A group of Australian men who say they inadvertently found themselves fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are petitioning the government in Canberra to let them return home, highlighting a dilemma for Western states struggling to define the illegality of participating in a messy war like Syria’s.
According to a report from The Courier-Mail, six nationals told family and friends they traveled to Syria to join the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad — an effort Australia and other Western nations support — but their brigades “went behind their backs and turned to [ISIL].”
“When they went over there, they were young and stupid,” Yehya El-Kholed, an Australian humanitarian worker who has traveled regularly to Syria and is in contact with one of the men, told the Australian newspaper. Now, he said, they are “accidental terrorists.”
There is already a contentious debate in Western capitals about what to do with willing ISIL recruits who become disillusioned with insurgent life and want to return home. National security hawks say these individuals present a major security risk and must be locked up.
But the six Australians and other involuntary ISIL conscripts pose a unique dilemma that most countries are not sure how to address.
“A guy who went to Syria to fight Assad, from a legal point of view, what can you blame him for?” said Olivier Roy, a French counterterrorism expert with the European University Institute. “We are the first to encourage the fall of regime in Damascus, so it may not technically be a crime.”
And Western countries may well see more unwilling ISIL fighters make a similar plea in the months to come. As the Assad regime proves frustratingly resilient and the West fails to adequately arm or fund “moderate” rebel factions, many anti-Assad fighters have defected to the better-funded ISIL, which has captured swaths of Syria and Iraq. Often, entire brigades jump ship, leaving fighters who reject ISIL’s indiscriminate brutality and radical vision for a post-Assad Syria in a bind.
About 100 or so Australian fighters have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq, among the thousands of Westerners estimated to have done so. Australia’s government has taken a particularly hard line, widening its security laws and introducing a foreign-fighter bill that punishes those who merely travel to certain high-risk regions without a valid reason with prison sentences of up to five years. Those suspected of joining state-designated terrorist groups, such as ISIL or Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), face mandatory detention upon return and up to 25 years in prison.
Even in the case of the “accidental terrorists,” Australian Attorney General George Brandis has said he would stand by the new laws. “Where there is evidence Australians have participated in the conflict … they will be subject to the law upon their return,” he said.
According to Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo detainee who now heads Cage, a London-based advocacy group, scores of British citizens have met a similar fate. Begg, who recently spent seven months in the U.K.’s Belmarsh prison on terrorism charges, told The Guardian in October that he met returned fighters and even humanitarian workers at that facility who were detained upon entry. Begg was later released after the charges against him were dropped.
“Some of the guys I met in Belmarsh had gone to Syria to help in a humanitarian defensive role, stayed for a few weeks and, crucially, didn’t want to get involved with the infighting between rebel groups, yet the British government imprisoned them,” he told The Guardian. “If you come back because of the infighting, it means that you are not ideologically attached to groups like [ISIL].”
Separate the legal debate, many counterterrorism experts also argue that threatening returned fighters with prison could be counterproductive to combating ISIL. They argue that disillusioned fighters are a government’s most convincing argument against extremist violence and that fighters should be welcomed back to tell their cautionary tales about the false allure of jihad.
Some have argued that offering limited amnesty for those who renounce ISIL would lure disillusioned would-be returnees in larger numbers and weaken the insurgency. They point to the Danish model, which pairs intensive deradicalization programs with close surveillance of high-risk individuals.
Despite the threats of prosecution, Australian authorities are urging the men to return home before they engage in other actions punishable under the law.
The “accidental terrorists” might be inclined to acquiesce. According to El-Kholed, they have already abandoned their brigades and are currently in hiding. But they fear the consequences if their former commanders catch wind of their whereabouts. According to those in contact with ISIL fighters, abandoning religiously binding pledges of loyalty to the caliphate — required of all ISIL conscripts — is punishable by beheading.