Prime Minister Tony Abbott has spent recent weeks attempting to rally support for mooted anti-terror laws that would block the return of Australian jihadists fighting alongside Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Similar laws have been introduced into the UK parliament and other western nations, such as Norway, are having similar discussions.
This all begs the question: where will western jihadists go if not allowed to return home? In answering this question and its implications, history, as always, is instructive.
During the 1980s, thousands of foreign fighters travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation. They arrived from around the world, but especially from the Middle East. Egypt even quietly encouraged its radical Islamists to travel to Afghanistan with the sincere hope that they would all become martyrs.
However, following the end of the Afghan-Soviet War, many Arab states blocked their nationals from returning. Probably the most famous example is Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow Osama bin-Laden to return home.
The Middle Eastern secular dictators had viewed the radical Islamists as mere political nuisances before. Now, having received CIA training in Pakistan and years of frontline combat experience, they were considered serious threats.
So, rather than returning to their home countries, these fighters become professional international jihadists. A few stayed in Afghanistan to continue fighting alongside the Afghan warlords. Most, however, chose either to join Osama bin Laden in Sudan or accept Ali Abdullah Saleh’s invitation to join the fight against the secular socialist government in Yemen.
These stateless professional jihadists went on to form the core of al-Qaeda. They were responsible for attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the bombing of the USS Cole in the Port of Aden in Yemen, among many others.
A similar story played out in US-occupied Iraq. In 2007, US army general David Petraeus announced that:
AQ [al-Qaeda] has been expelled from every single one of its strongholds in Baghdad.
However, it has since been revealed that al-Qaeda fighters simply jumped over the border into Syria to eventually become the nucleus of Jabhat al-Nusra and IS.
The lesson of history is twofold. First, jihadists who don’t become martyrs need to go somewhere. Second, jihadists rarely de-radicalise, but they can de-militarise.
Best to keep tabs on fighters
The 20,000 hardcore IS fighters have few friends and many powerful enemies. Most of the regimes in the Middle East view them as an existential threat. Likewise, IS has successfully made enemies with most of the other Middle Eastern insurgent and terrorist groups.
Eventually it is likely that the position of the western jihadists fighting alongside IS in Syria and Iraq will become untenable. At that time, the preference of many is likely to be to return home.
If they return home, then Australia intelligence and policing organisations can sweep them up at the airport. Some might have committed war crimes and should be charged in Australian courts. Like in all armed forces, however, for every soldier with a gun there are ten soldiers performing logistical and supporting roles.
Despite most returning jihadists being guilty of supporting terrorism, it is wrong to assume that they all have been directly involved in war crimes. If no crimes can be proven, then these former jihadists could be released under the strictest of surveillance.
Keeping an eye on individuals like this is precisely the job Australians pay ASIO to perform and they are pretty good at it. Australia’s counterterrorism agencies are kept awake at night worrying about the violent extremists they don’t know about, not so much by the ones they do.
The alternative is that we block the return of all Australians currently fighting alongside any number of groups in the Middle East. This is likely to repeat the mistakes of the past. A universal blanket ban would not allow for differences in the Australian jihadists’ motivations for choosing to go fight, the tasks they performed while over there, or the reasons they decided to return home.
Like the jihadists in Afghanistan, these fighters are then likely to seek out a third country to take them. The most likely contenders would be Yemen, Somalia or Libya, or they may join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or al-Shabaab. There, they are likely to become further radicalised and professional jihadists for life.
In the long run, the jihadists will be greater threats to Australian security than if they had simply returned home to their families, normality and ASIO monitoring. Sometimes you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer.