An Australian terrorism news round-up: 4 November 2017

Here is a quick round-up of Australian terrorism-related news over the past month or so:

Updates on research, writing and reading

I wanted to share some things I’ve been up to recently.

First, I am co-authoring a book on the history of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Australia since the 1960s! I am extremely excited by it. My co-author is Debra Smith (author of this great article), and it will be published by Palgrave MacMillan.

In less exciting news, I recently withdrew from the University of Melbourne. However I have not ended the PhD, I will resume it at Monash University. About halfway through last year my primary supervisor (David Malet, who does excellent work on foreign fighters) left Melbourne University for a position at George Washington University. I took a Leave of Absence after that, initially planning to resume my PhD there if I could find another supervisor in my area, but decided instead to return to Monash. I successfully applied and will continue my PhD there, beginning in early 2018.

The book will be my main focus for the next six months, before returning to the PhD. I will be working on a few other things in that time, such as my job at APO and some pieces of writing.

Also, my podcast with Kate Grealy will be returning. We went on hiatus again and will recommence once we have a bunch more episodes ready to go. We’ve recorded some new interviews recorded, one on militias in Indonesia and one on the role of space technology in the US-Australian alliance, and have several more planned.

I’ve also had some new articles out:

And I was interviewed by Fatima Measham for the Eureka Street podcast Chattersquare.

In other news, some colleagues of mine have some new pieces of research out. Pete Lentini has authored this new article (paywalled) on the Melbourne-based terrorist cell disrupted by Operation Pendennis in 2005, The Neojihadist Cell as a Religious Organization: A Melbourne Jema’ah Case Study. Michele Grossman has co-authored this study on Community Reporting Of Violent Extremist Activity And Involvement In Foreign Conflict. It’s a UK-based replication of an Australian study, which makes it particularly important as it helps terrorism studies to address the Replication Debate.

I also want to share some of what I’m reading at the moment. For the book, I’m revisiting a lot of books on Australia’s Security history:

But as we are making use of lots of untapped information, institutions like the National Archives of Australia and the Australian Legal Information Institute are invaluable, and I encourage everyone to support them.

I’m reading a bit on the Vietnam War. I just finished Thomas Richardson’s Destroy and Build: Pacification in Phuoc Thuy, 1966-1972, which I would put in the top five books ever written on Australia’s role in Vietnam. I’m currently reading a novel on the war and its aftermath, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser:


I’m about to start Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij’s book on lone wolf terrorism. The term “lone wolf” tends to evoke a lot of sarcasm now, and while I’ve had problems with how loosely the term can be used, it’s not a meaningless concept. These types of terror attacks deserves serious study, and this book looks like a rigorous and empirically-grounded example of that:

I like to balance these sort of micro-level studies with big-picture reading on world history, or on where the world may be heading. The most interesting thing I’ve read recently like that has been Amitav Acharya’s article After Liberal Hegemony: The Advent of a Multiplex World Order, and I’ve just begun Lawrence Freedman’s The Future of War: A History:


That’s it for now, but I hope to update this blog a bit more frequently. We will see!

Australia’s growing online strategy-sphere

In March last year, I wrote that Australia was seeing an emerging online strategy-sphere. It’s now grown well past the point where it can be considered “emerging”.

That post discussed how, in the mid-to-late 2000s when the US had tens of thousands of troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, an online network developed of soldiers and civilians who debated military operations and strategy. My post suggested that Australia was starting to see something similar, and gave the following examples:

  • The Australian Army has started its own blog, the Land Power Forum, with contributions from many active members. As Danielle Cave points out, despite it being a government blog the posts are not simply puff pieces. There are of course firm boundaries set though, with the about page stating “Land Power Forum is not designed to re-litigate issues that have already been discussed and decided upon.”

  • Army Major Clare O’Neill has a website called “Grounded Curiosity”, including a blog and a podcast, which “aims to start a conversation with junior commanders about our future in warfare.”

