Thursday 25 Feb 2021 | 13:40 | SYDNEY
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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.


Lydia Khalil
Research Fellow, West Asia Program
Rodger Shanahan
Research Fellow, West Asia Program

Latest publications

Islamic State’s new battleground – the courts

In the aftermath of Islamic State’s defeat, it was anticipated that fighters and other members of the group would appeal to the very court system of a liberal democracy whose laws they rejected and whose way of ordering society they sought to supplant when they joined the terrorist group. And in two courts at opposite ends of the world, legal battles are set to commence that could have a significant impact on the way that liberal democracies are able to define the responsibilities that citizenship demands of a person.

One of the arrows that liberal democracies have in the legislative quiver is the ability to revoke the citizenship from dual-nationals who support or join terrorist organisations. The argument being that citizenship not only bestows rights, it also demands responsibilities of an individual. And a fundamental responsibility of a citizen is not to join groups that seek to attack the country of which you are a citizen.

It is a controversial issue in some quarters, and in Australia the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security this month released its report on amendments to the bill to revoke citizenship that could soon be put to a vote.

There are a range of amendments proposed. The Minister for Home Affairs would have the authority to strip a person of their citizenship and must take into account the effects of this on the person’s dependents. It would backdate the relevant conduct for which someone may become subject to having their citizenship revoked from 12 December 2015 to 29 May 2003 (presumably to capture the pre-Islamic State terrorists due for release from jail).

Few people may be aware that Australia’s current laws to revoke citizenship are also under challenge for the first time.

Indications are that revoking a person’s citizenship for terrorist offences has popular support in Australia. The stereotype of a gun-toting bearded jihadi elicits very little sympathy among the population of liberal democracies.

But it is debatable whether that same level of disdain exists for women, and mothers in particular. Even though they are ideological fellow travellers, they are much less martial in appearance, and if a terrorist were ever to gain support for actions authorities take against them, then surely women, and mothers in particular, would be it. Perhaps that is the reason why the two highest profile appeals against the revoking of citizenship going through the court systems currently involve women.

The first of these is the (now former) UK national Shamima Begum, the teenager who along with two other friends (one of whom, Amira Abase, reportedly married the Australian Islamic State terrorist Abdullah Elmir, who was killed in Syria) willingly travelled to join Islamic State in Syria. After the group’s defeat in Baghouz she turned up in a camp in Syria in February 2019 and had her citizenship revoked in July that year by the UK Home Secretary.

In July this year the UK Court of Appeal ruled that for her to effectively challenge the decision to strip her of her citizenship she had to be allowed to return to the UK. The Home Office has now been granted leave to appeal that decision.

Few people may be aware that Australia’s current laws to revoke citizenship are also under challenge for the first time. Zehra Duman has appealed to the High Court after she was stripped of her citizenship in October 2019, and has included in her case her two children. From what we know, Duman entered Turkey from Australia using her Turkish passport before entering Syria, and she had an active and high profile pro-Islamic State social media profile during her time there. She too ended up in a camp in Syria after her Islamic State dream ended in the dusty fields of Baghouz.

Duman was Islamically married to three Australian Islamic State fighters during her time in Syria, all of whom are believed to have been killed. As far as is known, she had one child each to the second and third Islamic State fighter to whom she was married.

Certainly the children on the face of it would be eligible for Australian citizenship, even if their mother lost hers. But exactly what to do with them is just one of the difficult decisions for the government, for Zehra Duman and her family, as well as for the families of the dead Islamic State fighters back in Australia.

The legal and moral morass that Duman and others created through their actions on behalf of, and loyalty to an intolerant, violent terrorist group now have to be traversed, slow time, by governments and courts.

The New Wave of Middle-East Media Repression

In an opinion piece published in Project Syndicate, Lydia Khalil describes how the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have suppressed unfavorable information to hold on to power. But the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon suggest that this approach has limits in political systems that depend on power-sharing arrangements.

Typology of Terror — The Backgrounds of Australian Jihadis

In order to better understand what motivates Australian radical islamists to join or support a terrorist group it is first necessary to get a better understanding of who they are.  This working paper examines data sets from 173 Australian citizens and residents to paint a picture of our own cohort of radical Islamist terrorists, including how likely they are to be rehabilitated. For the accompanying infographic feature accompanying this report, click here.

Shot down over Syria

The downing of a Russian Su-25 aircraft this week marks the second aircraft lost to MANPADS surface-to-air missiles in six weeks. At the end of December, militants shot down a Syrian L-39 aircraft near Hama.

Russias response has been swift and severe, conducting multiple airstrikes in areas controlled by the Islamist group who shot down the plane. Having announced a military withdrawal in December, and with a presidential election in March, Vladimir Putin could never countenance anything other than an increased punitive bombardment of the rebels.

There will be further repercussions as a result of this, of course. Russian officials will be trying to determine the source of the missile that downed its aircraft, in order to plug any new supply lines into Syria. There are also reports that the safe-flying height will be increased, which will impair the accuracy of airstrikes in the future.

But the pilot’s defiant last stand highlights a small but militarily interesting point. Roman Filipov, who appears to have survived the ejection, fought against the jihadis with his pistol before detonating a grenade in preference to being captured. This account appears to tally with this video purporting to show the point at which he detonates the grenade. The rock looks like the only available cover the pilot could have sought, and it features in another video (not shown here) that shows Filipov’s body with his right hand missing.

One question that sprang to my mind was how the downed pilot was able to access the hand grenade he used, given it’s not something one normally associates with a pilot’s survival kit. With the prospect of being captured by jihadis on the ground in mind, Dutch pilots have recently forsaken the 9mm pistol for the MP9 sub-machine gun. Still, carrying explosive ordnances, such as grenades, in the cockpit seems a strange thing to do.

But someone referred me to this video taken by a Russian news crew covering life at the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. Lo and behold, one pilot takes the reporter through his survival vest, showing him his 9mm pistol and magazines and then pulling out … two hand grenades.


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