تركيا في ليبيا: دعم شرعية السرّاج في وجه حفتر ورعاته الإقليميين
July 22, 2019

The Dilemma of the Return of ISIS Foreign Fighters

With the facilitation of global communication and travels, foreign fighter involvement in conflicts has been steadily rising, notably with the conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, and Syria. Even before these conflicts and for the past two centuries, foreign fighters were active in at least 70 conflicts such as the Texas Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This involvement is driven by an ideology which encompasses cross-border communities and causes perceived to be under threat.[1]

As the flow of foreign fighters swelled the ranks of ISIS and the frequency of terrorist attacks on European cities rose, many European countries, the source of thousands of fighters, witnessed calls for swift and effective decisions regarding the foreign fighter problem.[2] The fear is that these fighters who have been radicalized and possess battle experience will launch deadly attacks upon their return. Arguments attempting to calm these inflated fears have failed among the majority of the public because, even if a small percentage of them do follow through and conduct an attack, the threat remains.[3] Amid these public fears, Western Europeans have struggled to find a proper solution to thousands of their detained citizens in Syria and Iraq. This paper will go through the threats they pose upon return, the measures that can be taken by home countries, and the developing situation on the ground now in an attempt to determine whether the current “no policy policy” of Western Europe is a wise decision or a more balanced approach should be devised for both short and long-term consequences.

Types of Foreign Fighters

Zuijdewijn’s topology classified foreign fighters into 5 types: the martyr who died during the conflict and no longer poses a direct threat; the veteran who moves from one conflict to another but doesn’t pose a direct threat to the country of origin; the recruiter who is a foreign fighter returnee and acts as a guide for possible recruits. Recruiters pose an indirect threat because they increase the ranks of the local jihadist community; the reintegrated fighter who participated in conflicts abroad but is no longer involved and returned to normal life. Reintegrated fighters are usually those who were driven to join extremist groups because of a feeling of marginalization with little knowledge of religion but were disillusioned by the reality on the ground. They do not pose a threat to the country of origin; and the terrorist who wants to take the battle from the conflict zone back home. Terrorists undergo a major shift in identity and norms and pose a direct threat. These classifications may overlap, change at a point in time, and are not the only options, but they give a better of idea of visualizing the threats posed.[4]

While pin-point accurate data is hard to obtain, it is believed that, based on the cases of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Bosnia in the 1990s, and Somalia in the 2000s, only a few dozen foreign fighters out of thousands engage in terrorist activity if they return home. One observation is that the most extreme fighters do not return home but rather move on to another conflict in their “path of jihad”.[5]

Possible Dangers?

Previous experiences have shown that Arab foreign fighters who joined jihadist groups gain skills and tactics which might be used in future conflicts, develop a wide network of contacts, and are exposed to new ideas that change their worldview. As a result, in case of return to their home countries, there is a possibility of conducting violent attacks, mobilizing at a later time, viewing their own governments as illegitimate, recruiting new fighters, attracting money from sympathizers, and seeding new local groups. A few examples on the latter include Yemeni jihadist groups, Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, all of which were founded by veterans who fought in Afghanistan. Some who do not return home move from conflict to conflict abroad, not completely out of conviction but also because of fear of arrest upon return.[6] The applicability of these historical occurrences on European fighters remains to be seen because of different contexts and experiences.

Past Trends

Because of the dangerously high number of foreign fighters who flocked to join ISIS, a fear resides among policy-makers and populations alike of the occurrence of deadly attacks upon the return of some of these fighters. For instance, studies conducted by Hegghammer, Sageman, and Cruickshank conclude that the experience gained abroad by a returning foreign fighter will increase the probability of success and lethality of an attack by nearly double if conducted.[7]

On the other hand, counter-studies using more tangible data have shown that the presence of foreign fighters does not have a significant impact as the probability of execution only increased by 11-14%. In addition, the lethality of attacks is not affected by the presence of foreign fighters except in exceptional cases namely the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 9/11, and the 2004 Madrid bombing which do not fall within the general pattern of attacks. Attacks are usually conducted by sympathetic individuals with limited access to resources rather than highly organized and trained cells. It must be noted however that the data used in quantitative studies about foreign fighters is very limited and thus subject to change.[8]

In spite of the above mentioned studies, the psyche of the population is heavily influenced by memorable and lethal incidents such as the 2015 Paris attacks and the 2014 and 2016 Brussels attacks. Six of the eleven attackers allegedly fought in Syria and Yemen, three of whom are French residents.[9] Thus, most Western countries criminalized foreign fighting in an effort to deter fighters from coming back. As the phenomena is relatively new, evidence is scarce about the effectiveness of such policies; however, experience from Afghanistan during the 1980s indicates that while criminalization may limit return, it also prevents demobilization as fighters remain in conflict regions, increases long-term instability, and strengthens transnational extremist Islamist organizations.[10]

How Long Do Returnees Wait before Launching an Attack?

