How will Europe deal with returning IS fighters?

How will Europe deal with returning Islamic State group fighters?
8 min read
28 June, 2018
In-depth: In the aftermath of the Islamic State group's defeat, the question remains what to do with captured and returning fighters and their families, writes Stasa Salacanin.
A wall with the IS flag in city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar [Getty]
From 2015 onwards, returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) became the number one terrorist threat in Europe.

According to EU's Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, of the 5,000 Europeans who joined the Islamic State group [IS] in the region, 1,500 have now returned to their home nations.

It is not known how many of those remaining are still alive, or in detention, but observers say there are several hundred detainees in Iraq and Syrian Kurdish regions.

Europol's recent Terrorism Situation and Trend Report [TE-SAT] warns that a particularly strong security threat is posed by individuals who have received prolonged ideological indoctrination, military training in the use of weapons and explosives, or have gained combat experience during their stay in a conflict region.

They may also have established links to other FTFs abroad and become part of capable transnational networks.

These returning fighters will have increased proficiency in terms of carrying out attacks, will be more brutalised and prone to violence, will have developed a high degree of security awareness, and some will perpetuate the terrorist threat to the EU through radicalising, fundraising and facilitation activities.

Of the 5,000 Europeans who joined the Islamic State group in the region, 1,500 have now returned to their home nations

While the first groups of returnees were often disappointed with their situation in the 'caliphate' and decided to return home, Europol adds, the returnees of already defeated IS will have other motivations.

According to TE-SAT the subsequent activities of the returnees have been diverse.

They range from reduced involvement in the extremist milieu (even to the point where such activities no longer exist), to persons prone to violence.

However, some countries suggested that a disposition to extremist ideology is likely to prevail, which allows the returnee's mobilisation at short notice. And in the light of the horrible terrorist attacks Europe faced in recent years, it is no wonder that governments are extremely reserved about bringing FTF's back home.

Read also: The Islamic State group is not finished – yet

Best FTF is dead FTF

None of EU member states has actively engaged in the process of bringing back citizens detained abroad. Moreover, there have been numerous statements of official figures that contradict everything Europe nominally stands for as far as human rights are concerned, but nevertheless probably reflect the general feeling among EU's population.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly said loud and clear that "if the jihadists perish in this fight, I would say that's for the best."

UK's junior foreign minister Rory Stewart was on the same lines, telling BBC that there was only one way to neutralise British IS fighters.

"Unfortunately, the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them."

State groups in Syria reportedly have tacit instructions on dealing with the foreigners who joined the extremist group – Kill them on the battlefield and the message for months has been 'Ideally, no prisoners'.

French media even reported on the deployment of French Special Forces with orders to eliminate French IS fighters before they were captured or able to return home.

In fact, UK and France have no intention to take their citizens back, while the position of Germany remains unclear.

UK and France have no intention to take their citizens back, while the position of Germany remains unclear

The British are simply revoking FTF's citizenships wherever legally possible. It seems that for European leaders the most welcome solution would be to hand over responsibility for prosecuting the extremists and their followers to the Iraqi, Syrian or Kurdish judicial system.

However, in most cases of active fighters that would mean a death penalty, which EU has been very vocal against everywhere else in the world.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate concern that in many cases, there would be inadequate evidence to secure a conviction in Europe.

But many captured extremists could walk free anyway, since the Syrian Kurds are struggling to keep their IS prisoners under guard and could also use them as leverage for their political goals. So, there is always a possibility that the prisoners will be released at some point.

But it is not just adult men in the detention camps, there are also women and children who followed their husbands and fathers or were born during the caliphate. And while EU countries say they will bring back children up to the age of 10, the public pleads to let the families come back that some of FTF's wives have made, have gone unanswered.

In Germany at least, even children are being regarded as a security threat.

"We consider the return to Germany of jihadists' children, indoctrinated in a warzone, to be dangerous," German intelligence chief Hans-Georg Massen warned. "This could allow a new generation of jihadists to be raised here."

