Analysts say al-Qaeda-linked groups are jeopardising the country’s internal security.
Adelaide, Australia – “I’ve lost friends in that conflict zone,” says the young man who only gave his name as Abdul.
“I know a guy who was a former Australian soldier and he left. We started playing soccer together on the weekend. He used to get all of us together. Now I know it was because he wanted to get fit to go fight in Syria.
“I know another guy who used to come to the same mosque as me and pray every morning, and the fella picked me up from the house. Nice guy. Next thing I know he was in a [war] video that had gone worldwide.”
Abdul does not speak to his friends any more. Though he sometimes sees their social media posts, he does not see the point in trying to communicate.
“What’s the point in talking to them? They’re doing what they’re doing and I’m doing what I’m doing,” he says.
Asked how he feels about his friends going off to serve as foreign fighters in a distant war, Abdul reserves judgement.
“That’s between them and God.”
‘Could have happened to me’
Abdul is in his early 20s and was once thought to have been travelling to Syria to fight. He denies this was the case, and instead says he was involved in humanitarian work.
Radicalisation and extremism have always been a part of society and really you need those people on the fringes to push change and change paradigms.
Humanitarian work and study are two stories often told by people looking to slip into paces such as Syria or Iraq to fight. This, says Abdul, is what gave his family the wrong impression.
The experience was painful for Abdul and his family, which makes him reluctant to speak about what happened. But even now he is aware of how easily everything may have turned out differently.
“I’ll be honest,” says Abdul, “it could have happened to me.”
Per capita, Australia remains one of the biggest contributors of foreign fighters to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, along with other small countries such as Belgium.
It is a phenomenon that has caused concern among authorities who, despite having set aside $13.4 million for a “countering violent extremism” programme.
Understanding the problem
Unlike Belgium, Australia does not have a network of recruiters working to funnel fighters to the Middle East. Instead, the decision is usually one of individual initiative.
When they are discovered, those who make this a decision are often a source of fascination and tend to be cast in official narratives as anti-social, unemployed, fringe dwellers and “losers”, struggling to fit into Arab, Muslim and Australian society.
But Abdul disagrees with this picture, telling Al Jazeera the reality is far more complex and that if authorities actually want to stem the flow of foreign fighters, the problem first needs to be properly understood.
“It’s not so simple,” says Abdul. “There’s not one major factor. There’s a combination of factors.”
“The media and the government are doing a lot of research into why people become radicalised. They say they come from broken homes, but that’s not the case. A lot of people have jobs and families. They’re married.
“These people were literate people, grown men who knew what they were doing.”
Abdul explains for those who chose to fight, the initial impulse comes from a deep desire to help protect others, particularly other Muslims, from the brutality of oppressive regimes.
The second big influence is the circle of friends a person moves in, as this creates a group dynamic where the decision of one individual to leave has a strong influence on others.
“I know a guy who died and his two brothers followed,” says Abdul. “They were building roads and working in hospitals, and then they go pick up AK-47s.”
Death of a Sheik
While Australians, such as David Hicks, may have travelled overseas to fight in conflicts such as Kosovo and Bosnia during the 1990s, Australia’s most recent experience with foreign fighters began with the death of Sheik Mustapha al-Mazoub in August 2012.
Believe it or not, the only organisation effective at countering ISIL's message is al-Qaeda.
How al-Mazoub died in Syria is an open question.
The Sheik was reportedly engaged in humanitarian work when he was killed in a rocket attack, but there are suspicions he may have been involved in fighting.
News of his death had a profound impact on the Muslim communities in Sydney and Melbourne, as Mazoub became the first in recent memory to die in a foreign conflict.
This was all the more significant for the community’s young people. While Mazoub was regarded as a hard-line preacher by authorities, he was also a respected figure among conservative young Muslims.
Though his body was never returned, a funeral was held to mark the memory of Mazoub, whose brother was then a senior member in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The effect on the community was profound.
During this time the Australian government had backed calls by the US, UK and other European powers in calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Meanwhile, reports of brutality by the Syrian government against its people were growing, helping to create an environment in which many young Australian men felt a duty to travel to Syria to help fellow Muslims.
Over time, the rise of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra attracted more aggressive groups who did not want to fight with secular forces such as FSA.
It’s these pull factors that influenced the decision of many young Muslim men to go fight, according to Zacky Mallah.
Mallah was likely the second Australian to travel overseas to a foreign conflict zone when he visited Syria with a FSA battalion in 2012 as a citizen journalist.
Prior to this, Mallah had been the first Australian to be tried under the country’s anti-terrorism laws in 2003 for what authorities claimed was a planned suicide attack, but he was later acquitted of the charges.
When asked why people travel overseas to fight and how it may be stopped, Mallah says the “dream” of an Islamic caliphate means the flow of foreign fighters is almost unstoppable.
“With respect, what global governments are trying to do, it’s hard,” says Mallah. “You go to any mosque or prayer hall and ask anyone there and ask them if they want to live under a caliphate state – and they’ll say ‘yes.’
“It’s already established in their heart.”
|Thousands of Western fighters join ISIL|
Countering this message is difficult, particularly when it comes to organisations such as ISIL, which says it has already established an Islamic caliphate.
Because of this, Mallah sees most governments as having failed in their effort to stop the flow of foreign fighters.
According to Mallah, the only organisations that have seen success in countering ISIL are other armed groups.
“Believe it or not, the only organisation effective at countering ISIL’s message is al-Qaeda,” says Mallah.
“Most of the jihadist leaders throughout the world have denounced ISIL. The leader has not been selected by a majority of Muslims. It’s a self-declared caliphate.”
Radical Mick Jagger
Anne Aly, an associate professor at Curtin University and founder of the NGO People against Violent Extremism (PAVE), told Al Jazeera part of the problem is the mistaken belief among policy circles that there is a direct link between radicalism and violence.
“Radicalism does not equal terrorism,” says Aly. “Radicalisation and extremism have always been a part of society, and really you need those people on the fringes to push change and change paradigms.
“Even Martin Luther King was called a radical. Even Mick Jagger was called a radical, by the very institution that later knighted him. So when we talk about violent extremism or the connection to violent extremism, it’s really that violent part we have to combat.”
Aly says it is important to recognise that “foreign fighters” have a long history in Western communities, and the narrative of young adults organising to fight oppressive regimes has become a core part of popular culture, as in the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games.
This point was echoed by David Connery, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who notes that during the Spanish Civil War, men and women travelled from South and North America, North Africa, Europe and Australia to fight on both sides of the conflict.
“That’s a classic instance,” says Connery. “The people who went to fight for the International Brigades were shunned as criminals at first. Over time, when it was realised they were fighting against the fascists, there was more acceptance.
“Now there are memorials to the International Brigades.”
Notably, among those fighters was English author George Orwell, famous for his dystopian novel 1984 and his earlier book, Homage to Catalonia about his time spent in Spain fighting with a Marxist militia in 1936, until he was shot in the neck by a sniper in 1937.
But Connery stresses while there are lessons to be learned from history, care should be taken not to draw historic parallels between then and now.
“Right-thinking people won’t be raising memorials for those who’ve killed with Daesh [ISIL]. It’s impossible to see any moral justification in the actions perpetuated by and for the Daesh group.
“I expect those who might try to return will instead have to answer for their crimes,” says Connery.