It is important to distinguish between suspect foreign fighters who are on a mission to launch an attack, sleeper cells who never demobilized, prisoners whose plans were delayed, members of extremist groups but have not partaken in violence since return, and disengaged individuals who were radicalized again.[11] A study of 230 jihadist foreign fighters from 1980 to 2016 who returned to Western countries and launched an attack or were arrested while planning, found that, while excluding outliers, the average time before an attack is conducted ranged between 7 and 10 months with the most frequent time being 5 months. Most attacks occurred within one year of return, and 97% of returnees had a “lag time” of less than three years. These 5 months are crucial for intelligence services in surveilling returnees for possible activity while it also provides the best period for possible rehabilitation programs to make a positive impact. Following the passage of 2-3 years, costly surveillance efforts could be shifted elsewhere.[12]

The Case of ISIS Foreign Fighters

Estimates of ISIS foreign fighters range between 30,000 and 42,000, more than 7,000 of whom are from Western countries.[13] The vast majority of foreign fighters are believed to have been exposed to widespread acts of extreme violence with combat experience and explosives training. Experiences do vary however based on the time of joining as some may not have served in combat roles or received training. Coupled with the more than ever connected network of like-minded individuals, ISIS foreign fighters have been labeled as “the most operationally experienced, lethally skilled and highly networked group of foreign fighters to date”.[14]

Based on a 2017 study, 14,900 had left the conflict zone and 7,000 had died in battle.[15] 36% of those who returned were imprisoned while 46% were not admitted into the criminal justice system. The remaining percentage of foreign fighters followed the historical trend of relocating to another conflict zone.[16] Regarding Europe specifically, in April 2016, it was estimated that around 2,000 foreign fighters were still in conflict zones while 30% (around 1,200 individuals) had already returned.[17] Rates of return also differ in Europe. Nordic countries have high rates because of their reintegration programs. For example, Finland and Denmark have an approximate 50% rate of return. When compared to Southern Europe, rates are lower because of the criminalization measures adopted such as Spain which ranges between 10-15% and France at 14%.[18] Early returnees are believed to be less dangerous than current ones because their motivations were most likely humanitarian or against oppression of Assad but were quickly disillusioned by the crimes of ISIS. In comparison, current returnees are more ideologically driven and battle-hardened.[19]

As part of the ISIS Defector Interview Project between May 2014 and August 2017, 63 imprisoned former ISIS fighters were interviewed, the majority of whom (45) were real defectors because of the brutality, hypocrisy, corruption, coercion into immoral actions, and un-Islamic nature of ISIS while some merely disengaged from the battlefield. The latter continued to contemplate rejoining the group in Syria and a small portion of those who defected and disavowed the group also ended up rejoining the group because of living conditions and inability to reintegrate back home. While personal experiences of each foreign fighter play a significant part in the decisions, the key motivations for Western Europeans to joining ISIS were marginalization and discrimination against second-generation Muslims. High unemployment in the Balkans also played a major role. Secondary reasons include salaries, free housing, arranged marriages, traditional and conservative societies, family and friends’ recruitment, and the honor of fighting (and dying as a martyr) for Islam. These resonated with many whose lives lacked purpose, honor, importance, and dignity. These conditions were heavily supported by what seemed like the real establishment of a utopian Caliphate following the string of military successes that coincided with the rise of ISIS.[20]

In spite of ISIS foreign fighters not being a historical first, three major differences have been highlighted: the ease in which individuals were able to travel to Syria which reflects a less ideological commitment at the time of departure but also the complicity of home states and main passage country Turkey, a higher level of commitment of post-2014 travelers compared to early stage ones because they believe in an obligation to live in the “Caliphate” and are unlikely to return home, and advanced communications technology which provides a global reach and ability of contact with friends and family.[21]

Possible Pathways

Foreign fighters are believed to have had different roles and trajectories such as front line combat roles, supporting roles, planning attacks in home or third countries, media outreach, joining another group in the conflict or providing humanitarian aid, and even integration in Syrian society out of fear of returning home to prosecution.[22]

For those who return, the reasons could be attributed to disillusionment with the practices of ISIS members and rejection of previously held extremist views. These returnees could be a valuable asset for counter-radicalization efforts as their opinion carries huge weight among potential recruits. Another reason could be disengagement from battle due to pragmatic reasons such as family events or fatigue while still adhering to the extremist ideology. These returnees do not pose a direct threat but could play a role in the jihadist scene through logistics, recruitment, fundraising, strategizing, and being an example to follow. For example, while a study by Hegghammer and Nasser[23] showed that 1 in 360 returnees actually engaged in an attack after return during the Syrian conflict (a drop from 1 in 9 for the period between 1990 till 2010), a German intelligence[24] chief warned that underground ISIS circles are heavily active. This adds even more importance to proper monitoring and identification of threats while also pursuing de-radicalization and reintegration programs. Thus, it is important to differentiate between those are de-radicalized and moved on with their lives and those who merely disengaged from violence but did not abandon their ideas. A third category of return could be being sent back by ISIS command for conducting attacks, either in their home country or in a third country.[25]

This is why, even before the prospects of an ISIS territorial defeat began to take shape, the debate about the return of European foreign fighters was in full swing. The expectations of the number of returnees were not entirely accurate for several reasons: a higher number of fighters died in the conflict, countermeasures and military operations prevented possible escape, and those who remain the conflict zone are likely to “fight to the death”. As a result, it has been concluded by researchers that the issue of foreign fighter return is more manageable than previously believed. This does not negate the fact that many fighters already left the conflict zone before the territorial defeat of ISIS while others have also been recently caught trying to cross borders. This is coupled with discrepancies about the total fatalities of foreign fighters[26]; for instance, some ISIS fighters were declared dead on social media but were in fact living under the radar of security agencies after illegally crossing the borders. Others voiced their regrets and requested to be allowed entry back into their country of origin.[27]

Research has shown that few foreign fighters join a conflict with the intent of returning home and conducting a terrorist attack, and only a small number acquire that intent “along the way”. Nevertheless, in spite of the majority of foreign fighters posing no threat upon return, the threat of a dangerous attack remains to both policy-makers and the public. Until now, it does not seem like ISIS has dedicated significant resources for such operations; however, this might change following the tactical shift to guerilla attacks on Middle Eastern and Western targets.

What are the Numbers thus Far?

