As has been widely reported, the so-called bumbling Kiwi Jihadi Mark Taylor has been found in a jail in Northeastern Syria controlled by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.
In an interview with the ABC’s Adam Harvey, Taylor has said he left the Islamic State after five years because conditions had become intolerable. A major grievance for him, which he strangely shared with the Australian journalist, is that he didn’t have enough money to buy a Yazidi woman as a slave.
Statements like these show that any remorse he has shown is half-baked to say the least. The question New Zealand now faces, like so many other countries whose citizens travelled to join Isis, is what to do with him. The Prime Minister has stated that while the Government will not withdraw Taylor’s citizenship and leave him stateless, it also will not assist him to return by sending representatives to the area or paying for a flight home.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, the leader of the Opposition has similarly said that leaving him overseas to be someone else’s problem is what most New Zealanders want. But is this the right strategic and moral decision? I suggest that to see Taylor punished for his crimes and prevent him putting further innocent people at risk he should be forcibly returned to NZ to face prosecution under the Terrorism Suppression Act and be incarcerated in New Zealand. These are my reasons:
First, we have no assurances that he will be punished for his crimes by the Kurdish forces (or anyone else). It is highly likely that he and other non-hardline Isis members will eventually be released, perhaps forced out of Kurdish areas. The Kurds have made it clear that they have done their bit in the fight against Isis and now want states to repatriate their citizens. There are currently tens of thousands of Isis refugees flooding into refugee camps such as Al Hawl in Kurdish areas in NE Syria. It seems highly unlikely that the Kurds will be able to keep all active members of Isis incarcerated. By repatriating him, New Zealand is better placed to put him on trial, keep him jailed, monitor him, and restrict who he interacts with and how.
By bringing him home to see him properly punished we can avoid him posing a further risk to innocent people.
Second, we also have an obligation to prevent his involvement in further violence. Just as the government recognises that we have obligations to stop people travelling overseas to commit terrorism – and cancels their passports to do so – we also have an obligation to prevent (wherever possible) our citizens already overseas from engaging in or supporting further violence. If the Kurdish SDF release him, then he will be free to reconnect with other members of Isis, use social media, and influence people. Isis has risen from the ashes before, once crushed by the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, but then emerging again. It might do so again, particularly if its members are allowed to regather.
While Taylor appears to have been unwanted on the front lines by Isis, he is also a foreigner who can be used as a propaganda tool to encourage others to carry out attacks in New Zealand (as he was in the past) and elsewhere. By bringing him home to see him properly punished we can avoid him posing a further risk to innocent people.
Third, I don’t believe his return raises the threat of terrorism in NZ. Only a tiny percentage of returning foreign fighters carry out attacks back home. While returnees have been involved in a small number of attacks, such as those in Paris and Brussels, the rate of offending upon return is exceptionally low at .002 percent. Even when he is eventually released from jail, we can have faith in the security services to monitor him and prevent him engaging in future extremist activity.
The desire to see Taylor suffer the consequences of his behaviour are understandable. But if we want to see him punished, and want to prevent one of our citizens posing a further risk to innocent people, the Government should bring him to New Zealand to face trial.
We are fortunate in having only one returnee to prosecute and monitor once he is released from jail. Contrast this to Europe which faces the prospect of 5000 to 6000 people returning. His return is unlikely to open the floodgates to thousands of returnees. Government officials suggest that there are approximately 30 New Zealanders involved with Islamist groups, and some or most of these are dual citizens and departed, not from New Zealand, but from elsewhere. And now that the Caliphate has been destroyed, the number of people inspired by its rapidly decaying dreams will drop precipitously.
Taylor also doesn’t seem particularly committed to any extremist ideology, appearing to be more of a ‘lifestyle jihadi’. His statements in prison have referred more to the barbaric trappings of Isis life, such as slavery and the lack of food and poor conditions rather than to theological justifications for violence or the need for a caliphate. He is therefore unlikely to require extensive deradicalisation nor influence many others in New Zealand.
Indeed, Taylor seems to have followed the same path of many Islamists (and far right extremists), joining groups like Isis more out of personal problems and failure than ideological commitment. In many cases radicalised individuals’ personal problems morph into political agendas as they look for a sense of community, status and often, redemption. Attending a mosque in Hamilton in 2011 he is said to have appeared lost, living in a truck, possessing a childlike view of the world and primarily focused on seeking a wife (which clearly became a theme in his jihadist career).
Finally, there is a great deal to learn about processes of recruitment, radicalisation, the dynamics of Isis and other issues from interrogating someone who joined and participated in the Islamic State. The desire to see Taylor suffer the consequences of his behaviour are understandable. But if we want to see him punished, and want to prevent one of our citizens posing a further risk to innocent people, the Government should bring him to New Zealand to face trial.