  • Army Major Mick Cook has started a podcast called The Dead Prussian (referring to Clausewitz), which “aims to explore War and Warfare through discussion and analysis of military theory, historical events, contemporary conflicts, and expert interviews.”

  • Army Brigadier Mick Ryan has a Twitter account, has been writing in The Bridge (an online journal which is part of the Military Writer’s Guild) about the importance of social media for the military, and appeared on Clare O’Neill’s podcast.

  • Several Army officers recently spoke at a conference on Social Media and the Spectrum of Modern Conflict. You can watch videos of their talks here.

  • Navy Captain Justin Jones, who was director of the Sea Power Centre, has been blogging on the Lowy Interpreter and tweeting for a while (I would guess that there are other examples from the Navy, and maybe the Air Force, but most of what I have found is Army).

  • With the creation of ASPI’s Strategist in 2012, and the Land Power Forum in 2014, Australia’s institutional blogs now feature much more discussion of military strategy than before (though strategy has always been part of the discussion on the Lowy Interpreter since 2007), with both civilian and military contributions.

There have been many more developments since then. For example:

  • Lieutenant Colonel Tom McDermott and others have created a new online resource, The Cove, which describes itself as “a professional development resource for the Australian Profession of Arms.  It is designed to help military professionals sharpen their skills, connect with peers and allies, and develop new concepts and ideas for consideration.”
  • Major Clare O’Neill and others have set up the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum Australia, to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation within the military, which is described here. It was prompted by the need to better facilitate innovation within the Army, which has been recognised for some time. DEFAus is a subsidiary of a similar outfit in the United States, created in 2013.
  • Another organisation has also been created, the Postern Association, which is “the Australian Army’s new association for professional development”. It doesn’t seem to have a website yet, but these four posts (one, two, three, four) help explain what it is.
  • Army Major Mick Cook now has a second podcast, co-hosted with Rich Thapthimthong, called War for Idiots. Their review of Netflix’s War Machine is a good place to start.
  • The Army now has its own official podcast, called The Australian Army Training and Doctrine Podcast, to “explore all aspects of training within the Australian Army. From international large-scale exercises to individual training activities, find out how the men and women of today’s Australian Army work towards professional excellence.”
  • The Australian Defence Force also now has its own podcast, called Our Stories – Australian Defence Force on Operations Podcast. Its description says “ADF members serving Australia in the Middle East describe their mission and share their personal experiences”.
  • The papers from the 2015 conference I mentioned on social media and the military have now been published in a special edition of the journal Security Challenges. The organisers held a follow-up conference in March called Keyboard Warriors.
  • There continue to be many Australian contributions to the Strategy Bridge, often by Australian members of the Military Writer’s Guild.
  • Brigadier Mick Ryan has continued contributing to many of these discussions. He wrote this three-part series on mastering the profession of arms (one, two, three) for War On The Rocks, and a recent piece for Foreign Policy. He also conducted a review of Australia’s Professional Military Education, Training and Doctrine called the Ryan Report, and sometimes posts updates (from January, February, and March).
  • There are now more Australian Army Twitter accounts.
  • The Army’s own blog, the Land Power Forum, remains active.
  • Nathan Finney, a major figure within America’s online strategy-sphere, is currently in Australia as an Australian Strategic Policy Institute visiting fellow.

The term “strategy-sphere” was borrowed from this Tanner Greer post about the American version of this scene. I don’t know if the participants in the Australian initiatives I’ve listed above would consider themselves part of a “strategy-sphere”, or what other term they might use to describe their online community. But I find value in the term because it conveys how their focus is not primarily on the broad political questions of the wisdom or justice of particular wars, alliances or foreign policy decisions (though these can be considered questions of “grand strategy”).

