The unwanted jihadist.

It turns out that Kiwi-born Mark Taylor, known as the so-called “bumbling jihadist” because he left the GPS tracking feature on his phone while he made pro-Daesh videos (including one where he burns his NZ passport and another where he calls for jihadists to stab police and military officers at ANZAC Day celebrations), has surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish peshmerga alliance that is part of the mostly Western military coalition fighting Daesh under the name “Operation Inherent Resolve.”

He was fortunate or smart enough to surrender to the Kurds, who respect the laws of war and Geneva Convention when it comes to captured jihadists, something neither the jihadists themselves or the Syrian Army are in the habit of doing. This means that he can be transferred to other, Western members of the coalition for juridical administration. He is merely being held by the Kurds after he admitted who he was and that he was a member of Daesh. As far as the Kurds are concerned he has committed no specific crimes under their laws (beyond, perhaps, criminal association), so he is taking up space in a cell reserved for more unpleasant characters.

The issue of what to do with him has become a political football in NZ. The PM says that there is little the government can do for him because it has no diplomatic representation in Syria, much less the East Syrian conflict zone. But she then says that as a NZ citizen he is “our responsibility” even if NZ cannot help him where he is. The Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister says good riddance to him, in part because he turned his back on his birth country and in part because he is a bigamist. The Opposition and Right-wingers of all types set to xenophobic baying about his betrayal of his home country, the risk he poses and the amount of taxpayer dollars that would be wasted on his return both in terms of travel as well as monitoring and incarceration of him.

The PM went so far to say that NZ has “no relationship” with “the forces” fighting in Eastern Syria even though it is well known that US, UK, Australian, French and German forces are fighting alongside the Kurds and NZ SAS troops are rumoured to be doing so as well. The NZDF has senior officers on the Joint Task Force staff assigned to Operation Inherent Resolve, so the notion that NZ has “no relationship” to those fighting in Syria (the same forces who drove Daesh out of Mosul and westward into Syria) is disingenuous in the extreme.

What is worse, the Australian journalist who interviewed Taylor in the Kurdish jail claims that Taylor told him that he was interviewed by NZ intelligence officers (presumably SIS) shortly after his capture/surrender in December. If that is true, then the government has not only known for a while about his whereabouts but is claiming no possibility of contact with him even though he has had face-to-face meetings with NZ agents. Be that as it may, I am still of the opinion that he may have some useful intelligence value left in him, as questioning in a Kurdish jail in winter is a bit different than interrogations conducted in a NZ detention centre at any time of year.

Given the amount of dissembling and ignorant ranting going on, I thought that I would clarify some of the issues at stake.

On the matter of whether or not Mr. Taylor has NZ citizenship in light of his renouncing it: Only a State can confer and withdraw citizenship. A person claiming to renounce citizenship without State sanction is just stating intention, not deed. Burning a passport (a token of sovereignty) just prevents one from legal inter-State travel. Citizenship is conferred by birth or by application and only lost when the State withdraws its recognition of it. That has not happened with Mr. Taylor. He remains a NZ citizen.

Under international law undocumented criminal suspects, including terrorists, are to be returned to country of birth if known. If an undocumented suspect is captured in battle or surrenders to an allied belligerent in a recognised conflict, s/he is a POW and must be treated as such. This includes irregular non-State belligerents captured by non-State actors like the SDF working alongside State militaries during an internationally approved (in this case UN-sanctioned) conflict against a common (in this case non-State) foe.

If possible, captured undocumented enemy POWs must be returned to their known country of origin to face justice. They can be kept in allied and home country military custody during transfer. There is no need for consular assistance or travel docs if they remain in military custody, just access to legal advice during process. Conversely, the military can transfer the prisoner to a location where his country of origin has diplomatic representation, whereupon he can be issued emergency travel documents. NZ has representation in both Iraq and Turkey, both of which have ties to the anti-Daesh coalition. It is therefore relatively easy to move Mr. Taylor out of Kurdish custody, into Western military custody and onwards to a location that either has NZ diplomatic representation and /or NZDF presence to whom he can be delivered (think, for example, of moving him from Kurdish-held Eastern Syria to Camp Taji in Iraq).

