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Returning Jihadis: What happens to the families no one wants?

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Children of Jihadis in refugee camps in Syria are in dire straits (Screenshot via YouTube)

Dr Binoy Kampmark reports on the Jihadi brides and unfortunate children that no one wants. 

THERE ARE the jihadi brides, seen as dangerous and security threats to those who receive them.

Attention to this has been given by governments jittery at the prospects of letting such individuals return. They are supposedly "radicalised" — a catch-all term that serves little by way of explanation but does wonders to prevent a sober legal analysis of what is at stake. It also serves a simplifying political purpose, ignoring the fact that one country’s nuisance jihadist is another’s useful saboteur.

Even as Islamic State is pushed from various territories, fighters, spouses and children are facing the prospects of returning, many being held in the hands of their opponents who wish to be rid of them. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-Kurdish forces in Syria play reluctant hosts to under a thousand fighters of various nationalities: British, U.S., German and French. As tenants, they are proving irritable. The feeling is mutual. 

The campaign by a U.S.-led SDF in north-eastern Syria last month did much to stir the pot over the issue of imminent returns. It led the French Government to adopt a “case by case” approach to those wishing to head home. France, showing some degree of reservation, also refused to accede to the request made by U.S. President Donald Trump to repatriate European fighters immediately. 

Explained French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet:

“At this stage, France is not responding to [Trump’s] demands.” 

The British and Australian approaches have been harsher, showing yet again that Albion’s justice is perhaps not exactly the font of finely tuned wisdom, compassion or grace. UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid has made it clear he will resist the efforts of British nationals suspected of supporting terrorist organisations abroad from returning — as if such an act of doing so necessarily necessitates being confined to refuse in another country. 

“If you do manage to return you should be ready to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted.”

In the Australian case, the attitude has been distinctly cold, notably to the recent pleas of Zehra Duman. Duman, having left Australia in 2014 at the tender age of 19, married Australian fighter Mahmoud Abdullatif and found residence in Raqqa, a temporary capital for Islamic State. After Abdullatif’s death, she remarried, although her second spouse did not fare well, dying in the battle for Al Soussa near Baghouz. 

She has now fallen on hard times, living in the Al Hawl refugee camp in north-east Syria.“Both of my kids are sick,” she explained to the ABC. Her daughter was “malnourished” and “very skinny”. She lacked money, food and contact with families. 

Ultimately, she wanted to return to Australia:  

“I want to go back to my country. I think everybody’s asking for that because I’m an Australian citizen.”

Duman has form as a recruiter for Islamic State and became something of a daredevil on social media. 

She insisted that non-Muslims be targeted, stabbed and poisoned: 

“Poison your teachers. Go to haram restaurants and poison the food in large quantities.” 

Calling herself "Umm Abdullatif Australi", she cajoled, jested and mocked her enemies.“Catch me if you can,” she threatened in an image featuring an assault rifle posted on Twitter in 2015.

The response from the Australian Government has been residually archaic – even biblical – embracing notions of original sin and revisiting the errors of parents upon their unfortunate offspring. The sins of fathers and mothers are the baggage of future punishment, and we are constantly reminded that the Australian Prime Minister is indifferent to those niceties of the Western legal tradition.

When asked about the pleas of Duman, Morrison was menacing

“If you’re coming home, you’re coming home to face the full force of the law.” 

Having children involved in the affair was “a great tragedy” but Morrison insisted that those engaged in conflict “take responsibility for those decisions to join up with terrorists who are fighting Australia.” 

No efforts would be made to extract Duman or demand her return.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was a touch more pensive on the issue, unwilling to take the full plunge into sentiments of vengeance. He is careful to speak in measured tones about those who would wish to be “idiots” fighting “for whatever crazy reason” in foreign countries for foreign causes, but he will not extend such judgment to children: “You make your bed, you’ve got to lie in it.”

International law boffins such as Ben Saul make it clear — citizenship is a matter that also comes with obligations on the part of the state. 

He opines:

“It’s the responsibility of Australia to deal with Australian citizens who have been involved in Islamic State overseas, not to shift the burden of our terrorists to Kurdish forces or the governments and people of Iraq or Syria.”

The issue of such returning fighters and their brides, radicalised by love and religion, is a broader issue of judging those who engage in foreign conflicts, to begin with. Naturally, distinctions do arise. There are the customary lures of ideology, plunder, booty and rapacious fulfilment. The jihadi tourist is very much a mercenary, finding service in the faith of the next sect or fanatical club, but he – and, in some cases, she – retains the fundamentally traditional hallmarks of most fighters of history: they believe.

The range of offences facing individuals in such a position is considerable, though it seems cruel that they are applied to children and, in some cases, both parents. There is the territorial condition – merely travelling (one need not enter) to a country might well constitute an offence in certain cases. In Australia, these are considered “declared area offences". As section 119.2 of the Criminal Code 1995 makes clear, anyone intentionally entering or remaining in such a declared area 'where the person knows, or should know, that the area is a declared area', can face imprisonment for up to ten years.

These are always the arbitrary considerations of states. They do little to explain complex allegiances, power interests and the role being played by various states with different agendas. One state’s declared area of offence is another’s necessary area of military engagement. 

Jihadi fighters of various shades of extremism have been sponsored and backed by the intelligence services of all major powers involved in battling Islamic State. Loyalties are divided and uneven — the means even more so. Are these returning fighters also to be treated in the same fashion? That question remains unanswered and Duman, absent assistance from countries other than Australia, seems doomed.  

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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