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“Abdullah” is worried about his teenage son.
The Melbourne man says his 17 year old has not only dropped out of school, but has changed his behaviour dramatically in the past year or so.
Before Abdullah’s son used to go to the gym and listen to young music, now he constantly talks about Shias and Sunnis, has grown a long beard and has even smashed things in the house he considers “ḥarām”or sinful.
“I’m worried … he wants to go to Syria and join those groups and he kill some innocent people and he (might) die himself,” Abdullah tells Insight.
Abdullah emigrated from Afghanistan in the early nineties to escape the destruction there and is fearful his Australian-born son has become radicalised and brainwashed.
“I never thinking of these things when I was back in my country, my son would grow up being like this.”
A recent TIME article reported that there approximately 6000 foreign fighters from nearly 50 countries who have answered the jihad call to fight in Syria. Among them are about 120 French, 100 Britons and at least 200 Australians.
Australia’s director-general of security, David Irvine estimates there are “about 60 Australians in Syria fighting for one side or the other”.
In mid-July, the Federal Government listed the Islamic State as a terrorist organisation.
“Listing the Islamic State reinforces the government’s strong message to those Australians who may wish to participate in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq … that their activities may be subject to offences with significant penalties,” Attorney General George Brandis said.
Now the government is looking at beefing up the anti-terrorism laws in the face of fears that Australians training to fight in places such as Syria and Iraq will be capable of pulling off an attack back home.
“We have some tens of people who have already returned and probably another 150 that we’re looking at in Australia who have inclinations to support those extremist movements,” Irvine said.
Australian authorities also say most of these foreign fighters are on the anti-government side to unseat Syria’s President Bashar Assad and have gravitated towards the Islamic State or other Al-Qaeda splinter groups.
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Greg Barton, director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC) told Insight he can understand Australians may feel compelled to do something about the civil unrest in the Middle East.
“It’s an incredibly sad situation in Syria and Iraq and I understand that people are moved by this and want to try (to) make it better. The question is a question of judgement, whether groups like Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS or really making it better and whether young Australians are at risk … joining these groups and ending up in trouble and perhaps harming others,” Barton said.
Since the eruption of the 2011 conflict in Syria, human rights activists believe that more than 162,000 people have been killed.
Barton says the perceived lack of international action and soaring death toll makes it more appealing for foreigners to join the ongoing conflict.
“The civil war in Syria exerted a strong pull to go and do something to try and help make a difference because of human suffering. As we heard it’s relatively easy to get to Syria particularly now via the Turkish border. There’s a struggle for hearts and minds as to who you believe.”
“No doubt there are lots of shades of grey. It’s very complex but my concern is that young Australians are getting caught up in that and their lives risk being destroyed … It’s a big concern and there [are] no easy answers but the government does have to do something to try and save people from themselves in some cases and try to limit the power of the emotive propaganda that draws people into danger,” Barton adds.