Should Mr. Taylor be returned to NZ he can be arrested and charged at the border under the Terrorism Suppression Act for being a member of an internationally-designated terrorist entity. To that can be added other charges depending on what he is suspected of having done while with Daesh and the evidence compiled of him doing so. At a minimum he could receive a 6-7 year jail term for aiding and abetting a criminal organization. At a maximum he could he found guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity if he is found to have participated in atrocities or collective acts of violence against civilians (such as the enslavement of Yaziri women and girls as sex slaves. He has admitted he would have liked to have had a sex slave but could not afford one, so the question remains as to whether he participated in any act of kidnapping or enslavement while in Syria). NZ has legal authority to prosecute its citizens for war crimes and even though it does not have the death penalty (except, apparently, for treason), a guilty verdict on a war crime could result in life imprisonment.

Concerns have been voiced that if he returns home the leniency in the judicial system could see him freed and out on the streets. There is a possibility of this if his defence attorneys ask for psychiatric evaluations that prove that he is not mentally competent to stand trail. He clearly is intellectually sub-par (an uncle of his claims that he suffered brain damage as a toddler during a fit of some sort), and his actions over the years indicate that he may be a bit of a lost soul. Even his co-religionists at the mosque that he worshipped at in Hamilton say that he was more interested in companionship and a sense of belonging than in waging jihad.

If he is released he undoubtably will be monitored closely, not only by the security services but members of his own religious community. In fact, I would not be surprised if he is shunned by the latter because of the disrepute he has brought upon them. So as far as posing an on-going risk to society if he returns and is freed, I would hazard the guess that it would be very low.

The more likely scenario is that he will return in custody, be held on remand during the time he is on trial, be found guilty of terrorism-related crimes and sentenced to a significant period in prison. Some believe that if that happens he will then work to radicalise fellow inmates, as is often a common practice in US and UK jails and which has some precedent in NZ. But the truth is that Mr. Taylor is a follower not a leader and does not have the cunning and agile thought processes that would make him a convincing jailhouse preacher. So here too my reckon is that he will not pose a threat of radicalisation to other inmates. If anything, other inmates will pose a threat to him (think white supremacists, gang members and others who make take a dim view of his citizenship renunciation and embrace of Islam and jihad).

There is question as to whether he has wives and/or children in Syria. That is a humanitarian concern because arguably they are innocents caught up in his mess. If it turns out that he does in fact have family in Syria, the question is then what to do with them? If they have no connection to NZ it is perhaps best for them to return to their hometowns, but that is a question that refugee resettlement and immigration officials will have to address in the event that he is returned to NZ.

The most sorry aspect of this is that the fate of Mr. Taylor has become yet another pawn in the partisan bickering in Wellington. The truth is that the case is straight-forward: he is a NZ citizen and member of a terrorist organisation who was captured by allied forces. His return is mandated by international law. NZ law requires that he be arrested, charged and tried according to provisions in the Terrorism Surpression Act and perhaps other related laws. Anything other than this is an abdication of responsibility by the NZ government and a denial of his democratic rights to a fair trial and legal defence (because even bad guys have legal rights in democracies).

For NZ there is opportunity in this process. Returning him and putting him on trial demonstrates that NZ is a responsible international citizen that assumes the burden of dealing with its own when they misbehave (because let us be clear: membership in Operation Inherent Resolve is not just about contributing to the military campaign against ISIS in the Levant; it is also about accepting responsibility for deciding the fate of coalition member citizens who joined ISIS and lived to tell the tale after capture). It gives the Crown an opportunity to test the TSA after the fiasco of the Urewera 18 case (the so-called “dog’s breakfast” case that saw seven people eventually tried on firearms, not terrorism charges). It shows that NZ is a a nation where the rule of law supersedes political cynicism and popular sentiment. It serves as a cautionary tale and possible deterrent to other home-grown would-be jihadists. And it keeps at least one foreign fighter from returning to Daesh any time soon.

11 thoughts on “The unwanted jihadist.

