The citizen as enemy combatant: dealing with foreign terrorist fighters

Women and children from IS flee Baghouz, VOA via Wikimedia Commons
Author name: 
Carroll, J.

Key points

  • Foreign terrorist fighters are a complex problem: traitor, invader, child soldier, war criminal, ‘jihad by family’. Some are both perpetrators and victims of terrorism.
  • Prosecution is problematic because it’s hard to get evidence, and foreign fighters aren’t returning. If brought home to face justice, their presence may increase the terrorist threat.
  • The public debate incorrectly distinguishes between combatants and others, especially women, and oversimplifies how authorities deal with them. This feeds the terrorist narrative.
  • Australia has a comprehensive approach to dealing with foreign terrorist fighters but this is not communicated well publicly.

Policy recommendations

  • Australian counter-terrorism officials should publicise Australia’s approach to foreign fighters and use case studies to illustrate the range of roles, including women and children, and the individual nature of each case.
  • The Australian Government should explain how Australians may be prosecuted by countries where crimes were committed, and also publicise Australia’s support for international efforts including the United Nations Investigative Team examining IS war crimes, and the International Criminal Court.
  • Commonwealth, state and territory governments should provide anonymised case studies on disengagement programs, including how these would work for foreign fighters and their dependents who might return to Australia.
Publication file: 
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Updated:  17 October 2021/Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/Page Contact:  Web administrator