Commentary | 12 March 2016

Let’s not take Syrian-based ‘aid workers’ at their word

As the military advantage has shifted away from rebel groups in Syria to the regime and its allies, it is likely that Western jihadis operating within its borders will seek to return to their home countries, including Australia. Regardless of the legislation that has been put in place to criminalise their actions, it will be difficult for governments to prosecute people who have travelled to Syria and Iraq.

  • Rodger Shanahan

As the military advantage has shifted away from rebel groups in Syria to the regime and its allies, it is likely that Western jihadis operating within its borders will seek to return to their home countries, including Australia. Regardless of the legislation that has been put in place to criminalise their actions, it will be difficult for governments to prosecute people who have travelled to Syria and Iraq.

  • Rodger Shanahan

As the military advantage has shifted away from rebel groups in Syria to the regime and its allies, it is likely that Western jihadis operating within its borders will seek to return to their home countries, including Australia. Regardless of the legislation that has been put in place to criminalise their actions, it will be difficult for governments to prosecute people who have travelled to Syria and Iraq.

Nearly 50 Australians are believed to have been killed while fighting in Syria, 110 are still fighting, and another 160 are believed to be actively supporting the combat. Up to 40 people are believed to have returned to Australia; only one person has been charged.

Obtaining admissible evidence in war-torn Syria to establish a case is a monumental challenge. Blond-haired Oliver Bridgeman, 19, from Toowoomba in Queensland, is allegedly still in Syria and eager to return home, but his passport has been cancelled and an ­arrest warrant issued for him under the Criminal Code Act (1995) prohibition against “incursions into foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities”.

Those wishing to return from Syria — or intercepted on the way over — invariably invoke the first rule of the jihadist legal defence: describe yourself as a “humanitarian worker”. This gives a person a shot at establishing a legally acceptable reason for entering Syria. It takes advantage of the Australian foreign fighters legislation, which permits such activity even within proscribed areas.

The claim also makes it easier for supporters to humanise the ­jihadist in the eyes of the media. Details of movements, locations and affiliations are referred to only in the most general terms. Only ­selected imagery is released.

Genuine humanitarian workers will have the same imagery, featuring children and aid distribution. But they will also have a verifiable story about how they arrived at their location and with whom they worked.

This week, reports emerged of the death in Syria of another Australian citizen, Ayman Omran, the son of prominent Melbourne sheik Mohammed Omran, who is Australia’s most senior Salafist cleric. The Islamic association of which his father is leader said Ayman Omran was engaged in “humanitarian work” in Syria. No verifiable details were supplied to support the claim.

Two Australian citizens who have returned have also described themselves as aid workers and denied joining a listed terrorist group.

Mehmet Biber has claimed he went to Syria only to do aid work while on holidays, even though he is suspected of being among a group of Australian Muslims allegedly facilitated by Sydney man Hamdi al-Qudsi to fight with al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Adam Brookman, a convert to Islam, claims he went to Syria to use his medical skills to ease the suffering of the Syrian people, but was trapped into providing medical assistance in an Islamic State-controlled hospital. He is the only returnee to have been charged — with knowingly providing support to a terrorist organisation, among other things.

Some foreign jihadists have no intention of returning and no regard for who sees them in their jihadist paraphernalia. Mustapha Majzoub, the first Australian passport holder killed in Syria, was allegedly providing humanitarian assistance. Subsequent videos of his extremist preaching in Sydney and a photo allegedly of him wearing camouflage and carrying an AK-47 in Syria raised doubts about whether that was the case. Others, such as Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, revelled in their public image as jihadists. The supporters of Roger Abbas claimed the former kickboxer had been killed in crossfire at an unnamed refugee camp in Syria, while online sites claimed he was a martyr killed fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra.

When reporting such stories, the media has a duty to investigate with rigour. In the case of Bridgeman, this appears to have been lacking. In August last year, the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes screened a program on him in which it engaged an “independent documentary maker” in Syria by the name of Bilal Abdul Kareem.

Kareem allegedly retraced Bridgeman’s steps and “found” him at a refugee camp north of Aleppo, where he had been working for three months. There was no account of how Kareem found Bridgeman or in whose area of responsibility he was working, or any interviews with anyone who was administering the refugee camp or from the aid organisation running it. The shots were all neatly ­focused on the subject and on tents, or on Syrian civilians in the background. Bridgeman denied being a jihadist and spoke about wanting to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.

The program portrayed Bridgeman in a sympathetic light and included interviews with ­locals in Toowoomba who spoke about him only in positive terms. An academic from Perth proffered the idea that Bridgeman was genuine and not at all likely to be a jihadist, based on the TV interview.

Such narratives always warrant closer examination. A perfunctory check of the “independent documentary maker” reveals Kareem is a US-born Muslim convert with a degree in the performing arts and a former presenter on an Islamist television station based in Egypt. His views on a range of issues, including Syria, could quite easily be described as extreme ­Islamist.

His website states that he believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime must be replaced by an interim government comprising mostly Islamist factions, that jihadists are very mistrustful of Western governments’ commitment to the welfare of the Syrian people, and that the harsh punishments that certain countries are preparing for jihadist fighters looking to return home are meted out because they are practising Muslims.

Kareem also states that he cannot condemn the Paris attacks without at the same time condemning the French killing of innocent Muslims outside the borders of France, and that he cannot say whether Islamic State is sponsored by the CIA or Mossad.

He is perhaps not the type of person 60 Minutes should engage in the expectation that he would provide an objective story. There are a few questions we should ask of those who claim people are acting as humanitarian workers.

First, their locations. Why do these independent humanitarian workers try to enter Syria through the same infiltration routes as the jihadist fighters? Indeed, why enter Syria at all? There are millions of Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey and Jordan, and in makeshift shelters in Lebanon. There is no shortage of hands-on humanitarian work to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. It should meet their criteria for peaceful religious duty; it is also legal and, by and large, open to government and media scrutiny.

Second, the path towards ­humanitarian work. In this era of globalised communications, it is reasonable to expect that individuals should be able to show a trail of communications with humanitarian agencies supporting Syrians outside Syria, or with groups that may operate inside Syria. They should also be able to provide the names of people from the humanitarian aid groups that facilitated their entry into Syria.

While the absence of evidence does not necessarily prove anything, the absence of a verifiable pattern of travel and behaviour should raise serious questions.

Third, who they are working with. Bridgeman claims to be working with the charity Live Updates from Syria and posts photos on social media of himself surrounded by children. The group is run by British national Tauqir Sharif, an activist who resides in Syria with his British convert wife, and who has posted pictures of himself giving the one-fingered tawhid (unity of God) sign often used by jihadists from Islamic State and al-Nusra.

Live Updates also has links with the British-based Muslim charity One Nation, and Bridgeman has been photographed in a One Nation hoodie, delivering boxes bearing the One Nation logo.

Finally, why are some humanitarian workers able to operate freely in rebel-held Syrian territory? Given ­jihadist groups’ proclivity for kidnapping Westerners and holding them to ransom for large sums of money, it is more than strange that a blond Australian teenager is left alone.

After all, European aid workers and European, American and Japanese reporters have been kidnapped, while aid workers such as the American Kayla Mueller and the Briton Alan Henning were killed in Syria after short periods of captivity.

Bridgeman has claimed he has good relationships with rebel factions that protect him from kidnapping, but there must be a reason he has been able to establish such relationships.

Last week, Islamist gunmen in Yemen killed four nuns working at a home established for the elderly by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden. Adopting an inquisitorial approach towards those claiming to be humanitarian workers in Syria is the least we can do for those who have sacrificed their lives while carrying out genuine humanitarian work.