Australia takes passports away to keep terrorists at home
Sydney Letter: cancelling papers of would-be jihadists may have backfired
Islamic State fighters on a military vehicle with anti-aircraft guns in Raqqa, Syria. Photograph: AP/Raqqa Media Centre
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Australia’s secret service) has cancelled 69 passports in the past two years. In many, if not all, cases, this has been to prevent radical Australian Islamists from leaving to fight with terrorist organisations in the Middle East.
One of those who had his passport cancelled was Khaled Sharrouf. As he is a convicted terrorist, even the most committed civil libertarian would not have had too much of a problem with that.
It made no difference to Sharrouf, however. He left Australia on his brother’s passport last December and has since been accused of committing atrocities in Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State terrorist group.
Sharrouf, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, made worldwide headlines last week when he posted a picture on social media of his seven-year-old son holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Prof Michael Humphrey of the University of Sydney, who has written extensively on Islam in the western world, says he does not think Sharrouf’s actions have got anything to do with Australia specifically. “He has provided a global image . . . which resonates with a lot of disturbing ideas. It’s a very gruesome acting out of some religious fantasy.
“What is disturbing is the image is so abject – the innocence of a child playing with the head of a man. Historically the king used to execute the prisoner and draw and quarter them and make them suffer in agony as a sign of the justice being inflicted on the body. I don’t want to put meaning to it, frankly, but the meaning he [Sharrouf] might put to it is that it is some kind of divine justice. This doesn’t have anything to do with mainstream Islam; it is independent, very brutal thinking.”
Dr Jamal Rifi, a Muslim community leader in Sydney, has had his and his family’s life threatened for calling Sharrouf “demented”, with one person using social media to offer a reward for the doctor’s home address.
“It has been a terrible week,” he tells The Irish Times. “These people are lunatics and are capable of doing these things . . . If it was just me it would be half a blow, but because it involves my family. it has affected all of us emotionally.
“We need to take precautions,” he adds. “My kids used to go by bus and train to school, but now we have to drive them in the morning and the afternoon. A lot of people have put their hands up to give us a hand, but we still have to organise it on a daily basis.”
Rifi, who has known Sharrouf’s family for years, says only a “mad lunatic” could understand what he was doing by posting the picture of his son holding a decapitated head. “I don’t think any human being would be able to explain what his aim is, but, knowing his drug use, knowing his schizophrenia, knowing his hate, he is totally unpredictable.”
Rifi says cancelling passports of Australian citizens seeking to join the jihadists has back- fired. “They have confiscated large numbers of passports. Some of them are already overseas, but in our area [of Sydney], there are at least 15 people roaming the streets who have had their passports taken away,” he adds.
“An ex-counter terrorism officer described this as ‘pulling the pin of a hand grenade in a confined space’.
“It is a badge of honour for them. Their passport has been taken because they are a national security risk, but at the same time they pose a personal and family security risk to me. If they are so willing to go and help whom they call the oppressed people in Syria, give them their passport and I’ll buy them a one-way ticket. Let them go.” Amid the debate about cancelling passports, Melbourne radio station 3AW scooped the world with an exclusive interview with Islamic State commander Omar al-Shishani. “We will fight them. We will take their women. We will take their children. They have to come to Islam or they will get wiped out. There is no place in the world for this devil worshipper they can hide,” he told the drive- time radio show.
It was exhilarating stuff, except that the fake al-Shishani they contacted through a Twitter account is actually a Kurd living in Scandinavia, who is bitterly opposed to Islamic State.