Only 0.0027% of Western returnees have been involved in terrorist plots at home with studies of attacks committed in the West between June 2014 and June 2017 indicating that only 18% of attackers being foreign fighters with an average death toll of 35 deaths per attack. Here, it is important to highlight the previous argument about relying on averages as a limited number of attacks can distort the degree of lethality. Another recorded involvement of foreign fighters is a new type of attacks based on “virtual planning” where plans are made, targets are selected, and secure communications are used to guide the lone attacker. These types of attacks are on the rise and are harder to detect than those involving groups.[28]

A multitude of challenges exist for returnee states: absence of data over the fate or whereabouts of a large portion of foreign fighters, estimated as high as 50%; possible used of forged travel documents; high costs of returnee monitoring, numbering in millions of dollars per year for one individual; difficulty in criminally convicting suspects because of lack of evidence; and imprisonment may delay the threat rather than reduce it since prison time may be seen as a continuation of the fight with aims of operationalization following release.[29]

Decisions being taken by Western European Countries of Origin

Policy among Western European countries of origin is gradually developing into heavy handed measures with criminal prosecution of returnees. This comes amid public pressure for a tough response especially after attacks in Brussels and Paris were committed by foreign fighters. These measures are constrained by several factors such as legal ones since joining an armed group abroad is not a criminal offense in some jurisdictions. This is being remedied in recent years by different initiatives such as charging foreign fighters with planning terrorist attacks while in Syria and UNSC Resolution 2178 which “requires UN member states to criminalize travel abroad for terrorist purposes and financing and facilitation of such travel”.[30] The specific use of the terrorist label in the resolution reflects a kind of blind eye to foreign fighters in Syria involved with non-terrorist designated armed groups, whether pro or against Assad.

While the general trend has been shifting towards a more security-centric one, approaches range from soft to hard ones depending on the country in question. Some point to the Saudi Arabia deradicalization program for inspiration as it was reported only 12% went back to extremist activities. In contrast, the Yemeni program was not as successful.  A key difference was the availability of economic resources to support former fighters as well as extensive monitoring from security forces in case reintegration attempts failed.[31]

Denmark, with the second highest per capita rate of foreign fighters in Europe, stands out in its focus on reintegration programs rather than prosecution and criminalization. A similar approach has been adopted in Sweden as well. Taking into consideration that a segment of foreign fighters were initially mobilized by opposition to oppression, joining a “utopian Islamic society”, adventure, or humanitarian assistance but were eventually disillusioned by the crimes being committed, these programs are available for such type of returnees without evidence of involvement in violent crimes abroad. Rooted in the belief that the blowback effect is much lower than anticipated, the “Aarhus model” provides psychological counseling, assistance to an education and employment, housing, and assignment of mentors for guidance.[32] The assistance provided aims to minimize the chances of continued fighting at home or abroad by supporting social and economic prospects in life.[33] It is based on cooperation between intelligence, police, and social services as well as community members such as family, religious figures, and teachers; however, the program has been criticized for underestimating the threat of foreign fighter returnees. Whether someone is de-radicalized after completing the program is not guaranteed, and fears persist that it could be used as a cover for continued extremist activity.[34]

Similar programs include: Hayat service in the Center for Democratic Culture in Berlin which provides counseling, assistance to find employment, housing, and education, de-legitimizing radical narratives, and emotional support; Channel Program in the UK which targets individuals vulnerable to radicalization;[35] Belgium also has task forces involved in reintegration of individuals.[36]

While risky of high-profile failures and its effectiveness has not yet been independently verified, adopting this approach over criminalization would encourage the return of a higher number of fighters and provides valuable information and insight on motivations.[37] This is countered by the absence of a sure-fire method of countering extremism in spite of years of studies, government funds, and planned interventions.[38]

A key aspect to look out for in rehabilitation programs is not to overly focus on the religious aspect because studies have shown that extremism is rooted in a complex array of factors, most notably social ones. This is why future housing locations and socioeconomic contexts are crucial for the success of these programs.[39]

The absence of a deterrence effect in the rehabilitation programs led most countries to favor harder approaches such as criminalization, prosecution, and revoking nationality. The first court decisions sentencing foreign fighter returnees to imprisonment occurred in late 2014 in Germany, France, Netherlands, and Belgium. While the first three were individual cases, Belgium indicted 45 members of the “Sharia4Belgium” group, all of whom, except the leader, fought in Syria with Al Nusra Front or ISIS.[40] Sweden has been considering adopting rules that criminalize supporting ISIS while the Netherlands has been trying a number of ISIS fighters in abstentia so they are sent to jail if they return.[41] Nevertheless, major difficulties remain. One issue is the limits on pretrial detention in most European countries which ranges from 2 to 14 days. Monitoring a high number of suspects during their trial period requires significant resources and has been proven to be difficult.[42] Another issue in obtaining a conviction is the absence of evidence which forces prosecutors to rely on weaker and shorter charges to ensure imprisonment. While social media videos and refugee testimonies are being used as proof of some perpetrators’ crimes, most charges end up being material support for terrorism rather than war crimes or genocide or foreign fighting.[43] Thus, the average imprisonment time in the US and Western Europe is less than five years.

