The Assyrian International News Agency reports on the arrest of the latest Westerner to come home after volunteering for combat duty in Iraq and Syria. The twist in this case is that Matthew Gardiner was a politician of some prominence in Australia — he was the head of the Northern Territory Labor Party before departing for Syria — and he is in trouble for fighting against ISIS, as part of the Kurdish militia.
In a further twist, it is not necessarily illegal for an Australian to sign up with the armed forces of a foreign country. The problem for Gardiner is that the Kurdish militia he served with is not officially recognized as the accredited military of a legitimate nation-state, even though they are fighting one of the most illegitimate foes the world has ever seen. Additionally, the area he visited has been officially restricted for travel by the Australian government, meaning citizens must prove they have a valid reason for going there.
Gardiner, who had experience as a combat engineer for the Australian Army and had been deployed to Somalia in the Nineties, was arrested at the Darwin airport on Sunday upon his return from the Middle East. He was held for only a few hours, according to ABC News of Australia, although the Australian Federal Police say their investigation of his activities in Syria is “ongoing.”
The Kurdish militia he worked with, the YPG, claims he was performing strictly humanitarian work. If charged and convicted under the Australian Foreign Fighters law, he could potentially face life imprisonment. ABC News suggests the Kurds are well aware of the legal situation faced by their foreign recruits, and are reluctant to make any statements that could be used in a prosecution against them. An interesting detail from the ABC report is that the Kurds who communicated with Gardiner via social media before his departure from Australia did not realize he was a political figure back home.
ABC swung by Gardiner’s house in Australia and found him in good health. He said his lawyers had advised him not to discuss his activities, and he asked the reporters to keep the location of his home secret, because he feared revenge attacks.
The Sydney Morning Herald writes that the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia has “put the AFP [Australian Federal Police] on notice, calling for equal treatment and a consistent application of the law whether someone is Muslim or not.” In other words, they’re aware these foreign-fighters rules are generally written with ISIS recruits in mind, to slow down the supply of recruits to the Islamic State and address fears about operatives with military training returning home to engage in terrorist activity. They want the rules enforced equally against those who travel to the Middle East for paramilitary service against ISIS.
“We have to make sure our laws are implemented without fear or favour,” said Islamic Friendship Association spokesman Keysar Trad. “We’ve become accustomed in the community to a double-standard in the application of the law. There are a number of cases that I can cite over the years where all alarms are raised… and a Muslim is treated with the fullest extent of the law whereas a non-Muslim is just given a slap on the wrist.”