Repatriated IS women should be accountable to the state they left behind
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Repatriated IS women should be accountable to the state they left behind

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.


Much of the debate about repatriating women and children held in northern Syria following the defeat of Islamic State has centred around issues of risk. Claims that their repatriation from the camps involved an unacceptable risk to the Australian authorities tasked with retrieving them are hard to sustain, given that other Western states have done it without incident, and various NGO and media organisations have also visited the camps.

The other argument put forward against their repatriation is that of the physical risk the returnees will pose. Peter Dutton spoke about his concerns over the presence of “young males of potentially fighting age” who may be repatriated. While it is true that children as young as 13 and 14 have been charged or found guilty of terrorism offences in Australia, boys in the Syrian camps were reportedly moved from their families to male prisons from the age of 14. There is no indication at the moment that fighting-age males are being repatriated to Australia.

That leaves the risk posed by the mothers. Islamic State did not see that the role of women in their self-proclaimed caliphate involved fighting – some were required for security and policing duties, and were armed to carry out this function. A number of German women have been successfully prosecuted for providing this service. And American woman Allison Fluke-Ekren has pleaded guilty to forming Katiba Nusaybah – “the Nusaybah Brigade”, named after a woman who was one of the prophet Muhammad’s first followers – a group within IS that trained women to use weapons and explosives to defend the “caliphate”. There is no indication that its trainees were ever deployed, nor is there any indication to date that any Australian women were involved in the group.

However, it is entirely possible some Australian women were taught to fire weapons by their husbands. There are certainly photos of women, purportedly Australian, holding weapons, and women also posted photos of weapons and suicide belts stored in their homes in Raqqa. Again, the same types of photos were also taken by women in other Western countries who were convicted after being repatriated.

Islamic State were explicit in the role they saw for women. In short, it was “to instil a love of jihad and a yearning for martyrdom, and to motivate their husbands and sons to fight and shame them if they did not”. It was a role many appeared to take up with gusto. One Australian woman wrote of her role as a mother that “I want to raise lions who will be thorns in the hearts of their enemies.” Another wrote of her effort to get her children to eat their breakfast: “C’mon eat ur eggs so u can be big and strong and fight the kuffar [infidels]!”

The risk, then, is that the IS women will continue to pose an ongoing ideological – as opposed to physical – risk. In other words, how can Australians be confident that they no longer adhere to the same type of militant Salafist ideology that inspired them travel to Syria in the first place? Having joined the wrong side in a war against their own country, and being detained for several years, it is to be expected that the women will ask to return with their children to Australia.

We should be under no illusion, however, that the women are now reconstructed secular liberals. Given the dozens of trials of Islamic State supporters in Australia that have been conducted, there is now a body of case law that gives us an insight into the enduring nature of the ideology, and the difficulty an individual has in truly accepting the gravity of their actions. Of those convicted of Islamist terrorist offences in Australia in the Islamic State era, just over 10 per cent have been deemed by the courts to have been genuinely contrite, and just under a quarter were deemed to have good prospects for rehabilitation. These are sobering statistics.

It is also a strong argument for, wherever possible, prosecuting the women who left Australia as adults, whether for terrorism or prescribed area offences. We know that arrest warrants have been issued for a number of Australian women. But the narrative being proffered by their advocates and by others is that adult women were somehow tricked, coerced or forced to enter Syria. While each case must, of course, rest on its merits, claims regarding lack of agency are, on the face of it, hard to accept – more so when courts in other Western countries have largely found similar claims to have been fabricated.

Al-Qaeda affiliates were active in the Syrian uprising from 2012. Islamic State declared its “caliphate” in June 2014, calling for Muslims around the world to travel to IS-held areas of Syria and Iraq, and from September 2014 they called on their followers to kill foreigners, including Australians, wherever they found them. The idea that any adult woman could be ‘tricked’ or ‘coerced’ into travelling close enough to the Syrian/Turkish border so that she could then be ‘forced’ to cross into Syria any time after 2012, but particularly after June 2014, appears completely implausible. The idea that they would innocently take young children to southern Turkey in the same circumstances is even more implausible.

Society at large appears comfortable with repatriating the children of Islamic State parents so the rehabilitation process can commence. But it is important from a broader societal perspective that the women are held accountable for their actions and face legal action from the state that they turned their backs on. Only then can we truly judge their contrition and the public can be satisfied that adults are held accountable for the damage they and their partners did to so many innocent lives.


Areas of expertise: Middle East security issues; Political Islam; Shi’a Islam