Instead they mainly discuss questions of military strategy, operations and tactics, including issues such as leadership, logistics, training and technology. These online discussions tend to be practitioner-focused rather than policy-focused, which makes sense. Many of those involved are serving soldiers, who don’t decide whether wars should be launched but have to fight where elected leaders choose to send them.

For the broader political discussions, there’s plenty coming out of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), National Security College (NSC), Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre (USSC), the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the Lowy Institute for International Policy, the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), the Kokoda Foundation (now the Institute for Regional Security or IFRS), the Perth USAsia Centre and many other places.

But I’m finding this strategy-sphere (which does overlap with the activities of some of the above institutions, there isn’t a firm divide) particularly interesting, because it’s a much newer addition to Australia’s online national security discussions.

We weren’t seeing this five years ago (the earlier post discussed some of the reasons why), but Australia now has a substantial online community focused on military strategy and operations, including the voices of serving soldiers. It has gotten much bigger in just the past year, and I’m enjoying watching it grow.

New research on terrorism in Melbourne and elsewhere

I’ve had some new work published, as have some of my former GTReC colleagues.

My new Security Challenges article examines the idea of virtually planned terrorist attacks, and uses it to help explain the 2015 Anzac plot in Melbourne and potential future plots:

The Role of Virtual Planners in the 2015 Anzac Day Terror Plot, Security Challenges, Volume 13, Issue 1, 2017. (open access)

This case study shows how the 2015 Anzac Day terror plot resulted from virtual planning, which is an operational method the Islamic State has used widely since 2014. The article traces how the Melbourne-based perpetrator received online instructions on four components of the intended attack: choosing targets, making tactical preparations, maintaining commitment, and ensuring publicity. The article demonstrates the importance of the concept of virtual planning for understanding Australia’s current terror threat and examines aspects of the plot, particularly the involvement of a UK-based juvenile, valuable for understanding the Islamic State’s ability to initiate violence in Australia and elsewhere.

I also discussed virtual planning, and some other aspects of the IS threat, last week on Radio National’s The World Today.

Joe Ilardi has written an article on the Melbourne-based terrorist cell disrupted by Operation Pendennis in 2005, based on interviews with an undercover police officer who befriended the cell’s leader:

A Homegrown Terrorist Cell: Observations of a Police Undercover Operative, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, published online 16 June 2017. (paywalled)

On 10 October 2004, an improvised explosive device was detonated in bush land in the vicinity of Mount Disappointment on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. A relatively small device, it was assembled and detonated by one of the two men present, a Victoria Police officer and undercover operative known as Security Intelligence Officer 39, or SIO39. The other person was the leader of a homegrown terrorist cell, who in the months preceding had assembled a group of a dozen individuals who became the subject of Australia’s largest counterterrorism investigation known as Operation Pendennis. This article, which is based on in-depth interviews with SIO39, provides unique insights into a range of activities and behaviors peculiar to this cohort. Commencing his association with the group early in its development, SIO39 was privy to some of its key evolutionary stages, from a collection of individuals meeting more or less in the open, to a clandestine body that clearly harbored terrorist intent and undertook a number of overt acts to advance its violent objectives.

Pete Lentini has also written a new article on this terrorist cell, taking a sociology of religion approach, which should be published this year:

The Neojihadist Cell as a Religious Organization: A Melbourne Jema’ah Case Study, Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, Volume 30, Issue 1, 2017. (in press)

Moving away from Australia, Debra Smith has written this groundbreaking article on emotions and terrorism:

So How Do You Feel about That? Talking with Provos about Emotion, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, published online 1 June 2017. (open access)

Participation in political violence draws on identities and world views that have been shaped and influenced by emotion. This article uses data drawn from interviews conducted with 15 former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army to highlight some of the ways that emotion is intertwined with decisions to use violence in pursuit of a substate political goal. Six themes emerge that help to demonstrate how participant’s emotional lives have helped to build the identities, beliefs, and motivations that have led to violent acts. The study illuminates how the experience, elicitation, and management of emotions played an integral role in the participant’s trajectory towards violence.