Despite high levels of public support for incarceration and the necessity of jailing terrorists, prisons have been notoriously labeled as hotbeds for further radicalization. Such a scenario tends to happen whenever low-level sympathizers end up being locked up with recruiters and propagandists. Studies point to a 30% deradicalization rate upon release from prison, but another factor that comes into play is the return of the released to the same social setting that enabled their radicalization.[44] Factoring in that inmates will eventually be released from prison, several European countries have introduced disengagement programs, as opposed to de-radicalization programs, to move the individual away from the violent aspects of the extremist ideology. The aim is to socially reintegrate released returnees while preventing a possible relapse to violence. Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium have begun these programs with inmates, but the new experience is developing as it goes forward.[45]

Even though prosecutions and lengthy jail sentences aim to prevent additional travel to terrorist groups abroad as well as punishment for crimes committed, some cases have had a negative impact on the families and larger community. In a court case in the UK in 2014, the mother of two foreign fighters provided information about their travel to Syria and cooperated with the police; however, the lengthy sentence had a negative impact on the trust and police-society relations. This is expected to have discouraged family and friends as well as the community from cooperating with authorities which leaves an important gap in gathered intelligence. At worst, it could provide undetected returnees with a cover for continued engagement in terrorist activities at home.[46] Acts of incrimination like this are coupled with expanded surveillance of Muslim communities as well as tighter restrictions on financing of Islamic charities and NGOs. The result has been the further alienation of important partners in combating extremism and providing intelligence.[47] This is why community programs which involve parents, clerics, and local leaders should also be adopted. Such programs aim to foster cooperation with marginalized communities, diminish social alienation, and provide a support network which discourages violent acts.[48]

Alongside criminalization, some have adopted decisions that allow the confiscation of travel documents. In 2015, the UK government issued the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015 which allows the confiscation of passports of individuals suspected to be involved in “terrorism-related activities” outside the UK and disallowing return for up to 2 years. Similar policies were adopted in Australia with the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2015 which allows passport suspension for a number of years and issues criminal offenses for “advocating terrorism” as well as Canada with the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2015 which limits the movement of suspects and expand no-fly lists.[49] Such policies were even taken further as citizenships were revoked for returnees who are seen as a threat to national security. A key problem arising is that if done to those with only one citizenship, foreign fighters are rendered stateless. Until now, this has only been applied to dual citizens.[50] For example, the UK stripped 17 individuals of their British nationality in 2014. Austria has introduced the loss of citizenship as well as life imprisonment for those who were physically present in specific areas designated by the foreign minister.[51] Similar decisions have also been adopted or are being studied in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway, France, and Australia. In spite of limiting the ability of return for foreign fighters by adopting these measures, they could be pushing them further into transnational networks and other conflict zones where they can plot attacks and maintain contact with sympathizers at home. This is a major possibility for two reasons: many of those who joined ISIS had no intention of returning home and burned their passports upon arrival, and the ability of peacefully integrating in a foreign society is much harder than doing so at home.[52] This approach however does not bring justice to the victims of those who committed the crimes, an attack may be launched transnationally or through recruits in the home country, and the possibility of illegal entry also remains on the table.[53]

Critics have targeted the revoking of citizenship for a variety of reasons: studies have shown that domestic terror attacks are conducted more by those who receive training abroad rather than those who come back after participating in a foreign conflict[54] (33.3% fought in a conflict zone while 66.7% received training abroad),[55] earlier generations of foreign fighters were permitted to return and reintegrate while current policies are harsher and creating stateless extremists who move from one conflict to another, inconsistency in the labeling of terrorist groups, the motivations behind such decisions which lie in and feed into xenophobia and Islamophobia especially since a study of worldwide counterterrorism legislation has proven that such restrictions are driven by political considerations rather than real threat levels, the denial of due legal process, and the permanent revoking of citizenship has been likened to capital punishment since it ignores the possible evolution of the offender’s character in the future.[56]

In addition to the three options stated above, some countries have been eliminating foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq either through air strikes or mostly undeclared missions on the ground by Special Forces. For instance, UK defense sources stated that Special Forces conducted raids in autumn of 2014 and killed “up to eight terrorist per day”. Even though the purpose of military action was to weaken ISIS, it was also used as a method of dealing with a sizeable number of foreign fighters. Former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis are two of several officials who declared the best solution to the returnee problem is ensuring no one survives to do so. Aside from the ethical considerations raised, it is highly probable that the death of these fighters on the battlefield will be used later as propaganda for further recruitment, either abroad or for revenge attacks at home.[57]

Women and “Cubs of the Caliphate”

The children of ISIS foreign fighters have also been the subject of debate. The “cubs of the Caliphate”, ISIS recruits younger than 18 years of age, undergo military and “Sharia” training. They are indoctrinated with extremist ideas which constitute a hurdle to reintegration thus making them susceptible targets for future operations.[58] In addition, rehabilitation processes differ between toddlers and teenagers. The older the child is, the harder it becomes for reintegrate them in a normal environment.[59] They may not even know the local language of the countries of origin.[60] Because of the hate, violence, and trauma they have witnessed, psychological rehabilitation is a must; however, the process is further complicated by the similar extremist ideas that their families might possess thus hindering progress. A possible remedy could be including both the children and their parents in specialized programs which include sessions on the effect of violence, radicalism, and even moderate religious classes. Another remedy could be relying on non-radicalized relatives of the children. Until now, a proper program has not been set to deal with this complex situation which is crucial for the long-term elimination of ISIS’ ideology.[61]

Australia and Germany have declared their willingness to accept children of former ISIS fighters, many of whom are still in detention camps with their mothers in Syria.[62] These declarations however have not translated into reality as Germany has repatriated less than 10 children while France numbers at 5.[63] The latter stated that it will deal with the rest on a case by case basis with promises of bringing back as many as 130 children.[64] This figure is much lower than current estimates which point to 500-700 children born or brought to Syria or Iraq and are believed to be French citizens.[65] Germany is no better as estimates points to around 290 children.[66] On the other hand, Australia’s Prime Minister stated that he will not endanger officials by sending them to extract three orphaned Australian children whereas Denmark announced it will not recognize the children as Danish nationals.[67]

