The complex issue of returning Islamic State fighters

20 June 2019

A new paper from The Australian National University (ANU) warns we need to look beyond stripping citizenship from Islamic State fighters seeking to return to Australia as an approach to dealing with terrorism.  

The paper's author, Ms Jacinta Carroll from the ANU National Security College, said public perception and official rhetoric on Australia's approach to foreign fighters is too focused on the stripping of citizenship.

"This is problematic on a range of fronts," she said.

"Citizenship loss can only apply to the small proportion of Australian terrorists who are dual citizens, and can also be interpreted as shirking Australia's responsibility both for its citizens and for bringing terrorists to justice.

"This presents a flawed view of Australia's approach to dealing with terrorism, which feeds the terrorist narrative."

The paper argues the Federal Government must do more to build the Australian public's understanding of the issue or risk providing a narrative that further feeds IS's rhetoric.

"Since the rise of IS, we now have by far more Australians heading overseas to join terrorist groups than at any other time in our history," Ms Carroll said.  

"We know from previous occasions that Australians who travel to join terrorist organisations will almost always get involved in further terrorist acts once they return to Australia."

Around 230 Australians have travelled to the Middle East to join IS and other Islamist terrorist groups with around 100 still in the region.

To demonstrate the complexities of such cases, the paper highlights the case of Australian Zaynab Sharrouf.

Sharrouf was taken to the conflict zone in 2014 by her parents when she was 13 and later became a prominent ISIS propagandist posting messages supporting IS atrocities and the activities of her terrorist father and first husband.

Now 17, she is widowed, reportedly married for a second time to another fighter, has two children and is pregnant.

"Sharrouf is both a victim and supporter of terrorism and cases like this are very legally and morally complex," Ms Carroll said.

"While she did not independently choose to be a foreign fighter, she has been radicalised and for a time played a high-profile role supporting IS.

Ms Carroll said the Government must do more to communicate the complex issues involved with returning fighters, and the range of policies in place to deal with them.

Carroll suggests Government do more to promote the success of other policies in place to manage this issue - particularly the disengagement programs used to assist offenders and their families.

"There is almost no awareness that these programs even exist," she said.

"At the moment there is a perception in Australia that we aren't doing anything at all, we are just hoping that people will stay in the Middle East."

The paper's policy recommendations:

  • Australian counter-terrorism officials should publicise Australia's approach to foreign fighters and use case studies to illustrate the range of roles, including women and children, and the individual nature of each case.
  • The Australian Government should explain how Australians may be prosecuted by countries where crimes were committed, and also publicise Australia's support for international efforts including the United Nations Investigative Team examining IS war crimes, and the International Criminal Court.
  • Commonwealth, state and territory governments should provide anonymised case studies on disengagement programs, including how these would work for foreign fighters and their dependents who might return to Australia.

The paper, 'The citizen as enemy combatant: dealing with foreign terrorist fighters', can be read here: https://nsc.crawford.anu.edu.au/publication/14330/citizen-enemy-combatant-dealing-foreign-terrorist-fighters