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Islamic State fighters wanting to return home to Australia need help, say experts

Australian jihadists who regret travelling to the Middle East and joining extremist fighters should be given a pathway home and put through deradicalisation programs, even if their return meant likely jail time, according to counter terrorism and defence experts.

Terrorism and radicalisation specialist Clarke Jones, a Australian National University visiting fellow, said the government should fund deradicalisation programs but warned deprogramming extremists was easier said than done.

Australian officials fear that more than 20 Australian jihadists have already returned from abroad in a militarised state.
Australian officials fear that more than 20 Australian jihadists have already returned from abroad in a militarised state. Photo: AFP

"I believe there would be Australian fighters who are disenchanted," he said.

"Without a doubt they are given by ISIL a glamourised view of what joining would be like and the internet videos have desensitised them to barbarity. It spreads the notion that ISIL is your friend and you will be looked after in the new caphilate.

"The reality is very different."

At least 60 Australians are among foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq and some are suspected to want desperately to return to their lives in Australia after discovering Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL, did not live up to the promises of its propaganda.

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Professor Peter Neumann, of Kings College, London, said this month he had been contacted by a group of British jihadis who believed they had made a mistake in joining IS but were fearful of returning to the United Kingdom and facing 30 years in jail.

The federal government has allocated an extra $64 million to measures to counter violent extremism and radicalisation, including engagement programs to prevent young Australians becoming involved with extremist groups. 

Former chief of Army and director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra director Peter Leahy said deradicalisation should be an essential part of Australia's long-term strategy.

"Overseas there are several deradicalisation programs," he said.

"Saudi Arabia has been some working respectfully with these guys to reintegrate them and they have had some successes and some failures.

"It needs to be part of our strategy to counter radical Islam."

Dr Jones said returning jihadis should not be sent to maximum security prisons.

"You cannot kill somebody and then say 'I'm sorry'," he said. "But the worst thing we could do is send them to solitary confinement. Except for extreme cases, they need to be in with the mainstream prison population because it forces them to mix with people who do not share their views and over time people change to survive in prison.

"It also gets them away from those influences in their lives that led them to be radicalised in the first place."

Australian officials fear that more than 20 Australian jihadists have already returned from abroad in a militarised and brutalised state.

The Foreign Fighters Bill currently before the Senate would make it an offence to enter or remain in a declared terrorist zone.

Attorney-General George Brandis said this month he did not want hardened fighters coming home but stated those who had not committed atrocities would be welcome.

"If we could stop youngsters, teenagers, from falling into the snares of ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra or other terrorist organisation through parental intervention and other strategies then we hope to be able to rescue them before they commit these crimes," he said.