Videos: academia and national security

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between academia and national security.

This post has some of my favourite videos on the topic.


The first video is of a panel discussion held last year on social science and how it can inform the future of warfare.

The Ivory Tower Goes To War: What Lessons Does Social Science Hold For The Future of War?

Panel held at the New America Foundation’s 2016 Future of War conference.

Speakers: Christia Fotoni, Christian Davenport, H.R. McMaster, Will H. Moore and Erin Simpson.

This is a largely US-focused discussion, and a really engaging and enjoyable one. Two people from this video have now taken up some prominent new roles. The panel chair, Erin Simpson, now co-hosts the podcast Bombshell. One of the speakers, H.R. McMaster, is now the National Security Advisor for the Trump Administration and has become increasingly controversial.


The next video is on the academic field of terrorism studies.

The Future of Terrorism Studies

Panel held at the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies’ Future of Terrorism conference .

Speakers: Richard English, Gary LaFree, and Arie Perliger.

The first talk in this video, by Richard English, is excellent. He starts by highlighting the three regularly cited dilemmas in the field: the lack of a consensus over the definition of terrorism, the supposedly stark divide between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”, and the critique that the field has stagnated. But he quickly points out why these dilemmas matter less than they may appear to. He points out there’s plenty of common ground between different terrorism definitions and between the best scholars from the field’s “orthodox” and “critical” variants, that these sorts of contestations aren’t unique to this field, and that the concerns over “stagnation” are overstated. He then moves on to many more serious problems in the field, particularly a five-fold fragmentation between different methodological approaches.

Then Gary LaFree talks about statistical data-gathering in terrorism studies, and different ways the data can be used, such as to find “microcycles” in terrorism. He also talks about how all the different datasets are going to be linked with each other more, and how this could provide stronger evidence about which counter-terrorism measures work best, and how important social media is becoming for research. Then Arie Perliger talks about some of the core conceptual dilemmas involved in attempts to “profile” terrorists.

But I enjoyed Richard English’s talk the best, as I strongly agree with him about terrorism studies needing to move beyond some the debates that have bogged it down for so long, and with his warnings of new dilemmas emerging. If you don’t have time to watch the video, read this article of his here (paywalled unfortunately).


The final video looks at the development of knowledge on one particular brand of terrorism: al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

What did scholars and policy makers know about al-Qaeda and Affiliated movements before 9/11? Part 2

Panel held at the Conflict Records Research Center’s 9/11 10 years Later: Insights on Al-Qaeda’s Past and Future Through Captured Records conference.

Speakers: Dr. Thomas Hegghammer, Dr. Mark Stout, Ms. Cindy Storer, Dr. Mary Habeck, Prof Yonah Alexander.

I want to highlight a quote from Cindy Storer, a former al-Qaeda analyst in the CIA. She was part of a group of mainly female analysts (referred to as “the Sisterhood“) who were warning before 9/11 that al-Qaeda wasn’t being taken seriously enough.

In one part of the video, Storer reflects on her experiences with academics, which unfortunately weren’t positive. She suggests that academics failed to appreciate the al-Qaeda threat before 9/11, and that this fed into the reluctance in upper CIA and government levels to listen those analysts who warned of the impending danger.

Before 9/11, we tried to reach out to academia a lot, and it was hard because, nobody studied al-Qaeda. There were people who were very good understanding of terrorism. Bruce Hoffman, Martha Crenshaw, a lot of people like that we reached out to. And we were able, especially from Martha Crenshaw, to learn a lot about in general how terrorist groups work, how terrorism comes about, so to be able to put al-Qaeda into this broad context of being a terrorist organisation. But since nobody was really talking about al-Qaeda itself, comments that academics made on al-Qaeda itself generally were counter-productive. Because again, we [al-Qaeda analysts in the CIA] were a small community, we were women in an operational environment, and so it was really easy to ignore us frankly. Because people wanted to anyway, Hezbollah was the important issue and Iran and all of that, so people in the agency tended to look to “outside experts” more than to us. And when those outside experts hadn’t studied the organisation they’d say things like “well I assume it’s XYZ based on my study of whatever happened in the 1980s or the 1970s” and it was just wrong. It was wrong. And it gave people a false comfort, I think, on the policy and upper management levels, that they weren’t dealing with anything significantly different. So, that was a problem.