Different approaches to deradicalisation and reintegration

For those who did make it back to Europe, numerous reform programs have been developed. Often, they aim to do more than challenge ideological interpretations by helping in other areas such as schooling, employment, housing, social relations, and psychological welfare.

Dutch initiative called EXIT, for example, focuses on returnees that decide to participate on a voluntary basis, whereas the Danish Aarhus programme focuses solely on returning FTFs who are not being prosecuted for criminal charges.

The latter connects police, state welfare services, and community organisations in providing a range of services to individuals returning from Syria.

Similar initiatives are being introduced in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and other European countries.

A recent study by the Brussels-based Egmont Institute has assessed the still evolving policies in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. Early on, returnees were not systematically prosecuted, let alone convicted, primarily because the criminal code simply did not cover this kind of circumstances. Women were as a general rule not prosecuted.

Since then legislation changes have been adopted throughout Europe and now returnees are arrested and put on trial, with no distinction made between men and women.

Once a returnee is in prison, Belgium prefers a regime of dispersal among the general prison population, while the Netherlands places both, suspects of terrorism-related crimes, as well as convicted terrorists, in a high-security detention centre.

Read also: Islamic State families struggle with life after the 'caliphate'

All three countries developed personalised approach that aims to change individuals' views of violent actions rather than changing their thinking and ideology per se.

Upon release, the three countries have different approaches to reintegration. In the Netherlands, tailor-made accompaniment is available for former convicts to help them get on with their lives. Decisions are made by local authorities and the Dutch Probation Service.

Germany has been implementing a project known as HAYAT since 2012, trying to rehabilitate and reintegrate returned foreign fighters into the German society whenever possible.

The methodology is threefold – it aims to encourage the foreign fighters to abandon the extremist ideology and to refuse violence; to assist returned foreign terrorist fighters in finding employment, and to restore emotional empathy between the returned fighter and their family of origin.

Michiel Schoenmakers, a spokesperson for Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security, told The New Arab that scarcely any returnees have succeeded in leaving the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq and reaching the Netherlands.

As of March 1, 2018, around 300 Dutch people have travelled to Syria and Iraq, approximately 75 of whom have been killed. Of the rest, around 50 extremists have returned to the Netherlands.

As of March 1, 2018, around 300 Dutch people have travelled to Syria and Iraq, approximately 75 of whom have been killed. Of the rest, around 50 extremists have returned to the Netherlands

Returnees are detected as early as possible, Schoenmakers says, to minimise their potential threat. Every returnee is arrested for questioning and is prosecuted based on the criminal investigation.

France, on the other hand, has been completely unsuccessful in its reforming efforts. Only one of the planned 12 deradicalisation centres has been opened after years of delays, and even that one sits empty.

The idea behind Centres for Prevention, Integration and Citizenship as they are officially called, was to impose rigorous routines on those they housed, as well as to subject them to intense courses in French history and philosophy.

Furthermore, an assessment is made of the threat that is posed by each returnee. Returnees are also subject of discussion between all relevant parties on a local level in their municipality of origin. Here it is decided whether any interventions are needed, and which interventions are best suited to minimise the potential threat from a returnee.

As far as children are concerned, all three countries start from the same premise, that children are victims and not criminals.

However, since six-year-olds will have been exposed to extremist indoctrination and nine-years-old will have received military training, a security component is often a part of the programme, especially in the case of teenagers and tailor-made accompaniment is standard practice.

As far as children are concerned, all three countries start from the same premise, that children are victims and not criminals

The Belgian government has been explicit that children under 10 years old should be repatriated, if possible, and put under childcare provisions, while children above 10 will be treated on a case-by-case basis. 

Germany has no official policy yet, but seems to be leaning in the same direction, whereas the topic is only now emerging in the Netherlands, Egmont's paper noted.

Only time will tell, how successful the reintegration programmes have been or indeed can be.

For as long as push factors, such as isolation, marginalisation, polarisation, and the stigmatisation of Islam, stay in place, the genesis of new embryo of radicalisation, whether it be al-Qaeda, IS or something new, is almost guaranteed.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.