Are Australians Committing Human Rights Abuses in Syria and Iraq?

07/16/2014 03:44 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2015

The midwifery of war has given rise to "The Islamic State," the name given to the region carved out of Syria and Iraq by the group referred to as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

How did we get to this point?

In early 2013 I was told by Commander Jamil Radoon of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that the cooperation with extremist groups is necessary in order to defeat the Syrian Regime. However, he was adamant that once the war is won and the regime brought crashing down, the Free Syrian Army would banish the jihadists back to where they came from. The question that I never thought of asking him was, "where did they come from?" And I certainly never expected the answer might be "Australia."

But just 18 months later the Australian media and government are working themselves into a frenzy over Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq for Islamic jihadist groups. The U.S. has expressed concern for Australia. In an interview with CNN, President Barack Obama said the phenomena of jihadists coming "from as far as Australia to get trained and then [returning to] their home countries" was something to be gravely concerned about.

Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned that these fighters are "trained killers" who "hate our way of life" and it is important that they be stopped from re-entering the country. While I agree that their return to Australia is not conducive to our national security, we should be equally concerned about the human rights abuses that Australian members of ISIL may be committing inside the countries they operate.

ISIL have subscribed to a particularly brutal form of Islamic rule. Recently UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon said he was "deeply troubled" by reports of violations of human rights and International Humanitarian Law taking place in Iraq. The reports include summary executions of captured soldiers and minority groups as well as dozens of videos showing beheadings and shootings shared on social media. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights at the beginning of July eight FSA fighters were crucified in the main square of Aleppo for being "sahwa" or fighters controlled by western powers. In February a Syrian girl was reportedly stoned to death for opening a Facebook account. These atrocities have even disgusted the man known as "The Butcher of Baghdad," head of Al Qaeda, Ayman Al Zawahiri.

"Al Qaeda is not responsible for ISIL's actions" Al Zawahiri said in an online statement.

Particularly worrying for western governments is the group's leader, Abu Bahr Al-Baghdadi, who has been heralded by his supporters as the "leader for Muslims everywhere." And it seems his leadership extends to his Australian supporters, judging by the number of Australian Muslims the government has claimed it has knowledge of fighting in Syria and Iraq. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have said their capacity to clarify events in Syria and Iraq is extremely limited, but it believes up to 200 Australian Citizens have traveled to this Middle East to participate in jihadist operations. Government agencies are reportedly struggling to keep track of these citizens' movements.

Five young Australians from Sydney have died fighting in Syria over the past two years. In the city's western suburbs Islamist street movements and gatherings have become popular to fundraise and send money overseas to extremists. Hundreds have taken to social media to give Australian support to the jihad in Syria and Iraq. One Twitter picture showed a picture of a gun together with an Australian passport with the caption, "that one way ticket to heaven."

Perhaps the most alarming piece of evidence came in the form of a 13-minute video posted online by ISIL two weeks ago. In the video -- titled "There is no life without Jihad" -Australian Zakaryah Raad, 22, calls other young Australians to travel to Iraq and take up arms to defend the Islamic State. His message states "the reasons for coming to jihad is plenty" and cites the "Palestinians being pounded by the Jews" as one such reason. Raad speaks with a strong Australian accent as he calls his fellow Australian Muslims to "wake up." Two other Australian men appear later in the video announcing the death of Raad, who they claim was killed whilst fighting for ISIL.

The question on the lips of many Australians is why?

Why are citizens of this country traveling halfway across the world to join extremist groups? Professor Jerrold Post at George Washington University cites a "general transmission" of extremist beliefs which begins early in life; a strong sense of victimization and alienation; the belief that moral violations by the enemy justify violence in pursuit of a "higher moral condition" and the lack of political power to effect change without violence as motivating factors leading to radicalization of young people. At the same time, joining a terrorist group may provide camaraderie and a sense of significance that was otherwise missing, recruits are often promised an exciting glamorous adventure and a chance to change the world. Father of British fighters Ahmed Muthana said his sons had been "brainwashed" and that their trips has been organized by "terrorist masterminds."

Yassir Morsi, a research fellow at the International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding believes animosity towards Australia's Islamic community in the wake of 9/11 is a contributing cause:

"Islamiphoboia is not simply an irrational hatred of Islam. It is the over-determining and inappropriate heaping of suspicion on all things Islamic," Morsi said.

Morsi recently appeared on Channel Ten's The Project to share his view on the issue. Guest panelist, Steve Price bulked at Morsi's comments going as far as to say that he was "worried" that Morsi could have these opinions and hold a position as an academic at the University of Melbourne. However, Morsi's comments are not unsubstantiated -- we only need look back to the Cronulla riots to see Islamophobia at play in Australia. Contrary to Islamophobia diminishing in Australia, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh of The University of Melbourne's Asia Institute believes the actions of "a few misguided Muslims" in joining ISIL undo years off work by Islamic community organizations and ultimately plays into the hand of Islamophobes, making life harder for the Muslim citizens of Australia.

The government, acting on advice from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, has recently cancelled the passports of 20 Sydney men as a precautionary measure to prevent them from engaging in "politically motivated violence" if they travelled overseas. Attorney-General George Brandis said the arrests were "a reminder of the risks to Australia's national security from individuals who support or engage in foreign conflicts." While the government is limited in its power to curtail the acts of Australians overseas, it is important that we recognize our responsibility to the people of Iraq and Syria.

Young Australians are being recruited to fight in foreign wars for extremist groups and these same groups are responsible for human rights atrocities in Iraq and Syria. As a member of the international community Australia must have regard for the people of the countries where our citizens are participating in violence. Not only should we have concern for the actions of these fighters on their return to Australia, but it is our moral responsibility not to turn a blind eye to their actions overseas.

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