G7 countries eye threat of foreign fighters’ return
OTTAWA - Throughout the three years of its so-called caliphate, the Islamic State (ISIS) attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq to fight for its cause but the group has lost almost all its territory, leaving those fighters with a decision.
ISIS’s foreign fighters are either seeking their next jihadist spree or returning to their home countries. A 2017 study by the Soufan Centre and the Global Strategy Network estimated that 5,600 fighters from 33 countries had returned home.
Of those who left the European Union to fight for ISIS, about 1,200 returned. The United Kingdom had the highest number of returnees among European countries — approximately 25. Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are among the countries receiving the most returning ISIS fighters.
The Group of Seven ministerial meeting in April identified the threat of foreign fighters as a key concern. The meeting produced a commitment to manage the threat through information and intelligence sharing and multi-agency interventions.
“We commit to working together to manage the threats posed by these individuals and their families, through a range of enforcement, disruption and prosecution measures,” reads the joint statement, released April 23. “In cases where applicable, [measures of] deradicalisation and reintegration.”
Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said: “Information sharing is going to be the key in terms of movement of people across borders.”
Co-directing a study on Western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo, Amarasingam said the challenge facing policymakers and law enforcement is knowing what type of foreign fighters are returning.
“Not all returnees are going to be the same,” he said. “The disillusioned ones who went looking for utopia and found something very different, those disengaged but not exactly disillusioned and those who are operational — who were basically trained and dispatched back into their home countries.”
Understanding the variety of returning jihadists and what risk they pose is important. However, law enforcement and legal entities are not adequately primed to act against these individuals.
The key problem is prosecution. Criminal justice systems of most Western democracies are meticulous and reliable forensic evidence is required to take a case to court. While Western countries are investigating many alleged crimes committed by their citizens in Syria and Iraq, few are being charged.
For example, a Canadian man known as Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi, who said he spent time with ISIS in Syria, returned home to Toronto in 2016. He was interviewed by the federal police but he was not charged with any offences, although he told a New York Times podcast that he personally executed two men while in Syria.
Given the complexity and challenge of terrorist criminal charges, Canada is adapting approaches to managing those labelled “High-Risk Returnees.” Authorities in Canada are working on obtaining “peace bonds” from courts to limit returnees’ online and offline behaviour and activity.
Mubin Shaikh, a former counterterrorism operative with the Canadian intelligence service who is involved in deradicalisation efforts, said a peace bond is a “halfway point” because it does not meet the threshold of a criminal charge but it does bring returnees into a probationary period of deradicalisation mechanism.
Shaikh said deradicalisation as a process is possible but cautioned that not all returnees are “young and misunderstood.”
“Some [returnees] know exactly what they’re doing when they went and know exactly what they’re doing when they come back,” he said.
Shaikh argued that ISIS may want to infiltrate deradicalisation programmes, so its members enroll, “deradicalise” and then attack, harming the effort and suggesting that such programmes do not work.
Shaikh added that non-kinetic approaches to countering radicalisation and extremism should continue with “heavy reliance on Muslim partners… because a nuanced cultural appreciation needs to be engaged more.” Nevertheless, he said, kinetic operations in war zones must continue to be deployed.
It remains to be seen whether deradicalisation programmes are effective.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” said Amarasingam. “These are our citizens. We have to find ways to reintegrate them back in our societies, much like we do with all prisoners and criminals.”
“The challenge going forward is to monitor their progress over time, while also keeping our security concerns in mind.”
While deradicalisation efforts may be a way to manage and monitor returning jihadists to the West and provide law enforcement a better chance to halt a possible attack, justice is not served. These fighters may have the blood of Syrian and Iraqi victims on their hands.