Australia-ASEAN cooperation on terrorist repatriation and rehabilitation – too much to ask for?

To face the threat of rising extremism and returning foreign fighters in the region, AAYLF delegate from Australia Dana Throssell highlights the need for Australia and ASEAN to cooperate on developing rehabilitation programs for terrorists and at-risk individuals. But, is Australia itself willing to embrace this path forward?

Counterterrorism is hardly an under-discussed threat in the ASEAN region. Discussed at most ASEAN leaders’ meetings, cooperation on counterterrorism is a ‘safe-bet denominator for security cooperation’ amongst a minefield of other more contentious topics. Terrorism and its precursors radicalism and extremism have spread their roots deep into the ASEAN region. Networks cross borders, jump seas, and span archipelagos; making it an issue no longer able to be tackled alone.  

Yet, despite terrorism being a regional hot topic, policy makers and analysts have hesitated on the issue of increasing Australian-ASEAN counterterrorism cooperation.

Cause for concern

The main cause for concern is the ongoing struggle to find the balance between national security and individual rights. With heightened terrorist activity occurring on social media platforms, the need for disruption of online propaganda, recruitment, and discussion has increased tenfold. Strengthened online measures, however, would require greater surveillance and censorship – two words not often met with open arms.

These apprehensions are undoubtedly worth significant consideration and discussion. Regardless, there is a different form of counterterrorism that remains overlooked by ASEAN-Australian cooperation.

Current cooperation

The most recent growth in Australian-ASEAN counterterrorism occurred in 2018, when all 10 parties signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation to Counter International Terrorism, implementing the 2016 ASEAN-Australia Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism. This MoU looks to strengthen ASEAN-Australian cooperation on technical support, legislation-building, and capacity-building initiatives in key counterterrorism areas such as information sharing, law enforcement, border control, combating terror financing, and crisis response.

These efforts go a long way to secure the region against the diverse threat of violent extremism and terrorism. However, they neglect a major area: rehabilitation.

Despite considerable programs appearing among individual ASEAN nations, there was nothing said in this MoU about recent ASEAN efforts towards rehabilitating at-risk individuals or known-terrorists to prevent further radicalisation, recidivism, and the greater spread of terrorism.

Figure 1: Secretary-General of ASEAN Dato Lim Jock Hoi and Then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia Julie Bishop upon signing Counterterrorism MOU in March 2018. Source: ASEAN

Rehabilitation, disengagement, and deradicalisation are often labelled as a form of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), seen as ‘softer’ forms of counterterrorism. These programs are primarily aimed at at-risk individuals (those who have shown signs of radicalism or been exposed to radical networks) and people already convicted of terrorist crimes. These programs often go hand-in-hand with repatriation – the process of reintegrating people returning from foreign conflict zones like Syria and Iraq. These programs help them to disengage from violent networks, set up sustainable new lives, and slowly moderate their beliefs.

ASEAN has seen the beginnings of formal rehabilitation cooperation, with a clause added in the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025 to “Strengthen cooperation to enhance moderation agenda and deradicalisation initiatives … including through exchange of experiences and best practices on deradicalisation, rehabilitation and re-education to prevent and suppress terrorist acts.”

Some individual Southeast Asian nations have proved their individual expertise in these areas:

Utilising the region’s bourgeoning interest in deradicalisation and rehabilitation, it is the perfect time for Australia and ASEAN to cooperate on these initiatives. Literature and policy surrounding these areas are still emerging, making it an ideal time to create an Australia-ASEAN-wide approach and see these programs improved and replicated across the region. More importantly, rehabilitation and disengagement programs also work to directly counter the threat posed by the large influx of returning foreign fighters and general rise in extremism seen across the region.

But there is a major question remaining regarding the potential for heightened deradicalisation cooperation: if ASEAN seeks replication of these programs across the region, would Australia join in?

Figure 2: Then Singaporean President Tan with leaders and members of the Religious Rehabilitation Group. Source: Strait Times, Ariffin Jamar

Regardless of enthusiastic regional cooperation on other more material forms of counterterrorism, the Morrison government has taken a particularly defensive stance on ex-terrorists and the return of foreign fighters.

New laws have seen Australians with suspected links to terrorist networks being barred from Australia for up to 2 years. Peter Dutton has called for DNA tests on returning Australians to ‘prove their citizenship’ and denied national responsibility over these individuals, regardless of their willingness to participate in those conflicts. The current government seems content on shutting the borders to any and all former-Australians returning from Iraq and Syria.

Australia’s national approach to the deradicalisation of domestic terrorists is far from coherent, occurring mainly at the discretion of state governments. New South Wales has some state-run deradicalisation programs for convicted terrorists, but there remains a huge disparity between funding for ‘harder’ counterterrorism efforts and those ‘softer’ CVE efforts. The Victorian government has a similar prison-based deradicalisation program, but this too has faced serious concerns regarding its effectiveness. Overall, Australia is lacking in targeted programs that intervene for those already radical or at-risk.

The Australian government’s position on this issue is that it is ‘too risky.’ It is too risky to work with at-risk youths or communities to deradicalise them and it is too risky to allow the return of Australians from Middle Eastern conflict zones.

The Australian government needs to take a leaf out of ASEAN nations’ book and recognise that it is too dangerous to not rehabilitate and disengage these individuals already in Australia, lest they recidivate, radicalise others, and attack again.

Figure 3: Sydney man meets with his daughter, Mariam, and three grandchildren in al-Hawl camp. Source: ABC News, Dave Maguire

Further, this approach of refusing the return of these foreign fighters and related individuals from overseas dodges responsibility and leaves other governments to deal with the burden. The implemented laws would likely bar women and children from returning home, failing to consider broader questions of agency and participation. Furthermore, this rejection of former-Australian nationals presents the risk of these members remaining radical and traveling to nearby ASEAN nations, where more porous borders allow easier immigration.    

There is a long way to go to ensure the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs, but there should be no doubt that these programs are key in the future of regional countering violent extremism.

The already-paved counterterrorism mechanisms of ASEAN-Australia is an ideal way to strengthen and spread these repatriation, rehabilitation, and deradicalisation programs – but if we do see this occur, would Australia be willing to replicate these measures itself? 

We need Australian-ASEAN cooperation that deals with these emerging regional problems head on and works together to embrace both the opportunities and responsibilities of rehabilitation and deradicalisation.

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