When Parliament resumes on October 20, Prime Minister John Key will reportedly be making a major speech on security and intelligence issues. The speech is likely to indicate how New Zealand proposes to manage the security risk posed by Kiwi jihadis returning home after fighting in Syria and Iraq for the likes of the Islamic State and who have been radicalised by the experience.
There is no practical way to prevent the exodus of New Zealanders intent on fighting for IS, even if the right to travel could be legally infringed, which it almost certainly could not be. Reportedly, it is very easy to join IS by travelling to Europe and on to Turkey, where IS has a sophisticated system of social media instructions in English and particular hotels where contacts for onward passage to training camps and to the battlefront can readily be made. The only feasible way of intercepting jihadis is on the return journey, and even then – as the UK and Australia have already found out – it isn’t simple to devise a legal and effective way of intercepting such people.
Simply seizing their passports at the airport as they return – even if that was an effective way of dealing with domestic activities, which it isn’t – is not possible, as British PM David Cameron found out six weeks ago.
Removing passports from British-born citizens would break both international law and UK common law, according to a former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who said even the temporary removal of passports would likely be“a non-starter.”
The problem is not only that it would be illegal to render such people stateless, but countries could get into a self-defeating situation of ‘pass the parcel’ if many countries refused to accept back their jihadi citizens, and thereby created no place where they could be sent.
Australia’s PM Tony Abbott has advocated a typically simple solution: put them all in jail.
My unambiguous message to all Australians who fight with terrorist groups is that you will be arrested, prosecuted and jailed for a very long time,” Abbott told parliament in a statement on national security.
Australia is targeting domestic extremists as well as citizens who fight overseas with violent jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq before returning home.
The problem with Abbot’s approach is that you have to define the crime before you throw people in jail. And how do you distinguish between (a) people who went to Syria to fight for the ‘moderate’ rebels that the West supposedly supports in its struggle against the brutal Assad regime, especially when such work may entail only medical aid, refugee care and logistical support. How do you distinguish that from (b) the rapists and murderers of IS? Should there be an additional distinction between people who fight for IS, and those who fight for the al-Nusra Front, who may be linked to al-Qaeda, but who have been deadly opponents of IS, more often than not – or were so at least until the US bombing campaign started, and pushed the al-Nusra fighters towards a truce with IS?
Secondly, even if Key can satisfactorily identify the people joining the organisations of concern, how does he propose to deal with the returnees who return from Syria and Iraq sincerely wishing to be de-radicalised – especially after spending most of their time fighting each other, rather than against the neo-imperialist Satans of the West? Britain has tried to deal with this issue by founding something called the Channel programme, whereby disillusioned returnees are engaged by social workers and helped to reconnect with the community.
True, having started this flagship programme, the Cameron government has then cut much of its funding in the course of its austerity measures – but it will be interesting to see from Key’s speech if the incoming Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has any plans on how to positively engage with jihadi apostates. Conceivably, participation in a de-radicalisation programme could be made a compulsory condition of re-entry for Kiwi jihadis.
If New Zealand wants to know how to do this properly, it should be looking at Denmark. The article linked to below contains an interview with Allan Aarslev, the commander of the East Jutland police who runs the de-radicalisation programme. Denmark isn’t a soft touch. It combines a crackdown on one hand, with de-radicalisation measures on the other:
Among the many initiatives in the strategy is the confiscation of passports, travel bans or the suspension of residence permits for people going to fight in Syria, and a national hotline that provides parents with advice. Additionally, a national exit-centre will be established for people looking to get out of extremist milieus, as well as a nationwide corps of mentors, who can be connected with persons who are at risk of being radicalised, and a mobilisation unit that can assist in difficult and emergency cases regarding radicalisation.
“We will strengthen preventative measures, but we will also crack down hard with stringent consequences for those who continue down the wrong path,” [justice Minister Karen] Hækkerup said in a press release.
In his October 20 speech, Key will not only need to balance the punitive and the re-integrative elements of his government’s response, but will also need to weigh the infringements of the human rights of the returnees against the level of security risk that they actually present. In the conservative US publication Foreign Affairs, a recent article (entitled Homeward Bound? Don’t Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists) warned Western governments against the tendency to over-react.
As Foreign Affairs says, the numbers who are leaving our shores to fight are not a reliable index of the scale of the problems created by returnees. Many of the home-grown jihadis will be killed on the battlefield. Many more will not return to their country of origin. Many will be disillusioned and/or repelled by their experience.
The threat presented by foreign fighters has been exaggerated, just as it was during several other conflicts in recent years. Over the last decade, the Iraq war in particular prompted similar warnings about a possible backlash that ultimately failed to materialize. In fact, the vast majority of Western Muslims who set out to fight in the Middle East today will not come back as terrorists. Many of them will never go home at all, instead dying in combat or joining new military campaigns elsewhere, or they will return disillusioned and not interested in bringing the violence with them. Even among the rare individuals who do harbor such intentions, most will be less dangerous than they are feared to be because they will attract the attention of authorities before they can strike.
Still, the authors continue, this not an argument for complacency. It is in the nature of terrorism that only a few people with the right tools and sufficient motivation can wreak a lot of damage. On the other hand, there will always be politicians – eg Tony Abbott – who would like to inflate the risk (a) for political gain and (b) to justify the expansion of the surveillance powers of state security agencies.
That, in conclusion, is a point worth stressing. As we’ve learned ever since 9/11, when the West infringes on personal freedoms in the name of security, the terrorists win. In recent weeks, whenever the West has spoken about the need to restrict the travel rights of jihadis and to place limits on their use of social media, some of the biggest rounds of applause have come from tyrannies that do such things routinely, in order to suppress internal dissent. (BTW one of those tyrant regimes is our main trading partner – China – and it has been noticeable how quiet the Key government has been about the democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.) Note for instance, China’s response to US President Barack Obama’s initiatives against the Islamic State, and see how similar China’s position is to calls by Police authorities in the United Kingdom. Here’s China:
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embraced Obama’s initiative and made his case for targeting separatists back home. As the American leader looked on, China’s top diplomat pushed for imposing sterner measures to rein in separatist Uighurs in western China, a group Beijing frequently maligns as terrorists. Wang also joined in the call for tighter controls on terrorist financing and reinforced government controls over the use of social media to prevent suspected terrorists from attracting recruits and carrying out attacks.
And here are the British, in much the same vein:
Britons must accept a greater loss of digital freedoms in return for greater safety from serious criminals and terrorists in the Internet age, according to the country’s top law enforcement officer. Keith Bristow, director general of the National Crime Agency, said in an interview with the Guardian that it would be necessary to win public consent for new powers to monitor data about emails and phone calls.
He said: “If we seek to operate outside of what the public consent to, that, for me, by definition, is not policing by consent … the consent is expressed through legislation.”
He added that it was necessary to win “the public consent to losing some freedoms in return for greater safety and security”.
Last week the home secretary, Theresa May, backed the introduction of greater mass surveillance powers, and committed the Conservatives to implementing the communications data bill that had been blocked by the Liberal Democrats amid protests over civil liberties.
John Key, having apparently vanquished the concerns expressed recently by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, may well use his October 20 speech to validate the expansion of security agency powers, via “reform” of the SIS, and by the expansion of Police powers against returning jihadis. We can only hope that the speech will initiate a debate, and not simply be the announcement of a fait accompli.
And speaking of secrets, here’s Fred Neil on this whole freedom/ secrets thing. All we had, done and gone…