The Center for Security Research (CSR) held a webinar on 23 February, “Best Practices and Approaches in the Reintegration of Foreign Terrorist Fighter Returnees”. Hundreds of people left the Balkans to join Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq over the last half-decade, and governments in South-eastern Europe have struggled to comply with the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2396 (passed in 2017) that sets out the terms of dealing with foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). The panel examined the various dimensions of this crisis.
Aleksandar Nacev, the Executive Director of CSR, began by noting that the latest shock in Europe was the November 2020 ISIS attack in Austria, though for the Balkans the trauma still remained of the mass of illegal refugees passing through the zone in 2015.
About 160 people went from Macedonia to “Syraq”, mostly during the height of the ISIS crisis in 2015-16. About forty have been killed, and eighty or so have returned home. The Macedonian government has set out a National Counterterrorism Strategy in 2018 that will last to 2022, and a separate document has been created for reintegration; these two documents form the basis of managing these returnees as security risks.
In the summer of 2016, a series of arrests in Macedonia rolled up twenty-five people who were members or supporters of ISIS. These cells were planned to assist terrorist attacks in the Western Balkans and more broadly in Europe, intended to have a wider propaganda impact than what could be done by these people in Syria and Iraq.
The next problem was that the arrested ISIS members were sent to prison. First, they were given very lenient terms of between three to six years, Nacev explains, and, second, while in prison these people began to radicalize other, non-jihadist prisoners. This latter problem is not country-specific; the problem of containing radicalism in the prisons has affected many Western countries and many in the Middle East.
Put simply, Macedonia now has a permanent security threat from the FTFs. After these arrests in 2016, there were escalations with further arrests finding suicide belts among jihadists. Just a few months ago, in December 2020, more arrests were made as terrorists neared an attack; one of the leaders had previously been in prison for terrorism offences.
Nacev concludes by noting that CSR research has found that apart from the conceptual problems with deradicalization and reintegration, there are problems of competence; the people carrying out these programs for the state are not always well-trained, many do not understand the nature of the ideology, and coordinating across institutions is a perennial problem.
The next speaker, Rabie W. Sedrak, a special adviser for counterterrorism at CSR, focused on the “cubs of the caliphate” (ashbal al-khalifa), the children soldiers ISIS used for tactical advantage in Syria and Iraq. The children left behind as ISIS’s statelet collapsed, exposed to radical ideologies, now pose a threat to peace and stability that is cross-generational, with indoctrinated children growing up to rear their own children in ISIS’s ideology.
Most of the “ISIS children” have remained in Syria and Iraq, but the Balkans has seen a disproportionate number of child returnees. The question now is what to do with them, since traditional “DDR” (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) programs aimed at adults are not tailored for this issue.
One option is to do nothing, but this is the most dangerous, from a security, political, and a number of other vantage points. If something is to be done, it will require large amounts of money and specialists, such as psychiatrists, which stretches the resources of states in the Balkans. Imprisonment is clearly not the ideal situation, though it does have the advantage of containing the danger (and politically is saleable). Reintegration is the ideal, but the issues of resources and efficacy then come to the fore.
Children have been ISIS’s most hard-hit victims, and now this issue is left to European and other governments, who have to try to tell apart the types of child recruits—those who can be brought out of the ideology, with the right care (and what that care is), and those who cannot. The key issue at this point is to open a dialogue to engage the societies in trying to resolve this matter.
In the question-and-answer period, Nacev noted that ISIS surpassed Al-Qaeda in its ability to mobilize, and while some of this was done online, there was much done on the ground as counter-espionage services can attest—with mosques and safe-houses, etc., across the country. The conclusion from all this is that a whole-of-society approach, involving stakeholders from all the sectors—religious, community, security—is the best way, and prevention is better than treatment. This involves being aware of specific locales where there are issues and acting in a timely way.
Regarding Turkey’s role in in combatting terrorism, Sedrak says they have been “not very efficient”. Part of the problem is that Turkey is host to the largest refugee population in the world, and these refugees have come from war-torn countries where access to records for vetting is troublesome. There are issues, though, around the Turkish government and particularly some of its official NGOs and charities, which have been reported to be involved in terrorist financing and even sanctioned by the U.S. for same.