Much has been written in the last few days about what to do with returning jihadis, a conversation sparked by the three jihadis who it is claimed want to return home to Australia. The lawyer of Adam Brookman, one of the alleged jihadists, has predictably stated that he was simply a medic and that his return could be a golden opportunity for Australian authorities to use him in a 'countering violent extremism' (CVE) role.
The Guardian has written an unquestioning account of Brookman's time in Syria. There are many holes left unexplored in his story. We're told he met an unnamed Australian 'humanitarian worker' in Turkey who somehow had the expertise to infiltrate him into Syria; that he had his passport stolen; that he only drove ambulances in Aleppo and treated injured people; that his wounds were caused by a Syrian regime bombing of the medical clinic where he was working, and that he was transported unconscious to an ISIS-controlled area. The only cliché missing is that he worked in an orphanage with sick children. Readers would be well advised to treat such accounts sceptically, as should the journalists who question such people.
The ability to appropriately punish those jihadis who return is of course dependent on the ability of prosecutors to gather enough admissible evidence to secure a conviction, as well as the view of the courts as to what sentence is appropriate for the actions of these people. The first court case involving a returned jihadi will be heavily scrutinised for this reason.
Regardless, the PM is right in arguing for tough penalties for people who have gone to Syria and Iraq believing they should fight to establish or maintain an intolerant religious state that looks to expand its control through violence.
A fundamental precept of the international system is that the state retains a monopoly on the use of force, and anyone who seeks to circumvent that principle through joining or supporting violent non-state actors should expect the state to punish them for doing so. People who seek to return may be disillusioned, misguided or naïve but we are not talking about returning tax evaders or vulnerable people who were duped into being drug mules. We are talking about people who support the violent imposition of religious rule and who believe that God not only condones violence but in some instances is pleased by it. The concept is abhorrent and people must be held responsible for their actions.
This article in The Australian advocates a 'triage' system to separate hard-core fighters from the merely disillusioned. But such a triage system already exists insofar as the court is able to exercise discretion in the punishment it imposes on people convicted of supporting the jihadist cause. Those more peripheral are given appropriately lighter punishments, but they are punished nevertheless.
That does not mean such people shouldn't be part of any CVE program – indeed the opposite is true. There will always be a suspicion that someone who negotiates a return to Australia and is willing to take part in CVE program has only done so to avoid punishment or have it reduced. Someone who is serving a prison term but who still wants to dissuade people from becoming jihadis is more likely to be motivated by a genuine desire to stop others from repeating their mistakes, while the targets of their message will be able to see that there is a cost to going down the extremist path.