Perhaps 5,000 Europeans journeyed to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, not merely as fighters for a terrorist group but as part of its “caliphate” state-building project, which collapsed in early 2019. Some large number of these people are dead, others have gone into hiding awaiting IS’s revival, and at least hundreds of them are in nominal camps—small but cramped, unruly towns at this stage—in northern Syria, in the zone held by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with Coalition support.
The public debate in Europe about what should be done in these circumstances has been intensifying of late, and definitive answers are few from states and individuals as a balance is sought between law, morality, and security.
To shed some light on how these trade-offs might be better considered, EER put together an expert panel.
Francesco Marone is a researcher on terrorism and radicalization, and an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague and at ISPI in Milan. He recently wrote for EER exactly on the subject of how Western governments are dealing with the repatriation of their citizens who joined ISIS.
Liam Duffy is a London-based consultant and currently an advisor to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP). His most recent report was about ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidi minority, and in particular the role of Western foreign fighters.
Dr. Marone began by noting that almost all European countries are “not very active, to say the least,” in repatriating their own citizens. Despite legal and political pressure, these states remain reluctant for four (somewhat overlapping) reasons:
First, legal issues. The ability to secure a prosecution for returnee foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) is highly uneven as between European states. In Italy, for example, it is simply illegal to join a foreign militant group, albeit the sentence for this can be quite short. In other states, it is required that the individual be shown to have committed criminal acts while in Syria or Iraq as part of ISIS. On the other side, the SDF is a non-state actor, it lacks sovereignty and diplomatic recognition, so it has no legitimacy to set up courts to try these men and women.
Second, domestic political risks. Repatriation is consistently unpopular among European publics. Norway is a classic case: in that most liberal country, the government collapsed a year ago over the repatriation of one family.
Third, economic costs. Very much related to the political resistance to repatriation, there is an objection to spending money on the effort and logistics to bring home citizens who joined a terrorist group that waged war against their countries. And this initial cost then spirals once these people are brought home: at best they need imprisonment and some kind of deradicalization and reintegration process; at worst, there will be no legal grounds to hold them and they will need 24/7 surveillance, which is immensely expensive.
Finally, and most significantly, is the security concerns. The security concerns underlie most of the political and economic concerns; the objection to spending money to bring these people home is that once they are home they pose a danger to the community. The unreliability of the deradicalization programs is a huge part of this: countering violent extremism (CVE) has to be applied, but it is “not a perfect tool”; there has to be a realistic appreciation of what it can and cannot do, especially after several high-profile cases, in Britain especially, of jihadists pretending to be deradicalized and then committing further terrorist acts.
It should be noted that not all returnees are dangerous in themselves in the sense that they would go on to carry out a terrorist attack, and this is especially true of the women, says Marone. But this does not mean they do not pose a challenge: they can contribute to radicalization, for example, or form logistical support of terrorist attacks.
Repatriation, therefore, is deeply problematic, substantively and politically. “The alternatives to repatriation are no less problematic”, though, says Marone. The idea of prosecutions in Syria is essentially impossible; an international tribunal just does not have the necessary support. And so on.
In terms of answers to this, there is not a blanket solution, says Marone. Any answers will be piecemeal. Italy provides a case study. As it transpires, Italy is one of the easier cases: it has strong legal tools, the returnees issue (for better or worse) has not become a major political issue and thus the economics objections do not arise, and the political resistance is less because, for a variety of historical reasons, jihadists tend not to threaten Italy domestically. This cannot be relied on elsewhere, of course, so states are hostages to local circumstance.
Liam Duffy started where Marone left off by noting that “there are no easy solutions and if we all recognized that we could have a more productive debate”. With Marone having covered much of the “obligations” side of thing, Duffy said he wanted to focus on “memory”.
Duffy had been working in Britain’s anti-extremism PREVENT strategy for several months when ISIS declared its “caliphate” in 2014, which triggered a tidal wave of problems for CVE and security professionals as a flood of people tried to leave the country to join this project. Amid the difficulties of the moment, says Duffy, he became “uncomfortable and troubled by a lot of the discourse” that surrounded the situation, and wishes to challenge some of these ideas—ideas that remain fashionable to the point of being cliches in the political debate and the media even now.
The scale of the foreign fighter flow to ISIS in the lead-up to and after the “caliphate” declaration in 2014 was unprecedented in its scale but the phenomenon of Sunni Muslims in Europe travelling to join extremist groups in conflict zones was far from new: it dated back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, through Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s, and Iraq in the early 2000s. In short, says Duffy, much of the coverage—official and popular—“over-individualized” the phenomenon and uprooted it from its historical context, ignoring thirty years of precedent and lessons from overseas Islamist conflicts.
At the height of ISIS crisis, Duffy notes, one began to see the spread of this “therapeutic-style language, medicalizing language”, where people were “at risk of being radicalized”, and the whole issue was subsumed into the modern legalistic language of “safety” and “vulnerability”, with the counter-messaging taking the form of leaflets you might find in a doctor’s office warning that this thing called “radicalization” could be caught. This reinforced the over-individualization on the one side, acting as if there was no data available on how extremist movements grow, and on the other side it lifted the agency of these people—they were no longer terrorists who had chosen a cause they were willing to kill and die for, but people who had been infected with “radicalization”, their brains seized by some malevolent force beyond their control.
