The pointlessness of no return for foreign fighters
The photograph could be a typical family snapshot of a loving mother with her four young children. They are seated, and the woman, a black veil over her dark face, rests her arms around the shoulders of the four children, a baby on her knee. On closer inspection, however, something isn’t right. The children look terrified. The woman looks as though she is imploring the person behind the camera for help.
Her name is Shukee Begum. A British woman born in Somalia, she is believed to have left Britain to join Daesh in Syria some time in the past 18 months. Now that her husband, a fighter with the group, has been killed, she wants to come home.
After showing us the picture, an activist with the anti-Daesh group Eye on the Homeland, Ahmad Abdul Kader, snatches it back and stuffs it into a file, returning it to a draw under his oversized desk.
Kader’s office is a smoke-filled room in the back streets of the Turkish city of Şanlıurfa, on the Syrian border, the closest Turkish city to Daesh’s self-declared Syrian capital, al-Raqqa. Şanlıurfa has become a hub for foreign jihadists crossing the border, and Syrian refugees escaping the fighting next door. It is not uncommon to see men dressed in Afghan-style military garb walking the streets or catching public transport, and the city has a dark feeling of suspicion and dread, beyond the oppressive August heat.
As Kader details his work facilitating the transfer and removal of disillusioned Daesh fighters and their families from Daesh territory, he chats on Facebook distractedly. Two plastic models of the Eiffel Tower sit alongside his nameplate on the desk. The green and black flag of the Free Syrian Army hangs behind him and a fan hums uselessly from the corner. It’s dangerous work. Kader says threats from Daesh operatives inside Turkey mean he no longer travels to the office without armed guards.
“I have helped 12 muhajireen [foreign fighters supporting Daesh or the al-Qaeda branch Jabhat al-Nusra] to get out of Syria, including French,” he says.
“Twenty-five more are ready to leave. Many want to defect. A lot.”
Kader says he is in contact with dozens of foreigners who, after succumbing to the propaganda of a utopian existence in Daesh’s caliphate, are horrified at the appalling conditions once they arrive.
“The first reason [they want to leave] is that there are people who are truly coming to fight for jihad, which is the Islamic aspect. But when they get on the ground and see that ISIS [Daesh] is following a certain agenda that has nothing to do with Islam, they don’t want to be part of it,” he says.
“The second reason is that most of the muhajireen are coming because they think that they will be treated like princes or warriors… Then they see the harshness of battle. It’s nothing like the propaganda that ISIS is trying to sell.”
Defection from Daesh is dangerous and difficult. Daesh confiscates the passports of those who arrive and operates closely monitored checkpoints of anyone exiting or entering its territory. It operates a highly effective security state with intelligence and police apparatus deployed to monitor every movement of residents. The punishment for suspected traitors is death.
But the third obstacle to leaving rests outside Daesh’s territories, in the defector’s home countries. Most Western states, including Australia, see the returnees as a national security threat and do not want them back. Kader says the British government, and other governments of those he has helped escape, have not paid a cent towards the costs involved in repatriating their citizens.
“Most of the governments behind these people don’t take it seriously. They are happy to keep them there. It’s costing a lot of money to get these people out and there is no support. I am paying out of my own pocket,” he says.
“I spent the last few weeks telling the Saudi government about a defector who wanted to come out and the Saudi government hasn’t even responded.
“All the international community knows that ISIS is facing many defections. But these governments feel these civilians are a national security threat and they don’t believe there is a change in their mentality. They would prefer to keep them in Syria.”
Shukee Begum and her children were smuggled to a “safe area” of Syria before being transferred through a chain of people smugglers across the border to Turkey. Kader says British authorities have been made aware of her case and she is expected to be returned to Britain. It is unclear whether she will face terror charges there.
“They are terrified,” Kader says of the family. “They only speak English and if they were caught leaving, ISIS would certainly execute them. If they stay in Turkey, ISIS will also target them.”
The case echoes that of Australian woman Tara Nettleton, the wife of notorious jihadist Khaled Sharrouf, who posed in a photograph with his son holding a severed head and was possibly injured or killed in a drone strike in May. Nettleton’s mother has made a public plea to authorities to help her daughter and her five children – the eldest of whom was, at 14, forced to marry Sharrouf’s fellow jihadist Mohamed Elomar – leave Syria and return to Australia. Negotiations are understood to be under way regarding the family’s repatriation, but the question of whether the children, who had no say over their parents’ decision to take them to Syria, should be allowed to be rehabilitated in Australia` or treated as dangerous criminals has ignited a national debate.
The latest case, involving the sole Daesh member to return to Australia last month, nurse Adam Brookman, who is now facing terrorism charges, has intensified the debate about what to do with returning fighters as the government considers suspending the citizenship of even single passport holders involved in terrorism.
But the cases have also highlighted the potential counterpropaganda value of returnees. The current trend in thinking among analysts is that counter-narratives and reverse propaganda are more effective in dissuading would-be jihadists from leaving than coercive measures. Those who have seen Daesh firsthand and rejected it may have added value in terms of dissuading other potential recruits.
But, currently, if they do return, there is limited scope for these messages to get out, given they will most likely face prison under new foreign fighter legislation that makes it an offence to travel to certain conflict zones, including al-Raqqa, or engage in any activity in the service of a designated terrorist organisation. And that is if they are able to return at all.
Nettleton’s lawyer, Charles Waterstreet, has suggested Brookman and similar returnees could be “helpful” in persuading others not to go, and New South Wales counterterrorism police have told The Saturday Paper they hope to utilise returnees to dispel the “myth” of Daesh propaganda.
For now, the fate of Begum and her children, along with potentially hundreds of other would-be defectors, lies in the hands of intermediaries such as Kader. He is exasperated, believing that with more assistance, governments could break the back of Daesh.
“At least 20 to 25 people would defect weekly if all the governments supported us,” he says.
“If we had consular support, we could ensure that ISIS would collapse.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2015 as "The pointlessness of no return". Subscribe here.