Aside from the humanitarian argument of repatriating children from the dire conditions they are in, the absence of reintegration and rehabilitation programs for children raised under ISIS rule will have dangerous long-term consequences. It will also serve the jihadist narrative and be exploited as a propaganda and recruitment tool.[68]

Some of the women expressed regrets of joining, shared painful experiences, and wanted a return to normal life while others remained adamant in their support of the “Caliphate”.[69] It is important to point out that women, just like men, could have been involved in the crimes committed. Reducing female participation with ISIS to being merely brides and mothers is flawed and neglects the reasons which drove them to the organization in the first place. The motivations that drove men to join ISIS, be it social, ideological, psychological, or economic, are the same as those of women.  While many have witnessed intense violence, lost loved ones, and suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there is a segment which was part of the ISIS religious police (al-Khansa Brigade) that terrorized other women, the counter-insurgency brigade “Umm al-Rayan”, ISIS bureaucracy, recruiters, propagandists, combatants, oversaw the enslavement of captures, and looted the property of those who fled ISIS. For instance, a German ISIS returnee put to trial was a member of the morality police and was accused of war crimes including the killing of a five year old Yazidi girl held as a slave. Despite this involvement, many are now claiming that they were just housewives in the Caliphate to escape punishment.[70]

The wives of ISIS foreign fighters may or may not have been involved in the conflict and the crimes committed, but proper investigations must be carried out in this regard. Some were shocked by the reality and not allowed to leave while others continue to espouse the extremist ideology. Even if innocent and allowed free return, those whose husbands were killed or imprisoned are a vulnerable segment which could be exploited by recruiters.[71] While the early women returnees were not prosecuted, this distinction between male and female is no longer applied in Belgium, Netherlands, and increasingly Germany.[72]

What is the Situation Now?

The largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have established three detention camps for tens of thousands of ISIS families. Among the tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, 12,000 foreign women and children are present according to a senior SDF official. This number is enlarged to include more than 8,000 ISIS fighters, including 1,000 foreigners, in prisons. A limited number of women and children have been accepted back into their countries of origin, but for the most part, they appear to be in limbo.[73] Children make up two-thirds of the Al Hol camp, the largest of the three, and estimates point to at least 6,792 foreign children. Of those, 3,397 are less than 5 years of age.[74] The situation is also very dire as dozens of children died from the cold and bad conditions this past February.[75] As the SDF prioritizes the provisions of food and tents, education, rehabilitation, and psychological counseling fall low on the list of priorities. The SDF, along with the US, have called upon European countries to repatriate their foreign fighters, but an agreement has yet to be reached.[76] High ranking members of the SDF have accused Western countries of evading the problem and not taking responsibility for their own citizens.[77]

Three possible courses of action appear to be developing among Western European capitals: First, the establishment of an international tribunal to put ISIS fighters to trial. Sweden has been leading on promoting its establishment among European capitals while the Netherlands is also planning on pitching the idea at the United Nations. Such proposal is also supported by the SDF. Albeit a delayed response to the crisis of stranded families in the camps of Syria and Iraq, Western European governments appear to be keen on finding a solution. Several issues need to be addressed such as the scope of the tribunal, its location, and the difficulty in obtaining evidence to prove the three crimes covered by international courts: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Furthermore, the process is likely to be costly, last several years, and is opposed by the US. Even though a tribunal might be the best option to hold accountable those most responsible of the atrocities committed, it still wouldn’t solve the issue of the hundreds of European fighters who must be handled in another manner.[78] What must be also noted is the duality in dealing with the crimes committed in the Syrian conflict as the scope of the tribunal, whilst still in development, appears to be narrowed down on ISIS while excluding other armed groups from both the loyalist and opposition camps.

Second, an “outsourcing of justice” by trying the fighters in the country they committed the crimes, regardless of the fact that they are citizens of European countries. This has been implied by the UK, Germany, Belgium, and Austria as they cite “difficulties” in organizing repatriation.[79] Recent weeks have been proof of that as Iraqi courts sentenced several French nationals to the death penalty based on counter-terrorism laws. Human rights activists have criticized France for “outsourcing” the trials of its own citizens to a judicial system known for abusive practices during interrogation. In response, the French Foreign Ministry stated its opposition to the death penalty but affirmed that these trials are the best option thus implying they would not intervene.[80] Baghdad has even offered to try all ISIS fighters if foreign governments provide financial assistance. A dilemma posed by this suggestion is that European law does not allow the trial of suspects in countries with the death penalty or inhumane prison conditions. Reports have pointed to trials in Baghdad lasting just 10 minutes, with those sentenced to death executed on the spot. Alongside the French citizens mentioned previously, 3 Belgians have also been sentenced to death.[81] Even worse violations are expected to occur under the Assad regime if suspects are transferred to Syrian state authorities.

Third, some have suggested, specifically for France but could also be applied by other countries of origin, that instead of outsourcing judicial processes to questionable authorities and to avoid allowing the return of potential threats, the establishment of detention centers abroad while providing the same legal rights as on French soil.[82]

