As the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” loses territory, the issue of the foreign volunteers who joined its ranks is once again coming into the spotlight. The IS group served as a magnet, attracting disaffected youth from various countries. Every conflict throughout history has appealed for volunteers and recruits – the Crusades, World War Two, the Spanish civil war – and the IS caliphate is no exception. However, having lost its two main administrative centres – Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria – the territory once held by the IS “caliphate” is shrinking. Those foreigners who volunteered for the fundamentalist militia now face the prospect of either dying in a losing battle, or returning home.
The issue of Islamic State returnees – including Australians – rumbles beneath the surface of Australian politics, and is usually resuscitated by politicians who wish to appear “tough” on security issues. The question of what to do with these returning foreign fighters – and if indeed they should be allowed to return home – is a favourite theme of the ultra-rightist side of Australian politics.
Former Australian prime minister and conservative gadfly Tony Abbott, routinely denounced IS as a “death cult”. Hoping to boost his own sense of bravado and self-importance, he has frequently announced to the community his “tough” approach on the issue of Australian IS returnees. The former PM has opted for the simplest solution – throw all IS returnees in jail. He is at pains to reassure the electorate that he is “tough” on crime and criminals – and the IS returnees did engage in a form of criminality.
Just to make sure that we are all in bewildered awe of “tough” Tony, the former PM has criticised the Australian’s government’s alleged “pussyfooting” around on the issue of fundamentalist Islamist groups, and called for the establishment of special courts for the returning IS volunteer-militants. These courts would not have the same burden of proof which holds in existing courts, but rather would facilitate the speedy trial and punishment of the IS returnees.
Let us leave Tony to bask in the glory of his own “toughness”, and return to the serious questions posed by the IS returnees – are they a security risk? What is the probability that these hardened fighters, equipped with military skills, experience and combat-ideology, will commit serious terrorist offences in their home countries? Is the security threat real or exaggerated? Is the public perception of the security threat way out of proportion to the actual threat level? No single individual or institution has all the answers to these questions, but it is worth exploring the debate surrounding what to do with IS foreign fighters in some detail.
Nato Review magazine, in an article published in July 2017, examined these issues. Administrative approaches and prison sentences for IS returnees remain popular, but are not necessarily the most effective. Exclusive reliance on the criminal justice system does not resolve the problem of the link between IS radicalisation and imprisonment – or if prison is the best place to re-educate and reintegrate former IS foreign fighters.
As we alluded earlier, each conflict in history – such as World War Two – attracted its fair share of foreign volunteers. In any discussion about the IS foreign fighters, there is a parallel drawn between the IS volunteers in Syria or Iraq, and the International Brigades and foreign volunteers that fought for the Spanish republic during the Spanish Civil War. This comparison does have some superficial validity, but is ultimately incorrect.
The drawing of this parallel forms a false pivot on which to direct the discussion about IS volunteers. We can understand the main point being drawn out by this comparison – if we prosecute the IS returnees for fighting in a foreign war, why do we regard the International Brigades and similar socialist volunteers as heroes, sacrificing themselves for an internationalist cause?
If we prosecute the IS returnees as criminals on their return to Australia, should we not, in the interest of fairness and balance, prosecute those Australians who volunteered to fight for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)? The latter are a socialist-feminist militia, fighting for autonomy in the northern Syrian regions that make up the statelet of Rojava. Does not the law apply equally to all persons regardless of political affiliation?
This is where the IS-Spanish civil war analogy breaks down. World War Two comparisons are always risky, but they can be used to open up new channels of discussion. In terms of ideology and military role, today’s IS volunteers most closely resemble, not the International Brigades or socialist volunteers, but the pro-Nazi and pro-fascist volunteers and fighters who fought alongside the Nazi German and fascist Italian armies in World War Two. This is not my comparison, but one created by Professor Emeritus James Petras, a sociologist from the University of Binghamton.
