Does Australia have the capacity to rehabilitate IS returnees if they are permitted to return?

Posted April 05, 2019 07:59:45

Counter violent extremism researchers say the Government has an obligation to rehabilitate Australian foreign fighters, but existing programs need work.

Key points:

  • Up to 200 Australians have joined IS, but now some want to return home following the collapse of the so-called Islamic State group
  • One expert in counter violent extremism says rehabilitation for returnees is possible, but Australia may not have the programs in place to do that yet
  • Another expert believes Australia has an obligation to take back citizens and prosecute them, but there is no guarantee all extremists can be rehabilitated

Up to 200 Australians were believed to have travelled to Syria with others from around the world to join the so-called Islamic State group (IS).

But with its collapse, some want to return home.

Born in Sydney and high schooled in Loxton in country South Australia, Melbourne student Mahir Absar Alam, 26, is one pleading with the Australian Government to allow his family to return and be prosecuted.

He was captured with his Syrian wife and two children in March by Kurdish-led forces outside the village of Baghouz, the last hold-out of IS militants.

International Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism editor Julian Droogan said there were procedures and systems in place to rehabilitate extremists, but they were relatively new and yet to be evaluated.

“Evidence has shown that people who become violent extremists and involved in foreign conflicts can be rehabilitated,” Dr Droogan said.

“However, it’s very difficult to identify who will be successfully rehabilitated.

“I believe we could have adequate structures to rehabilitate some people. I don’t believe those structures are currently in place.”

Deliberating how to deal with offenders

In Victoria and New South Wales there are programs run by correctional services and police to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders of violent extremism.

Dr Droogan said those states were still deliberating the best way to incarcerate people to avoid further radicalisation in prison.

“I think we will improve with trial and error. At the moment I think these programs aren’t well established enough for us to have any firm evidence on how well they are working,” he said.

Dr Droogan said Australia could be looking to international examples where successful rehabilitation had been occurring for a more extended period of time.

Deakin University’s Professor Michele Grossman said it was important to remember there was no guarantee all extremists could be rehabilitated, and their return would include risks.

Her research expertise includes countering violent extremism and cultural approaches to resilience against violence.

Professor Grossman said the success rate was entirely individual, depending on whether the person continued to support extremism and whether they had been involved in combat.

“The Australian Government, in general, has pretty good and robust and policies around being able to support return and disengagement,” she said.

“No matter how good a framework is on paper, it is actually community-based support that is absolutely vital.”

Read more about the decline of Islamic State:

Professor Grossman said successful reintegration of children would highly depend on whether their communities were willing to accept and support the process, and also for the Government to support them with resources, when necessary.

“The gap is being able to ensure we connect Government policy and programs around reintegration with existing community expertise,” she said.

“There is always room for improvement. Australia, like many other countries, is really dealing with this for the first time.”

Needs of children to be considered

Australia’s stance on people who joined IS is that they should be dealt with overseas.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, while he feels compassion for Australian children stranded in Syria, there is little the Government can do to help.

Mr Morrison said he would not risk Australian lives trying to extract Australian citizens of Islamic State families from refugee camps following the movement’s collapse.

Research fellow in counter terrorism at the Australian National University, Jacinta Carroll, said the legislation balanced public security with prosecution.

She said the disengagement of extremism was often done the same way as other criminal behaviours, like gang related crimes.

It could include social and psychological support, or correcting their understanding of faith and culture.

Ms Carroll said the target in supporting reintegration was to build resilient communities.

“Some of the key things we’ve seen in practice was the way the New Zealand Government and community responded to Christchurch,” Ms Carroll said.

“We’ve seen bridging of communities, so affected communities are not seen to be separate from the broader community — other than in ways that are helpful and valuable.”

Stopping history repeating

Dr Droogan said, in the past, fighters of extremist organisations who were not prosecuted in their home country facilitated the creation of new groups.

“If we look at the history of terrorism, there are some very good reasons why we should bring them [IS members] back when at all possible,” he said.

“If we look at the end of the Afghan civil war and the Mujahideen fighters … we know many of those fighters were not given the opportunity to go back to their original place of residence.

“Large numbers stayed in Afghanistan or went to places with weak border security like Sudan or Somalia.

“That was partly the context within which Al Qaeda emerged.”

Professor Grossman agreed Australia had an obligation to take back its citizens and prosecute them.

“If you think about it, we have an awful lot of Australian citizens who never go anywhere but who commit a broad range of crimes in their home country,” she said.

“Those people are dealt with here under the same criminal justice system.

“As long as someone is a citizen of Australia, I believe Australia has the responsibility to take them back and deal with their behaviour and any potential crimes.”

Topics: terrorism, unrest-conflict-and-war, government-and-politics, states-and-territories, territorial-disputes, law-crime-and-justice, international-law, laws, federal-government, non-governmental-organisations, prisons-and-punishment, loxton-5333, syrian-arab-republic, iraq, sa

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