Foreign fighters need more than punishment – they also need rehab

Sydney teenager Abdullah Elmir, who uses the alias Abu Khaled, speaking in an Islamic State video. ABC News

New powers targeting foreign fighters and political “hate crimes” are set to be amended, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed in the hope of pushing the legislation through parliament next week.

But are the amendments the government has agreed to enough to make the “foreign fighters” bill an effective deterrent to Australians joining extremist groups such as Islamic State?

Even with those changes, the Australian approach is too focused on punishment, at the cost of ignoring other potentially effective ways of preventing domestic terrorism. These include programs currently being trialled in Denmark and the US, which – as strange as it may sound – involve going out of our way to rehabilitate radicals who return from foreign battles.

What’s being proposed now

The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill is the Abbott government’s response to the “threat posed by Australians engaging in, and returning from, conflicts in foreign states” and an increased “likelihood of the commission of terrorist acts on Australian soil”.

The bill is currently 158 pages long, and contains a raft of amendments and changes to current anti-terrorist laws. One clear objective of the bill is to make it easier to arrest and prosecute those Australians who have been engaged in terrorist acts overseas.

While the bill faces further amendment before becoming law, it is largely focused on extending the reach of the criminal law and police powers as key counter-terrorism measures.

The extra amendments agreed to will mean the proposed powers are slightly watered down, with extra checks and accountability measures in place.

But even with those changes, the bill remains still a “hard power” approach – typically meaning new laws, more policing, more prosecutions – to perceived threats to national security. It’s a familiar and understandable approach, designed to send a signal that the government is taking strong action.

Australia has been down this path before in the aftermath of September 11 and the Bali bombings. A clear trend in recent anti-terrorism laws has been not only to identify and punish those who have committed offences, but also to deter and prevent those who have not yet done so from proceeding to engage in crimes.

But the ability of the criminal law to prevent as well as punish can quickly arouse controversy. Preventing “wannabe” jihadists through legal measures almost certainly involves restrictions upon movement, association, and in some instances, speech.

Enforcing those restrictions can also appear heavy-handed and impact negatively upon willingness in some sectors of the public to cooperate with the authorities. While necessary for deterring and punishing the most serious cases of actual terrorism, the criminal law approach to dealing with those who are drawn to jihadist activities can be a crude instrument.

Relatively few radicals are ready to act as extremely as Mohammad Ali Barylei, the alleged ringleader of the plot to kidnap at random and execute an Australian, is accused of doing. And not all foreign fighters will return to their home countries (if they are able to) with the desire to further the struggle back home.

How then should we respond to those who are tempted to go or those who, having gone, now seek to return? A balanced response should include consideration of what “soft power” options we have. A few possibilities exist here.

Soft power isn’t the same as going soft

In the city of Aarhus, Denmark, a city with a large Muslim population, programs are being trialled that offer returned jihadists medical treatment, counselling and assistance in returning to the workforce or to education.

A crime prevention adviser involved in these programs, Steffen Nielsen, has said it is critical that those returning are not further alienated, and that these programs deal with the problems faced by these individuals in successfully integrating into Danish society. The credibility of the programs are seen to depend on separation from the activities of police and security services.

This approach is admittedly a new trial – but it does fit with some well-established lessons from research in how to stop criminals reoffending, including through rehabilitation.

One such lesson is that offenders need practical opportunities to emerge from their past lives (however violent or “abhorrent”) in ways which uphold or restore to them their dignity.

For those deemed exposed to but not deeply implicated in fighting, socially inclusive responses (jobs, education, good housing) rather than strategies that seek to permanently condemn and stigmatise (imprisonment) are needed.

Restorative justice offers a related technique, whereby offenders are drawn into encounters with those affected by their actions, in which their own family members also participate. These meetings provide an opportunity to address problems in relationships between offenders and their families, as well as addressing victim needs.

Tackling sources of discontent

Some critics of “soft power” approaches will rightly point out that many young men (and the smaller number of young women) drawn towards radical groups such as Islamic State don’t come always from poor backgrounds, and are not always alienated from their families.

Nonetheless, we need to understand better the reasons for their hostility towards Western ways and the attraction of violent fundamentalist creeds.

Working with whole families and communities – not just focusing on individuals – is also crucial. Civil engagement models focusing on reintegration into the wider community are currently being trialled in Boston, Minneapolis and other American cities, which Australia should study and learn from.

It is not always easy to understand the anger and alienation expressed by western jihadists like Sydney teenager Abdullah Elmir. But we can only successfully fight that anger by learning to understand – and in some cases help – those who would do us harm.