Europeans face unprecedented challenge over return of ISIS fighters

Specialists do not agree on how large the blowback effect will be.
Sunday 25/02/2018
A policeman looks at screens in a video-surveillance suite in a police station at Les Halles in Paris, last October. (AFP)
Uncharted challenge. A policeman looks at screens in a video-surveillance suite in a police station at Les Halles in Paris, last October. (AFP)

Many Europeans do not want the young Muslims who left European cities for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to come back. Security officials, governments and the media have been worrying for some time about what to do when such people head home.

The question has become much more pressing since the US-led coalition drove the Islamic State (ISIS) from its last strongholds in Syria. It has since been revealed that hundreds of foreign fighters and their families are being held by Kurdish and other rebel groups that do not have the capacity to keep them in secure detention or put them on trial.

The UK government does not want British citizens who were part of an ISIS cell known as the “Beatles” back in Britain but US Defence Secretary James Mattis has called on Britain and other European countries to take responsibility for captured jihadists. His view is that “the country of origin that they were citizens of bears some sense of responsibility… Doing nothing is not an option.”

Thomas Hegghammer, one of the leading experts on the question, wrote that “Syria will prolong the problem of jihadi terrorism in Europe by 20 years.”

In the years following 2011, there was an unprecedented flow of foreign fighters into conflict areas. The closest equivalent was the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, which attracted 20,000 foreign fighters over a 12-year period.

As the fighting escalated in Syria after 2012, the flow of foreign fighters increased from an estimated 700-1,400 in the middle of that year to an estimated 22,000 by early 2015. By then, there were thought to be 3,000 Tunisians, 2,500 Saudis, 1,500 Jordanians and an unspecified number of Moroccans involved in the conflict. From Europe, there were an estimated 1,500 French fighters and half as many from Germany and Britain. Those numbers swelled in 2016, when the British contingent rose to an estimated 1,600 followed by smaller contingents from Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Specialists do not agree on how large the blowback effect will be but as these people return home, the onus of responsibility will shift to their respective governments to determine the most effective response.

The response in Europe thus far has been either “hard” or “liberal.” These diverging views can have dangerous repercussions, especially when immediate-term security objectives ignore longer-term security objectives, such as social integration, community cohesion and state-citizen relations.

Fusing both approaches should, in theory, be possible but governments often play to hardening public opinion. Yet washing their hands of the problem and openly wishing for foreign fighters to be killed in action, as some government officials have done, is not only unseemly but impractical: Should such fighters held by Kurdish groups or in Iraq be allowed to disappear, through summary execution? Should they be allowed to escape to other theatres of conflict? Or should they be seen to face justice?

Some argue that foreign fighters should be stripped of their citizenship. This assumes that citizenship is a privilege that must be earned — and that foreign fighters have forfeited this privilege —  but it also risks creating two distinct classes of citizens. The truth is that Britain cannot simply disown its nationals when they present a threat to the rest of the world.

Against this uncompromising stance are those who say that such repressive policies discourage disaffected foreign fighters from returning home. The former chairman of the Brixton mosque in London, Abdul Haqq Baker, who has focused on deradicalisation, points out that the acts of violence such people have witnessed in Syria and Iraq may have helped them change their views and understand the counter-narratives to their original extremist views.

In 2009, observers remarked that Britain’s counterterror strategy had poisoned relations between the central government and local councils as local authorities were strong-armed into carrying out community programmes that looked like disguised intelligence work.

In France, where invasive surveillance laws have been adopted, some argued that hard-line tactics would discourage the return of non-threatening foreign fighters, who may have invaluable intelligence sources or tools for delegitimising terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Hard-line policies have not demonstratively slowed the outward flow of foreign fighters. The former head of counterterrorism for the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6, Richard Barrett, went one step further in 2015, arguing that it was “not acceptable to give terrorism the victory of restricting our freedoms of expression, our freedoms of movement and the rights to a fair trial in public… Terrorism will not be defeated by security measures alone. Its appeal must be understood and reduced by targeted measures that make other options more attractive.”

Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5 has pointed out that “far from being religious zealots, many of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly… Many could be regarded as religious novices.”

Western governments face a daunting task. Efforts to detain and prosecute ISIS members swiftly, prevent them proselytising in jails and help them reintegrate in society cannot be avoided. Surveillance will be costly but combating radicalisation and the recruitment of future jihadists is first and foremost a battle of values. Will Western governments, in particular the United Kingdom, heed the advice of their security services?