'Take responsibility' for your Islamic State fighters, America urges Morrison government
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'Take responsibility' for your Islamic State fighters, America urges Morrison government

The United States has urged the Morrison government to “take responsibility” for Australian Islamic State fighters captured in the Middle East and bring them home to prosecute or rehabilitate them.

The US position stands in contrast to the views of senior government ministers, who have insisted they want to keep Australian so-called “foreign fighters” at a distance including by stripping them of their citizenship when possible.

Several Australian members of the so-called Islamic State are in the custody of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force, which has decimated the terrorist group with the backing of US special forces.

When asked whether the United States would prefer Australia repatriate and prosecute its jihadists in Kurdish custody, a US embassy spokesman said that “repatriating foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin is the best solution to prevent them from returning to the battlefield”.

“The US government’s policy is to encourage nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens and take responsibility for their [foreign fighters] through rehabilitation programs or other measures that sufficiently prevent detainees from re-engaging in terrorism,” the spokesman said.

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The Kurdish military force known as the YPG, which forms the backbone of the SDF, urged the Morrison government last week to take back Australian terrorists, with a spokesman warning that “democracy has a price”.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s office declined to respond to the latest comments by the US, saying the Morrison government’s position was already clear.

In response to the Kurdish calls, Mr Dutton’s spokeswoman last week said the government was “determined to deal with these people as far from our shores as possible and ensure that any who do return do so with forewarning and into the hands of appropriate agencies”.

Perth doctor Tareq Kamleh is one  Australian  Islamic State fighter whose fate remains uncertain.

Perth doctor Tareq Kamleh is one Australian Islamic State fighter whose fate remains uncertain.

European countries, which have many more Islamic State fighters than Australia, have also been reluctant to heed calls to drag their jihadists back for prosecution.

Andrew Zammit, a respected terrorism researcher based at Monash University, said Australia should try harder to repatriate and prosecute its fighters, given the pressures that already existed on the SDF.

“There are no easy options, but I think the Australian government should make more efforts to prosecute them here,” he said.

“The SDF are not a recognised sovereign government, and will not necessarily be able to hold on to their territory permanently, let alone their prisoners. Leaving them in SDF hands means Australia won’t be able to control what happens to them.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has not expressed enthusiasm for dragging Australian jihadists home to prosecute them.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has not expressed enthusiasm for dragging Australian jihadists home to prosecute them.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“They might be released to Islamic State or another jihadist group in a prisoner swap, or they could disappear, which happened with one British Islamic State suspect held by a Syrian rebel group.”

The SDF had an ad-hoc judicial system but its capacity was very limited, he said.

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There were challenges to prosecuting Australians who’d joined Islamic State in Syria or Iraq at home, but the government had passed a range of laws since 2014 to make it easier, Mr Zammit said.

The Coalition has also introduced laws to strip Australian terrorists of the citizenship if they have a second nationality.

US President Donald Trump has previously tweeted that countries should take their foreign fighters back, but directed his remarks at European nations, who have hundreds of their nationals in Syria and Iraq.

The US has been criticised by some commentators for hypocrisy, given it has stated it is barring the American-born “ISIS bride” Hoda Muthana from returning to the US.

David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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