The Ukrainians, Balts, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and other pro-fascist volunteers from Eastern European who fought in support of Nazi Germany are the closest historical counterparts to today’s IS volunteers. Motivated by fanatical anti-Communism, ultra-religious fundamentalism and bankrolled by rightwing regimes, the pro-fascist volunteers in World War Two implemented a reign of terror in German-occupied territories, committing mass atrocities, destroying the architectural monuments and records of the Jewish population, and used torture and repression on a state-wide level.
The IS volunteers, advocating an extreme form of ultra-religious conservatism, helped to implement a reign of terror against the ethnic and religious minorities caught up in the territory of their self-described “caliphate”. While IS fighters come from poor backgrounds, and generally lack basic education, their group is funded by existing rightwing fanatical regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Motivated by extreme anti-Communism, the IS foreign fighters have much in common with the motivations of the pro-fascist international volunteers during World War Two, the latter fighting atheistic communism and international Marxism embodied in the former Soviet Union. IS ideologues denounce the Syrian Baáthist regime as a socialist entity. The IS foreign fighters engage is systematic violence against group that opposes their project, destroying the cultural heritage of the regions they occupy – much like the conduct of the Nazi volunteers in World War Two. Let us not forget that in the Spanish civil war, the fascist side benefited from thousands of foreign fighters, including Moroccans and other Africans from Spain’s North African colonies.
It is interesting to note that, at the end of World War Two, many of these pro-fascist volunteers were not prosecuted for their crimes, but actually found sanctuary in Western countries, including Australia. Mark Aarons, writing in his book ‘War Criminals Welcome: Australia, a sanctuary for fugitive war criminals since 1945’, documents how many of the Ukrainians, Balts, Hungarians, Croatians, and other fascist volunteers found safe haven in the newly welcoming capitalist Australia. Their careers as war criminals were hidden, as Australian anti-Communism required not just new migrants to help industrialise the nation, but also reliable conservative communities that would provide an anti-socialist bulwark against the labour and trade union movements in Australia.
The Cold War was on, and realpolitik exceeded the demands that violent fascist criminals be brought to justice. Many of these fascist volunteers acquired the protection of the Australian intelligence apparatus, as they formed a solid base of ultra-conservative, fanatical resistance to the labour movement. Cold War anti-Communism, including the Australian variety, has many dark secrets. A history of violent Nazi war crimes was no impediment to rehabilitation and a successful career in Australia after the end of the second world war. So Australia can successfully reintegrate foreign fighters, as long as those returnees correspond to the political agenda of the Australian establishment.
The exclusive focus and preoccupation with punishment and jail terms, while temporarily assuaging the concerns of the community, is at best a superficial solution. Control orders, jailing children, further counter-terrorism measures will make Australia a more repressive society, but not a safer one. The crimes of the IS returnees are appalling, and their ideology is repugnant. While we vehemently disagree with the IS volunteers, denounce their ideology and punish their crimes, more jails and further curtailment of civil liberties are not going to reduce the security risks that IS returnees present.
Andrew Goldsmith, Strategic Professor in Criminal Justice at Flinders University, states that the returning IS fighters require not just punishment, but rehabilitation. This is not a naïve or unrealistic objective – Denmark, another Western country that has seen its fair share of IS returnees, is successfully rehabilitating foreign fighters. Implementing a multi-faceted program in coordination with the police, the local authorities and the Islamic community, the IS returnees are regaining a sense of belonging and participation in a community from which they were previously alienated.
Rather than the supposedly “tough” approach, Denmark is trying the “soft power” technique. Using “soft power” does not entail going soft on crime or terrorism. It means working in cooperation with those who have influence – such as the Islamic community. It means identifying and resolving the sources of discontent that drive wayward youth to consider fighting for IS as a realistic possibility.
Let us stop demonising refugees and migrants – particularly those from Muslim-majority nations – as just a bunch of terrorists, or would-be criminals. Countries that have taken thousands of IS returnees – Tunisia, Morocco – are trying the reintegration strategy. We would do well to learn from their intelligent example.