It appears to be that European countries have opted to delay the return of ISIS fighters as long as possible or even placing the burden on others. The public mood is generally supportive of this policy, not to mention that both judicial and security authorities will be strained by the large numbers. This is amplified by the little evidence available to obtain a long imprisonment sentence.[83] Despite these realities, leaving ISIS fighters and families in the SDF temporary detention camps is not a solution as the facilities are in an unstable and insecure region, are not properly equipped, fair trials cannot be held, and the SDF remains a militia fighting in a civil war. Successfully devising a proper plan for dealing with Western citizens who joined ISIS lies at the core of the long-term success against extremist groups.[84] On this note, counter-radicalization experts highlight the impact of Camp Bucca, a US detention center in Iraq that housed radical Islamists, on the rise of ISIS. The current SDF camps are different as they do not allow the same level of autonomy needed to network, but the threat remains as long as the situation is not dealt with properly. The absence of an easy solution does not justify keeping thousands, including children, in limbo. Such scenario will undoubtedly fuel further hatred among future generations.[85] Short-term threats are also present as raiding prisons that hold extremist fighters is a well-resorted to tactic. Amid an ongoing civil war in Syria, this possibility must be taken seriously. For example, in 2012, al-Baghdadi called upon his followers to free imprisoned jihadists to swell the ranks of the group.[86]


Various studies of previous foreign fighter returnee experiences have shown that most want to reintegrate if given the chance to do so; however, a repressive security-centric approach, social alienation, human rights violations, and limited rehabilitation programs all play a role in the persistence of extremist activity of former fighters. Coupled with the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, and nationalist sentiment in several European countries, this increased social pressure will hamper attempts at reintegration and even foster continued radicalization. On the other hand, a purely soft-handed approach on returnees could galvanize right-wing supporters and in turn also lead to intense social polarization and radicalization. A balanced approach must be found which ensures justice but also a proper chance for reintegration.[87]

Many of the thousands of foreign fighters who joined ISIS will be wanting to return home, many will be actual defectors who do not support the reality they saw, some will be disillusioned but still hope for an “Islamic Caliphate”, and a small percentage will be active in recruitment circles if not even attacks.[88] It is difficult to predict the category that a returning foreign fighter will fall into, but it is crucial to understand the reasons why many peacefully reintegrate whereas others do not. Possible factors such as personal motivations, degree of religiosity, social alienation, unemployment, marginalization, discrimination, radicalization, and hurdles to reintegration… must all be examined so that the roots of the issue are properly tackled in policy decisions.[89]

Even though it is a challenging and hard objective to achieve, but policies adopted must attribute a bigger focus to long-term solutions. This will not be helped by a linear understanding of radicalization and deradicalization. It is imperative to avoid securitizing relations with minority communities and portraying all Muslims in the West as suspects. An inclusive approach must be implemented so that young people feel they have a voice and are able to seek social change on the local or national level rather than seeking status as a foreign fighter.[90]

The complex array of reasons for joining ISIS stated previously, alongside psychological traits, childhood trauma, and life challenges, remain relatively the same upon return, if not even compounded by PTSD. The long-lasting ideology of the group is hard to shake off, and coupled with unfavorable conditions, many remain vulnerable for further involvement. Societal reintegration programs, qualified mental health workers, and even religious figures apt in dealing with extremist Islamic ideologies are all needed to ensure the lack of involvement in terrorism again. Even those imprisoned must receive personalized assistance tailored to their own experience.[91] Mitigating policies, rehabilitation programs, and reintegration efforts are all essential to foreign fighters and their families, with dimensions focusing on both gender and children.[92]

Even though both hard and soft approaches to returnees have advantages and disadvantages, a balanced approach must be adopted to properly address the possible threats. Returnees proven to have committed crimes must be imprisoned, but this must include prison counter-radicalization programs. Moreover, those expressing regret and are willing to cooperate with intelligence agencies as well as speak out against jihadist groups should be valued. The legal approach should be coupled with a community approach which encourages cooperation and trust in state agencies. Intensive surveillance and demonizing Muslim communities as a whole will only increase the prospects of future radicalization.[93] A clear solution is not present, but it is important for policy-makers to take into consideration the unintended consequences of any decision while also including long-term aspects rather than merely short-term fixes.[94]


Cover Photo Credit: The Daily Beast

[1] Webb, A. (2016) Swanning Back in? Foreign Fighters and the Long Arm of the State. Citizenship Studies, p. 2; Braithwaite, A. & Chu, T. (2017) Civil Conflicts Abroad, Foreign Fighters, and Terrorism at Home. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 20(10), p. 2

[2] Supra note 1

[3] Van Zuijdewijn, J. (2014) The Foreign Fighter’s Threat: What History Can(not) Tell US. Perspectives on Terrorism, 8(5), pp. 59-60

[4] Supra note 3 at 63-64

[5] Supra note 3 at 64

[6] Byman, D. (2015) The Homecomings: What Happens When Arab Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria Return. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, pp. 4-7

[7] Leduc, R. (2016) Are Returning Foreign Fighters Dangerous? Re-investigating Hegghammer’s Assessment of the Impact of Veteran Foreign Fighters on the Operational Effectiveness of Domestic Terrorism. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 17(1), pp. 85-89

[8] Supra note 7 at 94-98

[9] Supra note 6 at 1-2

[10] Supra note 7

[11] Malet, D. & Hayes, R. (2018) Foreign Fighter Returnees: An Indefinite Threat. Terrorism and Political Violence, p. 2

[12] Supra 11 at 9-10&16

[13] The Soufan Center (2016, March 9) Foreign Fighters and Those Who Return. Retrieved from The Soufan Center: https://thesoufancenter.org/tsg-intelbrief-foreign-fighters-and-those-who-return/

[14] UNSC Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (2018) The Challenge of Returning and Relocating Foreign Terrorist Fighters: Research Perspectives. CTED Trends Report, pp. 2-6

[15] Supra note 14 at 8-9

[16] Supra note 14 at 8-9

[17] Reed, A. et al (2017, June) The Four Dimensions of the Foreign Fighter Threat: Making Sense of an Evolving Phenomenon. International Center for Counter Terrorism The Hague, pp. 4-5

