position has been that these individuals pose a clear and present security threat.

In February, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton introduced legislation into parliament that would prevent Australians who travelled overseas and are associated with a terrorist organisation from returning to Australia for at least two years through ‘temporary exclusion orders’. The rationale behind the measure is that they ‘may represent a threat to public safely’.

Neither Morrison’s nor Dutton’s claims are supported by empirical evidence.

Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser, two leading counterterrorism scholars, concluded that returning fighters played a role in 1 in 360 terror plots between January 2011 to June 2015 in Western Europe, North America and Australia. Hegghammer, in a different study looking at returning jihadis between 1980 and 2010, found that 11% became involved in domestic terror plots. Another terrorism expert, Andrew Silke, found that rates of reoffending were lower for terrorist prisoners than for those convicted of other types of crimes.

Of course, the particular cohorts of jihadis in these samples might be different from people who were part of IS and stayed until its end as a territory-holding entity. And even very small numbers of individuals remaining radicalised and committing violent terrorist acts in Australia is a sobering prospect. However, it may be that the security challenge of returnees—particularly non-combatants and children—could be mitigated, especially if disengagement or deradicalisation policies are employed.

Allowing these individuals to return would help us to understand how Duman and others were groomed by IS, what attracted them to the ideology, and how they managed to get to Syria (who, for example, helped them cross the border from Turkey to Syria?). We rarely get good primary data sources on such issues.

Duman and others could be encouraged to recount the wrongdoings that occurred in IS. They could provide invaluable evidence against IS fighters, many of whom committed gross human rights violations (Duman was married to two different IS fighters).

Beyond the intelligence value, allowing Duman to return under supervision would provide other benefits. Accepting her would challenge the Salafi-jihadi narratives that Western societies are heartless and regularly discriminate against Muslims, treating them as second-class citizens (this is an argument that has emerged in relation to the stripping of Shamima Begum of her UK citizenship). It would show that, even though individuals like her have made serious and appalling mistakes, society at large is determined to rehabilitate them. Such a counter-narrative would highlight compassion, forgiveness and morality, especially as jihadis are looking to exploit the Christchurch massacre through claims that the violence was part of the ‘Crusader wars’ against Muslims.

Morrison and Dutton may want to look at people such as Jesse Morton, formerly a successful al-Qaeda recruiter who, after spending time in prison and having served as an FBI informant, now works at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, helping others to understand and diminish the allure of Salafi-jihadism. Bryant Neal Vinas is another American who had fought for al-Qaeda. He was captured and sentenced to seven years in prison. Vinas has been using his experience in al-Qaeda to discourage vulnerable people from following the route that he went down.

Information from these individuals about the pull and push factors that swayed them is vital to the campaign to counter violent extremism. There’s a reason why, for example, we use former drug users and people convicted of drink-driving offences to speak to teenagers about the dangers of drug addiction and alcohol abuse. People value real-life experience and ex-militants have that in abundance.

In addition, we have the mechanisms and resources to deal with them—whether it’s through supervision orders, treatment, deradicalisation programs, or other means. It would be worse if these individuals were to find sanctuary in weak states where they could indoctrinate others.

Morrison and Dutton may also want to look to the example of Tunisia, which has taken back around 1,000 of the estimated 5,500 extremists who left the country to join IS and al-Qaeda. Judge Naila El Faqih, the deputy head of the Tunisian national counterterrorism commission, defended the action on the grounds that it’s ‘an international obligation’ of states to take back their nationals. Ultimately, Dunam and others were radicalised while living in Australia and we therefore have an obligation not to pass the buck to someone else.

Counterterrorism and human rights experts are increasingly warning that counterterrorism measures adopted by democratic countries are undermining the rule of law and morality and are out of step with their obligations under international law. This is a view articulated by Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

We must recognise that when it comes to terrorism, many things are out of our control; we can’t, for example, provide 100% security. What isn’t beyond our control are the choices we make in confronting terrorists and those seduced by the ideology. We must reject the idea that to have security we need to compromise on rights and morality. The choices aren’t easy—because morality includes thinking of the collective good as well as individual returnees’ rights. But a compassionate balance might be struck that also considers the long-term consequences of leaving radicalised people in weakened jurisdictions that have enough problems of their own.