Now, if you had been able to marry up, that broader understanding of issues with the details that people can see in the intelligence community of an emerging threat of an emerging issue, then wow, what you could have done earlier would have been spectacular. But there are all these barriers that counter cooperation, not least of which is the restrictions placed on academics who get access to classified material. It just doesn’t work very well. And we need to find a way to do something about that problem. I should also mention there were journalists. Honestly a lot of our early outreach efforts, in terms of what we would like to read, were journalistic efforts. People on the ground seeing what was happening.

I found this interesting because academic discussions about whether to engage with the policy world sometimes start from the assumption that academics have valuable knowledge which government officials need, and less often reflect on the risk that they will provide misinformed advice and have harmful policy impacts.

It’s also interesting because terrorism scholars are regularly accused of overstating terror threats, but on some key occasions they have tended to underestimate threats, and this video suggests that academic assessments of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 are another example (though there is rarely uniformity in the field).

Its these sorts of issues, which all of the videos touch on, which most interest me. They go to some of core questions in this area that need to be regularly reflected on:

  • How can academia best contribute to national security policy and practice?
  • Should academia even try to influence national security policy and practice, or should it not try to play any such role at all?
  • When might academia harm people by providing intellectual cover for unjust government actions carried out in the name of national security?
  • Or alternatively, when might academia harm national security by giving ill-informed advice?

An Australian terrorism news round-up

There was a lot of terrorism-related news in Australia over the past week. Here is a quick round-up:

  • A co-conspirator behind the murder of NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng (by 15-year old Farhad Jabar) has pleaded guilty to a terrorism offence.
  • Musa Cerantonio and four other Victorian men, accused of attempting to leave Australia by boat to join an Islamic State affiliated group in the Philippines, have been committed to stand trial.
  • The brother of Khaled Sharrouf has been charged for allegedly resisting arrest when raided over suspicions he was violating a Firearms Prohibition Order. Khaled Sharrouf was involved in the terror plot foiled by Operation Pendennis in 2005, and after being released from prison he joined Islamic State engaged in highly public war crimes.
  • A South Australian man charged with advocating terrorism has pleaded not guilty.
  • An Australian facing terrorism charges in Bulgaria has asked the Australian government to provide help.
  • The inquest into the death of Numan Haider (a teenage Islamic State supporter shot death when stabbing two police officers) is nearing its end. Members of the Victorian Joint Counter-Terrorism Team contend that ASIO failed to pass on crucial information about the threat Haider posed.
  • It was announced that the 600-page report of the inquest into the Lindt Café siege in Sydney will be released next Wednesday. Four Corners will air a two-part special on the tragedy, beginning next Monday.
  • The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has published the submissions to its review of ASIO’s questioning and detention powers, which can be found here.
  • The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor held public hearings on Friday for its review of “Division 3A of Part IAA of the Crimes Act (Stop, Search & Seize powers); Sections 119.2 and 119.3 of the Criminal Code (Declared Areas); [and] Divisions 104 and 105 of the Criminal Code (Control Orders & Preventive Detention Orders)”. ASIO’s Director-General and the AFP’s deputy commissioner for national security spoke there, as did many legal figures and academics. A transcript should be on the website soon, and submissions to the review can be found here.

Update 1: Added the Numan Haider bit on 22 May 2017.

