This was originally published by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .
As Adam Brookman returns to Australia, the first Australian known to have been located with ISIS (voluntarily or otherwise) and then repatriate, what could or should his treatment mean for future returnees? And more specifically, are criminal charges the appropriate response? Or should the Government seek to use his experiences as part of a de-radicalisation program or as an intelligence download?
Making too many assumptions on this case based on the information available so far would be dangerous. Taken at face value, Brookman is deserving of sympathy. But he’s also had the advantage of getting his defence in first via the media. Given the publicity the case will undoubtedly attract, I’d hope that the speed with which the AFP has pressed criminal charges correlates with confidence in securing a conviction (even if the AFP’s request for extra time indicates that they don’t have sufficient evidence yet).
But even if prosecution is achievable, is it desirable?
Prime Minister Abbott’s statements on returning foreign fighters have left little room for equivocation. Australia will take a hard line against anyone traveling to declared areas in Syria and Iraq; returnees should expect to be pursued through the criminal justice system.
Will the possibility of jail time deter potential travelers from leaving for the Middle East? Given that some are actively seeking martyrdom, and given the current rate of attrition for foreign fighters, I’d suggest not.
But importantly, it will and already is deterring or delaying the return of individuals who claim to be disenchanted with life in the Caliphate but who hope to avoid a lengthy jail sentence back in Australia. A successful prosecution in this case would undoubtedly help drum home the Australian Government’s message.
Conversely, an unsuccessful prosecution could send a message that new counter-terrorism legislation does not stand up to the challenges of prosecuting foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach, with significant implications for the Government’s counter-terrorism policy as a whole.
So what of the alternatives? Could Brookman instead be used for his ‘counter-terrorism propaganda value‘? This depends, to a large extent, on the veracity of his story.
If Brookman was in Syria for humanitarian reasons but was forced to provide medical assistance to ISIS fighters, then he could undoubtedly provide an insight into life under ISIS rule. And as an Australian Muslim, it’s common sense that an Australian audience will better relate to his story than those of Iraqis or Syrians with similar insights.
But will his message challenge the views of those receptive to ISIS propaganda and ideology? They would be the words of an ISIS victim, not someone who has pursued violent Islamism and then rejected it. Brookman’s story could still be extremely relevant to the counter-terrorism message. But I’m not sure whether his experiences will dissuade other Australians from making altogether different mistakes.
Any discussion of Brookman’s value as an intelligence source would be speculative at best. But suffice to say that, while a download of his time in Syria could generate unique insights into events, groups and individuals, it is a one-off opportunity. Given the publicity surrounding his case, his reported relationship with ISIS and stated views towards them, he is unlikely to be able to provide the ongoing intelligence that Australian authorities really value.
All that said, the Government response to any individual in this situation should not represent an either/or choice. Intelligence obtained from the interrogation of the individual and their electronic devices should be shared with relevant agencies.
And if Brookman has testimony that could be valuable to de-radicalisation efforts, that opportunity should be investigated too. A recent case in Germany highlighted the value this nuanced response can deliver. Alongside the pursuit of a criminal conviction for a returning foreign fighter, the authorities also offered him the opportunity to share his negative experience of life in Syria and Iraq with the general public (via the media).
While the impact of one testimony alone will be limited, Australia needs to harness these opportunities to create a tapestry of stories that can be used to strengthen the counter-Islamist message, even if, in exchange, we may need to offer a degree of sentencing leniency.
Although using Adam Brookman as a case study to understand how Australia could or should respond to future foreign fighters is understandable, it perhaps misses the point. He may be the first ‘ISIS returnee’, but the choices we make shouldn’t dictate or limit our future options, even if they may impact on the likelihood of other Australians returning.
So the decision to arrest and charge Adam Brookman should have limited impact on how, for example, Tara Nettleton is treated if she returns from Syria. Every circumstance will present unique threats or opportunities. But wherever possible, the Government should seek to combine its policy options, ensuring that the threat posed by returning foreign fighters is mitigated by the counter-terrorism benefits they might deliver.
David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.