  1. One small correction – treason has not carried a death penalty since 1989 and Geoffrey’s Palmer’s “Abolition of the Death Penalty Act” – a little bit of neoliberal globalism (treason against a Nation state punishable by death, how quaint! Borders are irrelevant in our Randian utopia!) It was a little bit of the economic rationalism thinking that is reaching it’s denouement in Trum and Brexit, but that is for another day…

  2. Thanks Sanctuary,

    I read the bit about treason somewhere and was surprised that the death penalty would still be in place here. So I stand corrected. But if you are correct in your intuition that the era of borderless economic globalism is soon to end, then perhaps, amid the rise of various nationalist movements, the death penalty will return to these shores (say, under a National-NZ First “law and order” platform).

  3. I note an Australian journalist who interviewed him has said Taylor told him that he was interviewed by NZ intelligence officers after his capture/surrender last December.

    I’m far from an expert on intelligence matters, but it is possible those officers came from the intelligence unit within the Defence Force rather than the SIS. We know from Hager’s and Stephenson’s book “Hit and Run” that a few of their soldier numbers were a little shy when it came to reporting certain events associated with Operation Burnham in Afghanistan.

    Is it possible the government was not informed about that interview with Taylor or any information they may have gained as a result of it? I have the impression they might not be in possession of all the facts and that is why they are seemingly prevaricating.

    Just a thought.

  4. Anne:

    I noted in the post the journalist’s comments about Taylor being interviewed by “NZ intel agents.” I assumed that they would be SIS but you are right, they could have come from an NZDF intel unit attached to a well known but for some reason always unmentioned or existence-denied unit that operates in the AOR.

    Given the the NZDF have senior figures in positions on the CJTF-OIR that is responsible for that AOR, I doubt very much that the govt would not have been informed of Taylor’s capture and interrogation. Rather than get him back to NZ quietly and then control the narrative about his capture etc., the govt just sat on the news out of political cowardice. Now it cannot control the narrative, which has been highjacked by the chest-thumpers in the opposition parties and media.

    One thing that has been shown yet again is that the PM is seriously out of her depth when it comes to matters of intelligence and security. Next thing you know she will say that there are no undeclared Russian spies in NZ and there is no evidence that the burglaries and vandalism of Anne Marie Brady’s property were anything but unrelated low level common crimes.

  5. Thank-you very much for that info. Pablo.

    I have a specific reason for my interest which had less to do with government and more to do with the Defence Service.

    It sounds to me like PM, Jacinda Ardern might be wise to leave intelligence and security decisions entirely to Andrew Little whose background would give him a much better insight and understanding into how these agencies operate. She does after all have enough on her plate dealing with all the other largely inherited problems facing this country.

    Btw, I can attest to Anne Marie Brady’s experiences being the work of operatives working on behalf of an overseas entity. I’ve been there… and I had remarkably similar experiences in the process. The difference: it wasn’t China. Much closer to home.

  6. Sorry Anne, your repeat comments went into the trash bin for some unknown reason. I just upgraded our version of WordPress and few days ago and it is doing the same to Dennis Frank and Redbaiter. take that for what it is worth. :-0

  7. Pablo – the neoliberal economic project was always going to fall on the matter of the frictionless and free movement of people. International socialism proved a feeble opponent of chauvinism and tribalism in the first half of the 20th century and the great Bolshevik utopian ideological project of the late 20th century that was pure Rogernomic style neoliberalism is having it’s conceits similarly demolished now.

  8. Please sort WordPress hiccups. Not much point having blogsters going down rabbit holes.

  9. Peter:

    Sorry about that. I just checked the spam filter (7 pages worth) and found nothing from you. There was nothing in the trash (sometimes comments get thrown in there as well). Did you use a fake email or IP address? Sometimes when I am disinclined to check the IP and email addresses of legitimate commentators that I know well (such as yourself), the comments filter sends them to spam or trash. I just upgraded the WordPress version that we use and it seems to be a bit more strict on pseudonyms, etc. I will try to monitor things more closely but at some point may have to seek technical advice from someone more conversant with the platform than I am.

  10. These attacks as in this afternoon in Christchurch >> Paul Buchanan strategy expert in his own mind used to call these lone wolf attacks which the local village Police could adequately deal with. I’ll find the posts if you want me to. Bendigo.

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