Middle East

Australians flocking to Syrian front line, warn experts

Members of Jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo on July 19, 2012. (AAP)

Some experts say there are more Australians journeying to Syria to participate in the ongoing conflict than any other Western nation. So why are they going and what will they do with the experience?

Throughout the duration of the three-year Syrian civil war, one of the major concerns among Western powers has been the influx of foreign fighters.

According to a recent estimate by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, there could be up to 11,000 of these fighters.

The majority are veterans from the Arab Springs of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Then there are the Islamist volunteers from Somalia, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen.

And then there are those from the land Down Under.

It is a difficult image to grasp that one day you could be swimming at one of Sydney’s pristine beaches and the next, you’re crossing into the world’s most dangerous and deadly war zone with a Kalashnikov in hand.

While other Western nations such as Britain and France also have what is considered a worrying presence in Syria, there are reportedly more Australians offering to participate in the conflict, either as mercenaries or volunteers, than any other Western nation, some experts believe.

Their involvement is causing the government to worry that returning fighters could be hard-lined radicalised Islamists, with the potential to launch an attack on home soil.

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The number of Australians killed in Syria's civil war is at least 15 - double the number previously reported. The claim comes from a prominent member of the country's Syrian community. He says there is no shortage of Australian support for the Syrian rebels - and that that support is being grossly under-reported.

Dr David Malet, associate director of the Melbourne School of Government, who recently published a book about recruits to overseas insurgencies, said there were estimations that about 200 Australians had gone to Syria. About 100 are still active there, he added.

'No one knows just how many Australians have gone to Syria [but] only about half a dozen have been reported to be killed, so if these numbers are accurate, many have already returned, or they have gone on to be foreign fighters in Iraq or elsewhere,' he said.

Not all experts agree however on the extent of Australia’s involvement in Syria.

Andrew Zammit, from Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre, said Australia had between the fifth and tenth highest number of fighters compared to other Western countries.

Zaky Mallah, who was the first Australian to be charged and acquitted under Australia’s anti-terrorism laws, has deep ties to Syria.

He said the majority of Australians in Syria were dual Lebanese-Australian citizens, with 70 per cent known by authorities, media reports suggested.

'The Lebanese youth here feel disadvantaged, isolated, and they feel discriminated against,' he said.

'Many [are] unemployed and have turned to religion as a result. Many Lebanese youth have turned to Salafi ideology because it is helpful to counter the struggles of life here in Australia. Many Australian Lebanese youth will find themselves ideologically ‘connected' with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.'

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In 2005, 20-year-old Zaky Mallah became the first person to be charged under Australia's anti-terrorism laws. SBS spoke with Mr Mallah in 2012 after he spent two weeks in Syria on the frontline with Free Syrian Army fighters.

As experts were quick to point out, most of the Westerners who have gone to fight in Syria have not joined the moderate, Western-backed opposition, which is largely fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Rather, they have joined the extremist, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that welcome foreign fighters, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have been labelled as terrorist organisations by the Australian government.

Dr Malet said there was no evidence that other countries with large Lebanese communities were sending the numbers of foreigner fighters to the conflict like Australia was.

'The explanation probably lies with the effectiveness of the recruitment networks within Australia and their contacts in Turkey and Lebanon, who help facilitate entry,' he said.

'Lebanese Australians have also previously been foreign fighters in Lebanon, and Somalia and involved in domestic terror plots in Sydney, so there are no doubt active connections to some of the armed groups in Syria.

'Foreign fighters volunteer when effective recruiters tell them that they are part of a global group that is under extreme threat and that they have a duty to intervene because no government is doing the right thing.'

Most of the Westerners are self-radicalised, experts added, learning from YouTube videos and being influenced by social media. They travel mostly to Turkey where they meet rebel facilitators before entering Syria.

Joseph Wakim, former Victorian Multicultural Affairs Commissioner and founder of the Australian Arabic Council, said the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon and the series of political assassinations in the tiny east Mediterranean country had fuelled divisions in Australia between those for and against Syria.

'The anti-Assad street marches in Australia’s capital cities over the last two years tended to be a magnet for mainly Lebanese, not Syrian, protestors who may have seen the uprisings within and beyond Syria as payback for their brutality and occupation,' he added.

The recent reported deaths of Yusuf Ali and his 22-year-old wife Amira Ali from western Sydney took the number of Australians believed to have been killed in Syria to eight.

However, the exact death toll of Australians is impossible to verify.

In a bid to deter Australians going to Syria, immigration minister, Scott Morrison, recently signaled that those fighting in Syria could lose their citizenship.

At the same time, the Australian Federal Police said those who return from fighting in Syria would be treated as a national security threat. Penalties for participating in the conflict could result in up to 20 years’ jail.

In previous months, Australian counterterrorism operatives have also been dispatched to Beirut and Turkey, while surveillance has been stepped up in Australia.

Arrests continue to be made and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has continued to confiscate passports from Australians suspected of traveling for terrorist purposes. It confiscated 18 passports from mid-2012 to mid-2013, the largest number in any year, experts said.

Mr Mallah however doesn’t believe the government’s efforts would be enough to deter those wanting to fight in Syria.

'If a Muslim’s ideology is strong, then imprisonment means nothing. It is no deterrent. He or she would rather stay in Syria until martyrdom. It is not worth coming back to jail,' he said.

Despite such measures, the government continues to voice its concerns that the experience, new skills, ideologies and connections formed on the battlefront could see fighters pose a threat to national security when they return.

Just a few days ago, Attorney General George Brandis said the threat of a terror attack on Australian soil remained real.

Last February, Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer released a paper showing that 1 in 9 Westerners who fight in foreign jihadist insurgencies ends up becoming involved in terrorist plots back home.

Dr Malet stressed that research on foreigner fighters was still a new field, adding that other studies had shown most foreign fighters resume their previous lives as long as they are provided amnesty.

'However, in 2009, four Australian citizens returning from Somalia were arrested plotting to attack the Holsworthy Army barracks, so there is precedent for the Australian government to be concerned,' he added.

Mr Wakim said the individuals fighting in Syria were driven by a sense of moral duty to aid their Muslim brothers to 'rid Syria of an infidel secular authoritarian regime and replace it with one that upholds their brand version of pure Islam.'

'While there is no evidence of such individuals planning attacks in Australia, their recruitment activities tap into a population of Australian born and disengaged youth searching for a worthy cause and at times martyrdom,' he said.

'Given their susceptibility and obedience, I suspect that that local networks are already in place for the waging of local attacks against anyone who represents their infidel enemy.'

Mr Zammit echoed his concerns: 'It's a real possibility (an attack), based on our past history and on the experience of other Western countries.'

But with no end in sight to a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and as Western governments struggle to deal with their citizens fighting in Syria, the future remains unknown.

Sophie Cousins is an Australian journalist based in Beirut and Delhi.

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