[18] Gurbuz, M. (2018, March 19) The Many Complications of Returning Islamic State Fighters. Retrieved from Arab Center Washington DC: http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/the-many-complications-of-returning-islamic-state-fighters/

[19] Gurbuz, M. (2018, March 19) The Many Complications of Returning Islamic State Fighters. Retrieved from Arab Center Washington DC: http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/the-many-complications-of-returning-islamic-state-fighters/; Coolsaet, R. & Renard, T. (2018, April 11) The Homecoming of Foreign Fighters in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium: Policies and Challenges. Retrieved from International Center for Counter Terrorism The Hague: https://icct.nl/publication/the-homecoming-of-foreign-fighters-in-the-netherlands-germany-and-belgium-policies-and-challenges/

[20] Speckhard, A. & Yayla, A. & Shajkovci, A. (2018) Defected from ISIS or Simply Returned, and for How Long. ASPJ Africa and Francophonie, 4th Quarter, pp. 24-31

[21] Supra note 14 at 5

[22] Reed, A. & Van Zuijdewijn, J. & Bakker, E. (2015, April) Pathways of Foreign Fighters: Policy Options and their (Un) Intended Consequences. International Center for Counter-Terrorism The Hague, p. 3

[23] Hegghammer, T. & Nesser, P. (2015) Assessing the Islamic State’s Commitment to Attacking the West. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(4)

[24] Dikov, I. (2019, May 14) Islamic State Figures as Major Terrorism Threat German Intelligence Warns, Retrieved from European Views: https://www.european-views.com/2019/05/islamic-state-figures-as-major-terrorism-threat-german-intelligence-warns/

[25] Supra note 17 at 6; Supra note 22 at 4-6; Gurbuz, M. (2018, March 19) The Many Complications of Returning Islamic State Fighters. Retrieved from Arab Center Washington DC: http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/the-many-complications-of-returning-islamic-state-fighters/

[26] Supra note 14 at 2-4

[27] Supra note 88 at 83

[28] Supra note 14 at 9-10

[29] Supra note 14 at 12-14

[30] Supra note 22 at 7-8

[31] Supra note 6 at 16

[32] Supra note 22 at 8 and 11; Supra note 11 at 9; Lister, C. (2015, August) Returning Foreign Fighters: Criminalization or Reintegration. Retrieved from Brookings Institution: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/En-Fighters-Web.pdf

[33] Supra note 14 at 8-9

[34] Supra note 32

[35] Supra note 49 at 490-491; Noonan, M. (2014, October 8) 15000 Plus for Fighting: The Return of the Foreign Fighters. Retrieved from War on the Rocks: https://warontherocks.com/2014/10/15000-plus-for-fighting-the-return-of-the-foreign-fighters/

[36] Supra note 47

[37] Supra note 7 at 90; Supra note 49 at 492-493

[38] The Soufan Center (2019, February 25) Reluctant Justice for Returning Foreign Fighters and Families. Retrieved from The Soufan Center: https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-reluctant-justice-for-returning-foreign-fighters-and-families/;

[39] Supra note 19

[40] Supra note 22 at 9

[41] Quell, M. (2019, June 3) EU States Eye Tribunal to Prosecute Islamic State Fighters. Retrieved from Courthouse News Service: https://www.courthousenews.com/eu-states-eye-tribunal-to-prosecute-islamic-state-fighters/

[42] Klausen, J. (2019, June 6) Jihadists Head Home: Thousands of Westerners Joined ISIS. Should They Be Allowed to Return? Retrieved from Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2019-06-06/jihadists-head-home

[43] Paulussen, C. & Entenmann, E. (2014) Addressing Europe’s Foreign Fighter Issue: Legal Avenues at the International and National Level. Security and Human Rights, 25, p. 90; Supra note 11 at 8

[44] Supra note 11 at 8

[45] Coolsaet, R. & Renard, T. (2018, April 11) The Homecoming of Foreign Fighters in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium: Policies and Challenges. Retrieved from International Center for Counter Terrorism The Hague: https://icct.nl/publication/the-homecoming-of-foreign-fighters-in-the-netherlands-germany-and-belgium-policies-and-challenges/

[46] Supra note 22 at 12

[47] Lister, C. (2015, August) Returning Foreign Fighters: Criminalization or Reintegration. Retrieved from Brookings Institution: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/En-Fighters-Web.pdf

[48] Byman, D. & Shapiro, J. (2015, January 12) Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq. Retrieved from Brookings Institution: https://www.brookings.edu/research/be-afraid-be-a-little-afraid-the-threat-of-terrorism-from-western-foreign-fighters-in-syria-and-iraq/

[49] Limbada, Z. & Davies, L. (2016) Addressing the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Phenomenon from a Human Rights Perspective. International Community Law Review, 18, pp. 485-486

[50] Supra note 22 at 9-13

[51] Supra note 11 at 7-8

[52] Supra note 50

[53] Benton, M. & Banulescu-Bogdan, N. (2019, April 3) Foreign Fighters: Will Revoking Citizenship Mitigate the Threat. Retrieved from Migration Policy Institute: https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/foreign-fighters-will-revoking-citizenship-mitigate-threat

[54] Supra note 1 at 2-3

[55] Supra note 3 at 64

[56] Supra note 1 at 2-3

[57] Supra note 22 at 10-14; Supra note 11 at 8-9; Gurbuz, M. (2018, March 19) The Many Complications of Returning Islamic State Fighters. Retrieved from Arab Center Washington DC: http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/the-many-complications-of-returning-islamic-state-fighters/

[58] Hanoush, F. (n.d.) Rehabilitating ISIS Child Soldiers. Retrieved from Atlantic Council: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/?view=article&id=37264:rehabilitating-isis-child-soldiers

