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Reformed foreign fighters could smash ISIS lies

As the Australian Government commits $21.7 million to combat online terrorist propaganda, experts are proposing that reformed foreign fighters could play a key role in exposing ISIS lies and turning young people away from violence.

A leading researcher on the role of communities in countering violent extremism, Professor Michele Grossman of Victoria University, identified reformed fighters as a “potentially excellent resource” to counteract the ISIS social media machine that is luring vulnerable young Australians to fight in Syria and Iraq.

The idea has many challenges. “Obviously, returned foreign fighters will be subject to Australian laws,” a spokesperson for the Attorney-General's Department said.

“However, people who have been exposed to the lies and horror of ISIL and have turned away from the ideologies of violence and hate could help stop other young people from making the same mistake,” the spokesperson said.

The Foreign Fighters Act forbids Australians from travelling to declared areas where terrorist organisations are active, and anyone known to have been fighting illegally in overseas conflicts can face long prison sentences on their return to Australia. There are also fears that reformed foreign fighters in the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq who want to return home may be targeted by ISIS for wanting to do so. And many within Australian communities affected by the Iraqi conflict hold strong feelings that those who have carried arms with ISIS should never be let back into this country.

"People who have been exposed to the lies and horror of ISIL and have turned away from the ideologies of violence and hate could help stop other young people from making the same mistake."

– Attorney General's Department spokeperson

Australian foreign fighters returned from Afghanistan formed the ‘Pendennis Nine’ and were convicted on charges of conspiring to commit a large-scale terrorist act. This group included Khaled Sharrouf, who now fights for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, after travelling there on his brother's passport following his release from prison.

In neighbouring Indonesia, 200 returned ‘mujahideen’ established the terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah, which was responsible for 88 Australian deaths in the Bali bombing of 2002.

Approximately 30 Australians have already returned from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, but many did so before ISIS insurgents self-proclaimed a caliphate, ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis told a Senate estimates hearing. 

A humanitarian worker who made three trips to Syria and witnessed the damage done by ISIS, Yehya El Kholed, told The Point Magazine that going abroad to fight was “not an honourable thing.” He has urged the government to adopt a program similar to one active in Denmark that rehabilitates returned fighters by offering them jobs and counselling.

EXIT programs in Europe have utilised ‘formers’ to speak out against right-wing extremism and similar strategies have been applied to Muslim foreign fighters in the Hayat program in Germany.

Abdullah-X, a reformed British foreign fighter, produces popular anti-violence animations on YouTube. The Australian National Imams Consultative Forum has published statements by three former extremist groups – the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (Dr Fadi), and the Egyptian Islamic Group (al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya) – that have all recanted their extremist beliefs and said they were a result of religious naivety.

Non-government organisation Against Violent Extremism (AVE) has connected 'formers' online so they communicate their powerful recants online.

In Australia, the Dr Anne Aly-convened People Against Violent Extremism (PAVE) works with reformed extremists and produces short films to develop a counter-narrative.

Professor Michele Grossman said, “(Reformed) foreign fighters are in the best position to develop a counter-narrative. Not everyone comes back from conflict and wants to keep fighting. Some become very disenchanted and are potentially excellent resources.”

The “authenticity of their experiences” would counteract the “social media virtual retake” that’s “not what it’s like”, she said.

Professor Grossman and Dr Hussein Tahiri were co-authors of the 2013 report, ‘Community and Radicalisation: An examination of perceptions, ideas, beliefs and solutions throughout Australia’, which cited the need to “deglamorise violence” and “encourage young people to reject violence”.

A thriving ISIS social media machine tweets up to 90,000 times a day and delivers slick videos and photography, all from a terrorist organisation that beheads journalists who threaten to tell stories that contradict its propaganda.

Professor Grossman said ISIS’ “messages are about building a new world, to rise up and have the power and control they don’t have... (and) give young people something to hang their hats on.”

Monitoring and censoring extremist websites cannot be the only way to counter this, Professor Grossman said. “For every 10 you close down, another 50 pop up.”

These mooted counter-narratives come amid a continuing stream of young Australians going abroad after being recruited online, including suicide bomber Jake Bilardi. 

Silma Ihram, former principal of the Noor Al Houda Islamic College in Sydney, said that “Young people who are ignorant but easily excitable (are) vulnerable to their propaganda.”

She said an “alternative cause” with “very strong mentoring and leadership” is needed that would be “unequivocal about how violence isn’t the right way”.

Returned soldiers ignited a peace movement during the Vietnam War, according to Helen Ware at the University of New England, and reformed foreign fighters could do the same to relay atrocities committed by ISIS.

The Foreign Fighters Act, which declares areas and imprisons Australians for up to ten years for being in conflict zones, would be applied by courts on a case-by-case basis. 

But some Australian communities with families in the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria don't ever want to see foreign fighters return to Australia. Rishemah Chohili, a Sabian Mandaean religious leader with ties to Iraq, told The Point Magazine, “We don’t want these foreign fighters to come back. Even if they regret going, they still have blood on their hands. If they come back they will be a threat not only to the Iraqi community but also to the Australian community at large.”

“They helped destroy our country, culture and religion and people expect us to welcome them back after all the lives they’ve destroyed?”

Samir Yousif, president of the Chaldean National Congress in Australia, said, “These fighters gave up their rights the minute they turned their backs on Australia and on human rights.”

Reformed foreign fighters remain a resource worth exploring, according to Clare Murphy, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Canberra, who wrote, “This option won't be for everybody. Some fighters may stay loyal to the cause. But some may want to redeem themselves. They would be a powerful voice against extremism borne out of their real-life experience in Syria and Iraq.”

-Widyan Fares and Nour Haydar contributed to this story

The Point

Reformed foreign fighters could relay the atrocities committed by ISIS to counteract online propaganda

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