The homecoming of Australian jihadists: making sense of a “polarising and dividing” problem

Last week, Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Duncan Lewis predicted that more Australian jihadist fighters would return from Syria and Iraq and that managing them would prove a “polarising and dividing” issue:

Beyond the spectrum of public opinion, we can anticipate the effective and appropriate management of returning foreign fighters to be a polarising and a dividing issue in Australia… We have plans in place – they are currently being executed – to accept the return of foreign fighters, but it will be a polarising matter.

There has long been discussion of the potential terrorist threat posed by Australian jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. So far, this has not been a major element of Australia’s terrorist threat. As I discussed in a recent CTC Sentinel article, the various attacks and plots Australia has experienced since September 2014 involved Islamic State (IS) supporters who had not left Australia. And the roughly 40 Australians who have returned from the region mainly did so before IS declared a “Caliphate” or targeted the West. These early returnees are not alleged to have been involved in terror plots.

However, the number returning is expected to increase in the near future. In February, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke with US Vice-President Mike Pence about this, stating afterwards that such an increase is…

likely to be the consequence of military success in Iraq, for the example the retaking of Mosul…. That will mean that a number of foreign terrorist fighters will seek to flee from Iraq and the expectation is a number will seek to return home. We need to be prepared for that.

Bishop also discussed this with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during his recent visit to Australia.

In this post I outline some of the dilemmas involved in dealing with returnees, to help explain why it may indeed be the divisive issue that Duncan Lewis predicts. It covers why there is concern over returnees, what can be done, and makes some suggestions as to what should be done.


Why is there concern over returnees?

The concern is based on the well-founded idea that some Australians involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq will be a serious terror threat on return. In past cases (such as the mobilisation to Afghanistan from the 1980s onwards) most returned foreign fighters did not end up becoming terror plotters, but a small proportion of them did, and involved in deadly attacks such as the 2005 London bombings.

This has repeatedly been the case with jihadist returnees from Syria and Iraq. The November 2015 terror attack in Paris, which killed over one hundred, involved up to eight returnees. The March 2016 bombing in Brussels similarly involved returnees. Other attacks have also been perpetrated by returnees, as have many foiled plots.

However, it’s also important not to overstate the threat.

Australia is in a far safer position than Europe. Plots like those in Paris and Brussels were feasible because Islamic State had established a sophisticated underground infrastructure in Europe, enabled by various factors: Europe produced many more foreign fighters, has more porous borders, is geographically closer, and has greater strategic importance.

Australia has a much smaller number of potential returnees to worry about. Of those, some more might be killed or captured, while some others may choose to stay in the region or move elsewhere (such as Europe, the Caucasus or Southeast Asia) rather than try to return to Australia. Duncan Lewis noted that the number of returnees will likely be fewer than ASIO initially expected. Australia also has the advantage of having prepared for this for a few years, and being an island with few entry-points, making it hard for people to slip in unnoticed.

Nonetheless, if we do experience a surge in returnees, it will be a problem. Some could pose a direct terror threat and some could pose a security concern in other ways (such as forming new recruitment networks or inciting others). Most will have likely broken the law, but it may not be clear who poses the greatest threat and resources may be limited. This will create difficulty for those tasked with dealing with them, though they will have several tools available.


What can be done with returnees?

