Since the fall of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq in December 2017, hundreds of European foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and their families remain incarcerated in Syria and Iraq. The repatriation and prosecution of FTFs have proven to be an incredibly divisive issue for political elites across Europe. As such, European capitals remain reluctant to accept their nationals back, believing that this will protect their citizens at home. Some states have even gone as far as to strip them of their citizenship.
This approach amounts to a denial of responsibility for the return of these FTF and their families and their civil rights. It also poses a danger to global security, as it risks hardening the ideology of detainees further, potentially preparing them to form the core of a future resurgence of ISIS. Moreover, the increasing instability in north-eastern Syria is resulting in growing numbers of detained combatants escaping from the prisons and camps where they are detained, and possibly returning home with devastating consequences. In the meantime, the humanitarian and security conditions in said prisons and camps continue to worsen. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this situation. European nations must take responsibility for their nationals and bring them home. Kicking the can down the road is a recipe for disaster.
European countries must continue to share their experiences of evolving disengagement and reintegration processes. Some risks will need to be taken when approaching a challenge which is relatively new and fraught with complexity. Clearly, there is no one solution for managing the threats presented by FTFs. Some will be willing to reintegrate, others not. Some may be simply incapable, due to extensive trauma. The first 12 months post-repatriation are decisive for ex-combatants’ long-term disengagement. Therefore, developing appropriate and tailored rehabilitation and reintegration programmes that are predicated on exceptionally good debriefing and individualised interventions is crucial. Trauma, including Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is a significant factor in both radicalisation and disengagement. It follows that repatriated FTFs pose a danger to themselves – and therefore to others – due to what they might have seen and done in one of the most brutal theatres of conflict of modern history.
The phenomenon of ‘disguised compliance’ must be researched extensively to assist decision-makers’ assessment of the risks of returning FTFs. Judging the authenticity of ideologically motivated terrorist offenders’ renouncement of jihad is an area fraught with complexity. In cases like the 2019 London Bridge stabbing perpetrated by ex-convict Usman Khan, which resulted in the murder of two people active in offender rehabilitation, his manipulation of those both managing his risk post-release and working for his rehabilitation is likely a key factor. Professional competence in the assessment of returning FTFs will be paramount in protecting the security of citizens. Furthermore, the utility of wearable technology for those deemed to be a security risk but who fail to meet an evidential threshold for secure custody, to contain their risk and provide real-time support, should be explored further. Advances in this field will provide additional public reassurance through continuous surveillance data and communication and support options for such returnees.
Intelligence sharing between EU member states is also essential, as we can be reasonably certain and unknown number of FTFs will be back on the streets and able to travel at some point. This could be because they were not prosecuted due to a lack of evidence, or because they have already served their sentences. In most European states, prison sentences for supporting terrorist activity – a charge typically used for jurisdictions who elect for convictions with a lower evidential threshold – are between 4 to 6 years.
Although ISIS may have been largely defeated on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, the group is far from dead and buried. In fact, it is in the process of regrouping and recalibrating. Large factions of the group have gone underground. Furthermore, ISIS as an idea and an ideology is far from destroyed. The ongoing incarceration of FTFs, women and children where they are in North East Syria will only serve to inadvertently exacerbate existing grievances and breed a new generation of ISIS militants. Repatriating those who have (potentially) committed grave crimes and putting them through robust criminal justice, risk and/or reintegration processes are not signs of weakness. It is a demonstration of our societies’ commitment to the rule of law and the right to a fair trial, which could help undermine the narrative of abandonment, discrimination and grievance that animates much of the attractiveness of extremist Islamism. Moreover, if Western governments reject the strong moral obligation that is ensuring the welfare of their citizens, it is likely that ISIS will exploit this deficit and insert themselves as the ‘guardians’ of a new generation of violent extremists, especially children.
The resurgence of post-caliphate ISIS with its former potency is a genuine possibility. It is menacing over a dozen countries in West Africa and the Sahel, gathering strength in Southeast Asia, and proving stubbornly hard to eliminate in Syria – even with the might of the Russian military ranged against it. Dealing with European FTFs appropriately and decisively through the rule of law is an important part of the EU’s broader approach to preventing the rejuvenation of ISIS. The events of the last few weeks in Paris, Nice and Vienna are a stark reminder of the capacity Islamist extremism has to wreak havoc and create fear. European nations are better safeguarded when they have maximum control over insurgents who would do them harm and who are brought back home to justice to account for their crimes. This collective responsibility must not be evaded. Time is short.
‘Marching Home? Why Repatriating Foreign Terrorist Fighters is a Pan-European Priority’ – Discussion Paper by Amanda Paul and Ian Acheson – European Policy Centre / EPC.
The Discussion Paper can be downloaded here