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Australians fighting in Syria: What’s their future?

Australians who travel to Syria to fight in the conflict may pose a risk to Australia, a leading academic has warned.

Andrew Zammit, from Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre, says Australians returning from fighting in Syria could pose a security risk, though a “careful, non-blanket approach” is needed when dealing with returned fighters.

“If some of the Australians fighting adopted in Syria al-Qaeda's worldview … they may become involved in attempted terrorist attacks against Australia, and have gained deadly skills from their experience,” Mr Zammit said.

At least four Australians have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war, and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has threatened “serious criminal penalties” for all Australians, including dual citizens, who provide any kind of support to any armed group in Syria.

The Federal Government says it acknowledges the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

However, the Government this month listed the Al-Nusrah Front, which is also fighting against the Syrian regime, as a terrorist organisation following concerns over the group’s links with al-Qaeda. It says that it is “illegal” for any Australian to fight for, or to fund, “either side” in the conflict. Those that do could face criminal charges. (See Breakout below for more information)

Earlier, academics spoke to The Point Magazine about the impact of foreign incursion laws on Australians who get caught up in the conflict.

Australians who fight in Syria could face federal charges under the Crimes (Foreign Incursion and Recruitment) Act, which carries a maximum prison term of 20 years.

Mr Zammit said that the prosecution of an Australian who had fought in Syria under the Act would be an unlikely scenario.

“A hypothetical Australian fighting for the Syrian insurgency could potentially be charged under the Act,” he said.

“My guess would be that prosecution is not very likely, as the Act is not often used.”

Ten Australians have been convicted under foreign incursion laws, according to Mr Zammit.

However, the recent listing of Al-Nusrah as a terrorist organisation creates a new layer of criminality for those individuals who become involved in the conflict.

The ongoing conflict has sparked tensions in the Australian Muslim community, with local protests both for and against the regime.

A Muslim community representative, Ikebal Patel, said it was unhelpful for Australians to get involved in the conflict.

“I don’t think it helps in any way that we have Australians who are in Syria getting involved in the conflict,” said Mr Patel, the vice president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

“We have different groups within the Australian community that have lived very well together ... we don’t want to let external influences in any way divide the community.”

Concern is also growing about the use of social media to incite hostility.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Attorney-General’s Department said that “some of the displays of hostility between some sections of the community in both Sydney and Melbourne, including the use of social media to fuel tensions, are offensive to Australian values of respect for diversity”.

Mr Patel wants the local Muslim leadership to play a part in trying to “quell any attempts by people to hijack external events and to hijack the good relationships between different groups”.

“There has to be the responsible use of social media by those who use it,” he said.

There has been much speculation about how many Australians have gone to Syria to fight. The Australian newspaper has reported that government sources believe the figure could be as high as 200.

ASIO is concerned that at least 100 Australians are fighting with al-Nusrah, according to The Australian.

The spokeswoman for the Attorney-General’s Department said that for security reasons, the Federal Government does not comment on the specific number of individuals believed to be engaged in fighting overseas.


'Al-Nusra follows an extremist terrorist ideology and does not respect the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. It is a terrorist organisation with direct links with al-Qaeda in Iraq ...'

– Attorney-General’s Department

Mr Aaron Zelin, who headed a study on foreign fighters in Syria by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), tweeted his estimate of between “18-123” Australian fighters in late March.

The ICSR is a partnership of five academic institutions, including an Arab and an Israeli institution, based at the King’s College, London.

According to the ICSR, between 2000 and 5500 foreign fighters have travelled to Syria to fight with opposition forces.

Meanwhile, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, Ben Saul, who is also a barrister with experience in national security cases in Australia, has pointed out that resistance to “oppressive, violent regimes” is not prohibited by international law.

“I do not see why it should be presumptively an offence for Australians to join rebel, revolutionary or insurgent movements in countries in which such groups are opposing authoritarian or rights-abusing governments,” Professor Saul wrote in a submission last December to a review on Australia’s counter-terrorism legislation.

Professor Saul suggested that joining a rebel movement overseas should not be illegal unless the particular group has been blacklisted by the government, the inverse of current foreign incursion laws.

Despite international support for the removal of the Assad regime, some governments have been concerned about the extremist nature of some groups supporting the opposition forces, particularly the al-Nusrah Front.

The al-Nusrah Front claims to be a significant arm of the opposition, with a reported force of between 5000 and 10,000 fighters.

Prosecutions under Australia’s foreign incursion laws come down to government discretion, according to a lecturer at the Griffith University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Dr Edwin Bikundo.

“Potential prosecutions are always subject to political discretion in Australia,” said Dr Bikundo, who has research experience in international and criminal law.

“This is due to the consent of the Attorney-General being always required before any prosecution can proceed and Ministerial certification of important elements of the offence, being conclusive proof of what is certified.”

The conflict in Syria between government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces seeking to oust him has been ongoing since the Arab Spring of early 2011. The United Nations estimates the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives so far.

The opposition forces have received support from Western governments, including non-lethal military aid from the United States, United Kingdom and France. In Australia, economic sanctions targeting Syria have been imposed by the Reserve Bank against more than 30 individuals and over a dozen entities since 2011.



What does the Australian Government say about the ongoing violence in Syria?

The Federal Government has updated its advice to Australians about the Syrian conflict, issuing a warning to those who are fighting or may be thinking of fighting in the civil war.

It says that it is illegal under Australian law to fight, to provide funding or training, or to supply weapons to either side.

The warning, which applies to dual citizens, came as the Government listed the Al-Nusrah Front (also known as Jabhat Al-Nusrah) as a terrorist organisation.

Why has the Australian Government listed the Al-Nusrah Front as a terrorist organisation?

The Government believes that Al-Nusrah is an extremist group fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

In a new factsheet outlining its response to the ongoing violence, the Government stressed to Australian communities that Al-Nusrah has a “history of suicide attacks and indiscriminate bombings in Syria” as well as “direct links with al-Qaeda in Iraq, which supplies it with weapons, recruits and equipment”.

“Al-Nusrah follows an extremist terrorist ideology and does not respect the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. Violent extremism and terrorist ideology have no place in Syria, or anywhere else,” the factsheet states.

Which ‘side’ does the Australia Government support in the conflict?

The Federal Government acknowledges the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”. It says that Al-Nusrah is not a part of this Coalition.

What criminal action will be taken against those who associate with or are a member of Al-Nusrah?

The Government says that it is illegal for a person to associate with or be a member of Al-Nusrah as it is now a listed terrorist organisation.

If a person is found guilty of associating with Al-Nusrah, the maximum penalty is 3 years in prison.

If a person is found guilty of being a member of Al-Nusrah, the maximum penalty is 10 years in prison.

If a person is found guilty of one of the other terrorist organisation offences, such as receiving terrorist training or providing support to a listed terrorist organisation, the maximum penalty is 25 years in prison.

How can Australians support Syrian civilians?

The Government advises Australians to support civilians caught in the conflict by donating funds to a “legitimate organisation”.

It refers Australians to the United Nations website for a list of “recommended humanitarian partners”.

The Point

Australians fighting in Syria: What's their future?


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