The Australian government will have the following options for dealing with them

  1. Strip their citizenship. Khaled Sharrouf, a prominent IS fighter who bragged about war crimes, has had his Australian citizenship revoked. I disagree with this power for multiple reasons, but the law has passed (with bipartisan support and popular approval) so the Australian government now has this option, and will likely use it several more times.
  2. Frustrate their return. In most cases, the Australian government will have cancelled their passports. To return to Australia, the suspect will need to gain a one-way travel document from an Australian consulate (presumably in Turkey). This is not likely to be a simple process, and authorities can use this to induce cooperation. It’s also possible that they will have broken the laws of other countries, and Australia may pass intelligence on to these countries to prevent the suspects returning.
  3. Prosecute upon return. Prosecution will be a preferred option, but it will often be difficult to prove their involvement beyond reasonable doubt, which is why an estimated 40 Australians managed to return without being prosecuted. However, some of these suspected fighters (Mehmet Biber and Muhammad Abdul-Karim Musleh) have now been charged, as authorities have had more time to gather evidence.
  4. Monitor and restrict. Authorities can closely monitor suspected returnees and take action if they engage in new criminal activity, terrorism-related or otherwise. They can also subject the returnees to special powers such as coercive questioning by the ASIO or the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, and Control Orders which place restrictions on a suspect’s liberty for up to a year.
  5. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Some returnees might be suitable for CVE efforts, which refers to non-coercive efforts to prevent (or undo) involvement in violent movements. This could be conducted by the Diversion Team within the Australian Federal Police’s National Disruption Group. Most returnees would not be suitable, as the Diversion team does not deal with those “too far along the path of radicalisation for early intervention to be effective or presents an unacceptable risk to the safety of service providers”, but some of the children might be.

CVE approaches take many different forms, and have been used widely in European countries, sometimes for dealing with returnees. However, as I’ve mentioned in this Lowy paper, some of their approaches would not be possible in Australia (at least without adjustments) as they would be seen as too soft.

This raises another question, the “polarising and divisive” issue ASIO chief Duncan Lewis referred to, which is what should be done.


What should be done with returnees?

So the government will have a lot of tools for dealing with returnees, but how should they be used? Should all returnees be prosecuted, to the full extent of the law, where possible?

For the most part, yes, particularly as this would be consistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178, because the national security risk is real, and because the Islamic State has rightly earned the world’s hatred.

However, there is also debate (mainly in Europe, given the scale of the problem) over whether returnees should be shown some leniency to make the problem more manageable (see here and here). There is no simple answer, but my view is that some leniency should be shown in individual cases, depending on:

  1. Which group they joined. Was it a proscribed terrorist organisation like Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which leads the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham umbrella group)? Those who joined groups that came under the Free Syrian Army banner or Kurdish anti-IS groups may still have broken the law, but should not be treated as severely as those who joined IS or al-Nusra.
  2. Whether they joined the group willingly. There may be cases where someone enters Syria with a vague idea of helping out in a humanitarian capacity but ends up being conscripted into an armed group. However, there could easily be cases where jihadists falsely claim to have been forced to join groups, so such claims should not be uncritically accepted. The “didn’t realise what I was getting into” argument is more plausible for those who travelled over during the conflict’s early years (2011-2013).
  3. Whether they were children or adults. The younger they are (and some are extremely young), the less responsible they are for their actions. Child soldiers have often been rehabilitated and gone on to be outstanding citizens, including in Australia.
  4. What role they played in the group. Was it a combat or non-combat role? Was it a major or minor role? Did they call for attacks outside the conflict zone? Did they engage in atrocities? Many Islamic State fighters have raped, tortured, murdered and mutilated people in Syria and Iraq. There should be no leniency at all for war criminals.
  5. Whether they willingly cooperate with authorities. This is the most important factor. Those who do not cooperate (such as by providing intelligence or helping stop others from becoming involved) cannot expect to escape the full extent of the law. However, those willing and able to help should be given some leniency, particularly if there is a strong chance that it will saves lives.

So the potential surge of Australians returning after being involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq will not be a difficult problem, and has no single solution.

Generally, those who can be proven to have broken the law should be prosecuted. In most cases, any leniency should only come into play after they have been prosecuted (by taking it into account when sentencing). In a few cases, leniency should be an alternative to prosecution (such as for some of the children or those who become informants). And unfortunately in many cases prosecution will not be possible, leaving authorities with a range of imperfect options.

Intelligence services, police, prosecutors and judges will have to make these difficult judgements. Political leaders should make sure they have the flexibility to do so, by avoiding the temptation to announce some sort of blanket policy, no matter how “polarising and dividing” the issue becomes.