Middle East

Can Australians be stopped from fighting in Syria?

The federal government says it's trying to dissuade Australians from going to Syria to fight in that country's civil war...but can it stop them?

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The federal government says it's trying to dissuade Australians from going to Syria to fight in that country's civil war.

It follows the release earlier this week of a video online which claims to show an Australian in Syria shortly before he became a suicide bomber.

But how effective can the government's efforts be?

Santilla Chingaipe and Gary Cox investigate.

(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)

(Sound from video)

That's a clip from the video allegedly showing an Australian suicide bomber standing on the tray of a truck loaded with explosives.

The man cannot be identified in the video because his face is blurred out.

It's believed the video was posted by an al-Qaeda linked group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front.

The group claims the man identified in the video blew himself up in an attack on an army checkpoint in north-eastern Syria in September, in which 35 soldiers reportedly died.

The Australian government has classified the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation.

The group is currently fighting against the Syrian government in that country's two-year conflict.

Attorney General George Brandis told the Senate an Australian is believed to have carried out a suicide bombing in Syria.

"I'm aware of reports of that a jihadist has killed himself in a suicide bombing in eastern Syria and I can inform the Senate the Australian government understands that the individual is indeed an Australian. If that were to be confirmed, that would be the first time an Australian citizen has killed himself in a suicide bombing. This is a new and serious development."

Zaky Mallah is a dual Australian-Syrian citizen and the founder of the Australian branch of the opposition Free Syrian Army.

Mr Mallah recently went to Syria to, as he describes it, deliver humanitarian aid.

He says although he was not asked to take part in the conflict, anyone interested can do so - on either side.

"Well if they want to get themselves involved in military training, I mean, military training is available even of you want to join the government regime forces to fight against the rebels, you go to Damascus and you train. So there's training camps everywhere, not just for the opposition, but for the rebels including the government. They have training camps and it's just a matter of asking what you want to do but before they take you on board and train you, they want to make sure you're physically fit, psychologically fit. They want to make sure that you're not going to get yourself into trouble when you do return back home because they don't want to see you locked up either upon your return."

So what's prompting Australians to travel to Syria to fight?

Will Plowright is a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne's School of Social and Political Science.

Mr Plowright suggests that many Syrians in the diaspora may be frustrated that fellow Syrians face ongoing conflict with no sign of an end.

"There's no-one coming to help them (Syrians) from their perspective. There's no the Americans aren't intervening, the Europeans aren't and neither are the Australians, from their perspective. The only people are these armed groups like Al-Qaeda (in Iraq) and al-Nusra, so many people who might be seeing this from outside, to kind of understand that and they'll see a civilian population that's suffering and someone ought to do something about it and that's likely what's motivating the foreign fighters who are going over. Many people think that they've maybe been somehow brainwashed by jihadist propaganda, but that usually isn't the case. They're more often motivated by a desire, if it's misplaced to help people who are suffering."

That's a view shared by Zaky Mallah.

" It's not so much getting recruited, right, these groups are not really looking for recruitment. They don't want recruiters or people to fight for them. I think it's just a matter of when you arrive in Syria it's up to you where you want to go. It's up to you what path you want to take. Once you arrive in Syria, you can either take the path of helping out, lending a helping hand or b, you can go to the refugee camps and help down there. You can be a fighter if you want."

In its most recent report, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation highlighted concerns about the numbers of Australians going to Syria to take up arms.

ASIO says that's partly because because of deep family ties to Lebanon that exist in Australia.

"Many Australians - a significantly greater number than we have seen for any comparable conflict - have travelled to the region, including several to participate directly in combat or to provide support to those involved. As at 30 June 2013, four Australians were known to have been killed in Syria. ASIO is concerned about the potential for Australians in Syria to be exposed further to extremist groups and their ideology. Such groups include the recently proscribed terrorist organisation Jabhat al-Nusra. An individual who becomes involved in the conflict and who holds, or develops, an extremist ideology could return to Australia not only with the intent to facilitate attacks onshore but also with experience and skills in facilitating attacks. In addition, the individual's social connections with international fighters could make such attacks easier to carry out. Alternatively, such an individual could become involved in terrorist activity elsewhere, exploiting the relative travel advantages Australian citizenship brings."

Attorney General George Brandis says the government shares ASIO's concern about Australians returning home from fighting in Syria.

"The concern is not only for Australians who risk their lives overseas, but also we are concerned about the likelihood of radicalised Australians returning home with an increased commitment and capability to pursue violent acts on our shores'. The government shares the Director General's concerns about radicalised Australians who return home and pose a serious threat to Australia's national security."

Senator Brandis points out that it's a serious criminal offence for Australians to get involved in foreign conflicts.

He says the government is doing all it can to prevent Australians from going to Syria to fight.

"The Minister for Foreign Affairs may cancel the passports of anyone likely to engage in harmful conduct including travelling overseas to illegally train or to fight in the conflict. The government is looking at what other measures are necessary to discourage or deter Australians from travelling to Syria to participate in the conflict and will continue to monitor the situtation and in particular the involvement of Australian citizens."

Zaky Mallah, from the Australian branch of the Free Syria Army, says he's also discouraging anyone considering going to Syria to fight.

"There are other ways you can help the Syrian rebels, the Syrian fighters. You can help them out with aid, with money. You can support them. Even travelling to Syria and being on the frontline with them, and not fighting, but recording the situation and seeing how bad it is to see what the Syrian conflict's become and then report it back home and show your community how bad the Syrian conflict is. So I don't have a problem with people going to Syria, I don't have an issue with people being with platoons and groups who are fighting, even going to the front line, as long as you don't take up arms and fight. There's no problem in that. So the problem is that when you take up arms and fight, and if you do come back, you're facing up to 20 years imprisonment."

But Will Plowright from the University of Melbourne says it's hard to stop anyone who is determined to go and fight overseas.

"Just because of the nature of globalisation, the ease of travel, it's very difficult to stop people from travelling abroad to try to get the local authorities, let's say the Turkish government, from stopping people from crossing the border. And you also have to remember with any kind of reaction to this, if the government overreacts, then it could have counterprodcutive results. If we ended up trying to stop people from going to the Middle East, we're going to end up involving a lot of completely innocent people in any policy that's conducted."

And Will Plowright believes the general public should not be particularly concerned about fellow Australians returning from fighting in Syria.

"I don't think people need to start sort of panicking or freaking out or thinking that this is inevitably going to be some kind of danger in Australia, I don't think it is. The fact that they're going and coming back means that the Australian intelligence agencies are able to keep track of who's going over there based on who crosses the border into Syria and based on that, they're able to keep tabs on them once they're back in Australia. So even if, and this is a big if, even if they were engaged in some sort of nefarious activity upon returning, they've already been flagged and the government's able to watch them."



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