Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbot on Tuesday talked down the possibility of homesick Australian foreign fighters returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, warning that they could pose a threat at home.
At least three Australians were suspected of fighting with terrorists in Syria and were secretly negotiating with the Australian government to come home, The Australian newspaper reported.
Robert Stary, a lawyer for one of the three, said the government should regard his client, who uses the name of Abu Ibrahim, not just as a potential terrorist, but also as a valuable resource to help de-radicalize young Australians.
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Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not directly say whether any foreign fighter would be allowed to return. But he ruled out any indemnity from prosecution for disillusioned jihadis in return for counseling against Islamic State propaganda.
“A crime is a crime, and if you go abroad to break Australian law, if you go abroad to kill innocent people in the name of misguided fundamentalism and extremism, if you go abroad to become an Islamist killer, well, we are hardly going to welcome you back into this country,” Tony Abbott told reporters.
“If you go abroad to join a terrorist group and you seek to come back to Australia, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted, you will be jailed because the Australian people expect their country to be safe, and someone who has been a terrorist abroad could very easily become a terrorist here in Australia,” he added.
Australian Federal Police said in their statement that they were “aware of a small number of Australians who have made approaches to return” from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.
The Australian government canceled the passports of suspected terrorists, it would be jihadis at home and preventing foreign fighters from returning.
Stary told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that his client was a trained nurse who worked as a medic in camps run by the Free Syrian Army and Nusa Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Stary said he could not confirm media reports that his client was a former Islamic State supporter named Ibrahim who gave an interview to the US television network CBS in February in which he described seeing crucifixions and people being stoned to death during his six months with the militants.
“It’s not all military parades or victories,” Ibrahim told CBS.
Stary said his client’s passports were canceled. Negotiations were made with The Australian Federal Police to bring his client back to Australia and about the potential punishment he faced had stalled after several weeks, he said.
Ibrahim had escaped from the Islamic State group and was believed to be in Turkey, The Australian reported.
Australian security agencies suspect that 30 Australians have already returned from Syrian battlefields, but none can be charged with terrorism offenses because of a lack of evidence.
The London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence estimates that between 100 and 250 Australians have joined Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria.
Terrorism expert Greg Barton, acting director of the Center for Islam, and the Modern World said Australia would eventually have to repatriate and prosecute many of them rather than leave them stranded without passports overseas.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said returned foreign fighters would be valuable in explaining to vulnerable young Australian men the reality of the Islamic State group’s culture of violence, sexual slavery and brainwashing.