The problem of involuntary (?) foreign fighters

There’s a situation happening in Australia that, one way or another, may set a precedent for the way that Western nations deal with one particular subset of the “foreign fighters” problem: the foreign fighter who was coerced into fighting.

Adam Brookman is an Australian nurse and a convert to Islam, neither of which is illegal yet as far as I know, who gave an interview to The Guardian in May that recounted his story:

Brookman told the Guardian he had entered Syria early in 2014 with the aid of an Australian humanitarian worker based in Turkey because he wanted to use his nursing skills to assist with the humanitarian crisis among the Syrian people.

He eventually found his way to Aleppo, “where I worked on ambulances, transporting civilians who were injured due to bombing and fire from jets, which would happen every night”, he said.

Brookman claims that the fighting got so bad in Aleppo that he headed west to a village called Atme on the Syria-Turkey border, and while working there his clinic was bombed and he was injured. He was taken by ISIS fighters to a hospital in Al-Bab, east of Aleppo, where he recovered. Once he had recovered, he says that he was “expected” to join ISIS, but that he managed to avoid fighting by keeping himself useful in a medical capacity. After living under ISIS (unhappily, he says) for several months, he was able to arrange for transportation in December to get him out of ISIS territory, past their patrols, and across the Turkish border. From there, he contacted Australian authorities about returning home.

Those Australian authorities brought Brookman home, and then promptly arrested him for providing aid to a terrorist organization, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 25 years. And they pretty much had to do that, didn’t they? That whole harrowing story about being rescued and then forced to work for ISIS until he could escape into Turkey could be bullshit, and Adam Brookman could have gone back to Australia with the intent of carrying out an attack there. But given that we know ISIS is using child soldiers, is it really such a stretch to imagine that they’d “encourage” adults who wind up in their control to serve the cause? Particularly adults with important specialized skills, like a nurse? So Brookman’s story at least sounds plausible, or plausible enough that you could imagine that scenario happening to somebody, even if Brookman is lying about his particular case. It’s a scenario that Western governments are going to have to be prepared to face as more “foreign fighters” start trying to return from Syria.

Granted that I am not a lawyer, but I’m honestly not sure what you do with a case like this. If Brookman really was forced to work for ISIS, then convicting him of aiding a terrorist group seems pretty freaking unjust. The presumption of innocence would seem to say that the state has to prove that Brookman wasn’t being coerced, but on the other hand, claiming that you were coerced is an affirmative defense, like claiming that you killed someone in self-defense, and in those kinds of cases the burden of proof is often on the defendant. But what if neither side can really prove much of anything, seeing as how this all happened in the middle of an ongoing war zone?

You could simply outlaw going to Syria at all, but if you interpret something like that broadly enough then it seems like it could outlaw medical/humanitarian charities that want to do work in a war zone. Brookman is also facing a lesser charge of “performing services with the intention of supporting a person, or persons, to engage in a hostile activity in a foreign state,” which gets around the question of whether or not he was there to work for ISIS, specifically, but for that to stick you still have to prove that he went to Syria with the intention of helping one or more of the groups fighting there, as opposed to helping civilians/refugees.

But you can’t just let a guy like Adam Brookman come back and re-enter Australian society right off the bat, because, again, what if he’s lying? That’s a pretty big risk to take.

This seems like kind of a legal mess.

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