[59] The Sydney Morning Herald (2019, April 11) How Australia would Re-Integrate the Children of ISIS. Retrieved from The Sydney Morning Herald: https://www.smh.com.au/please-explain/how-australia-would-re-integrate-the-children-of-isis-20190411-p51d7e.html

[60] Supra note 88 at 84

[61] Supra note 58

[62] Supra note 59; Ferguson, E. (2019, April 30) Bring them Home Relatives of ISIS Fighters Demand Children Be Brought Back from Syria. Retrieved from Express: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1121092/ISIS-islamic-state-children-germany-syria-migrant-camps

[63] Hubbard, B. (2019, March 29) In a Crowded Syria Tent Camp, the Women and Children of ISIS Wait in Limbo. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/29/world/middleeast/isis-syria-women-children.html

[64] Leung, H. (2019, April 3) The Red Cross Wants to Send Hundreds of Children of Islamic State Fighters Home. Retrieved from Time Magazine: https://time.com/5563260/red-cross-children-islamic-state-return/

[65] Jones, S. & Toucas, B. & Markusen, M. (2018, December) From the IRA to the Islamic State: The Evolving Terrorism Threat in Europe. Center for Strategic and International Studies, p. 46; Vale, G. (2018) From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the Women and Minors of the Islamic State. London: International Center for the Study of Radicalization, p. 28

[66] Vale, G. (2018) From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the Women and Minors of the Islamic State. London: International Center for the Study of Radicalization, p. 28

[67] Supra note 63

[68] Alabbasi, M. (2019, February 17) Fate of ISIS Children Poses Special Problems for Europe. Retrieved from The Arab Weekly: https://thearabweekly.com/fate-isis-children-poses-special-problem-europe; Vinopal, C. (2019, April 5) Should the Thousands of ISIS Fighters and their Families be Allowed to Return Home. Retrieved from PBS: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/should-thousands-of-isis-fighters-and-their-families-be-allowed-to-return-home

[69] Supra note 63

[70] Supra note 42; Bond, K. et al (2019, March 4) The West Needs to Take the Politics of Women in ISIS Seriously. Retrieved from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/04/the-west-needs-to-take-the-politics-of-women-in-isis-seriously/; Cook, J. & Vale, G. (2018) From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the Women and Minors of the Islamic State. London: International Center for the Study of Radicalization. pp. 26-28

[71] Supra note 88 at 83-84

[72] Supra note 45

[73] Supra note 63

[74] MacDiarmid, C. (2019, April 16) The Orphans of ISIS: Innocent Children Forsaken in Hellish Syrian Camps. Retrieved from The National: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/the-orphans-of-isis-innocent-children-forsaken-in-hellish-syrian-camps-1.849314

[75] Supra note 64

[76] Al Jazeera (2019, April 18) UN Urges Help for Thousands of Foreign Children in ISIL Camp. Retrieved from Al Jazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/urges-thousands-foreign-children-isil-camp-190418184038674.html

[77] Osseiran, H. (2019, January 26) Syria: The Festering Threat of Informal ISIS Prisons. Retrieved from The National: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/syria-the-festering-threat-of-informal-isis-prisons-1.818009

[78] Dworkin, A. (2019, May 31) A Tribunal for ISIS Fighters. Retrieved from European Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_a_tribunal_for_isis_fighters#

[79] Supra note 42; Gurbuz, M. (2018, March 19) The Many Complications of Returning Islamic State Fighters. Retrieved from Arab Center Washington DC: http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/the-many-complications-of-returning-islamic-state-fighters/; The Soufan Center (2019, June 3) French Foreign Fighters Sentenced to Death in Iraq. Retrieved from The Soufan Center: https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-french-foreign-fighters-sentenced-to-death-in-iraq/; Dent, E. (2019, March) The Unsustainability of ISIS Detentions in Syria. Middle East Institute Policy Paper 5, p. 4

[80] Foltyn, S. (2019, June 2) Inside the Iraqi Courts Sentencing Foreign ISIS Fighters to Death. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/02/inside-the-iraqi-courts-sentencing-foreign-isis-fighters-to-death; Dent, E. (2019, March) The Unsustainability of ISIS Detentions in Syria. Middle East Institute Policy Paper 5, p. 5

[81] Supra note 79

[82] Supra note 65

[83] Rasheed, Z. & Najjar, F. (2019, February 19) Burden of Victory: What Should Happen to European ISIL Prisoners. Retrieved from Al Jazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/burden-victory-happen-european-isil-prisoners-190218233213761.html

[84] The Soufan Center (2018, August 13) Positive Moves on Islamic State Foreign Fighters. Retrieved from The Soufan Center: https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-positive-moves-on-islamic-state-foreign-fighters/

[85] Supra note 77

[86] Dent, E. (2019, March) The Unsustainability of ISIS Detentions in Syria. Middle East Institute Policy Paper 5, p. 2

[87] Supra note 17 at 10

[88] Speckhard, A. et al (2017) What to Expect Following a Military Defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Journal of Terrorism Research, 8(1), p. 83

[89] Supra note 3 at 65-66; Supra note 88 at 84

[90] Supra note 49 at 491-493

[91] Supra note 20 at 42

[92] Supra note 14 at 14

[93] Supra note 47

[94] Supra note 22 at 15

Jimmy Matar
Jimmy Matar
Jimmy Matar is a researcher about Middle Eastern politics, with a special interest in identities. He holds a BA in International Affairs and Diplomacy from Notre Dame University in Lebanon and an MA in International Relations from Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is currently the Research and Administrative Officer at the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies. Alongside his work in research, he was and continues to be involved in various civil society organizations focusing on human rights.