In the aftermath, some countries, like Britain, have avoided the hard work of memory, of excavating what happened and getting the historical record down so that it can help the next time. Other states, France and Belgium most notably, have managed to do much better and to get the public sector and the private realm, particularly the academic world, to work together on this. The reluctance of Britain, says Duffy, is not really a surprise because the data emerging is damning in terms of how it reflects on the assumptions that have underlay Britain’s police and discourse around this issue.
Duffy points out that a major finding of the data is “massive geographical clustering” around where people live and socialize, with infamous cases like Molenbeek in Brussels, certain arrondissements of Paris, and Toulouse. When this question is applied in the British context, Duffy points out, the result is the same: if the zone around the home of Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber at the Manchester Arena in 2017, is assessed, one finds a cluster of jihadists who either joined or tried to join ISIS out of all proportion to anything else in the vicinity. Similar results turn in from Cardiff, Portsmouth, and around Westminster University and the more extreme Islamic associations in London.
The fact that jihadist foreign fighters come from physical clusters severely undermines the notion that recruitment is primarily an online phenomenon, Duffy notes: were that so, recruits’ origins would show a disparate pattern. And this is where the ignorance of the historical context comes in: in places like Toulouse and Nice in France, major recruitment hotspots for ISIS this time around, the groundwork had been laid ten years earlier by jihadists creating networks to send volunteers to ISIS’s predecessor in Iraq. That this social infrastructure was the key variable can be seen by the counter-case of a city like Marseilles: very large Muslim population, serious crime and deprivation, no less racism or internet access than the rest of the country—all of the factors that various scholars have advanced as root causes in these other places, and yet less than half-a-dozen people from Marseilles joined ISIS.
Duffy points out that while the ISIS facilitation networks built on foreign fighter mobilization infrastructure from a decade and more earlier, it has to be recognized that those original networks that enabled violent activity only became possible after a period of “softening up” by Muslim Brotherhood-linked and Salafist groups had worked for many years to provide the “ideological oxygen” for the violent extremist groups to take root in these neighbourhoods.
Duffy concludes by saying that he would wish to endorse what Marone had said on the legal front, but “nudge” the discussion away from the home front, in a way, to include what these people did to local inhabitants in Syria and Iraq, and to more firmly recognize their agency, especially those who joined ISIS after they knew what it was doing to exterminate the Yazidis, an enterprise in which, the available evidence suggests, Western foreign fighters were disproportionately involved. Repatriation might well be unavoidable but the “celebritization” of individuals like Shamima Begum is not a necessity, Duffy notes: the practical reality of what was done should be at the centre of the discussion.
“We could do with less of the cliches, less of the superficial explanations”, Duffy says, and above all to restore the historical context: “The people who joined ISIS were not the victims. The people who lived under ISIS were the victims.”
In the question-and-answer session, Marone noted that he focused on security and counter-terrorism perspective, and on this he understood the concerns people have because the sentences tend to be too short for those repatriated, sufficient neither as a deterrent nor to give the state long enough access to reform the prisoner. As with everything in this discussion, however, it is even more complicated, Marone notes, because longer sentences immediately raise a longstanding problem, for governments in the Middle East and in the West: prison radicalization.
There is clearly a difficulty in gathering evidence from warzones as chaotic as Syria and Iraq, Duffy notes, but he also points out that there has not actually been that much work on this by state judiciaries in Europe. At the present time, more has been done by activist groups, especially Yazidis, and journalists in Germany and elsewhere, to gather witness testimony and track down ISIS killers—to the point that in several instances now this information has been gathered by these non-governmental organizations and only after that did the state move against the criminals.
On a similar note, Marone pointed out that while repatriation for women who has joined ISIS—based on the current data—is not, generally speaking, a security risk in the strict sense, it creates a moral dilemma: these women defected from their countries, they joined an Islamist extremist group warring against those countries, many of them took children to this Islamic State, and most of them still believe in its ideology, so it leaves the question of responsibility: Why should states bring such people back into their midst?
While it might seem to some a “cheap” point, Duffy says, it nonetheless is true that all the political difficulties and the polarization over this question of handling the returnees from ISIS would be at a much lower level, if not entirely absent, if the predicament we were in was that some large number of Western citizens had joined an openly genocidal neo-Nazi or white supremacist organization, in the midst of a genocide, that they were publicising on social media.
Marone said in his closing statement that this problem has not gone away; this is a cyclical problem and all the dynamics are in place for an increase in the future. Marone pointed to the 2011 to 2014 period as an analogue for the moment we are now in: at that time, most saw the situation as reasonably quiet in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s demise, but ISIS became a crisis very quickly.
Duffy’s closing statement underlined the point: there is no reason to believe jihadism has been eclipsed; to the contrary, the foreign fighter problem is larger than ever, and the possibility of some new conflict erupting that can draw on these thicker, wider networks is far from inconceivable. In Britain, there was an apparent “huge gap” in jihadi attacks, from 7/7, the July 2005 bombings in London, to the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in 2013—but clearly the problem had been building all that time, and exploded visibly the next year once ISIS proclaimed its “caliphate”. “Jihadism has a decades-long horizon”, Duffy concluded; we cannot afford, just because of the current disinterest of the media and the distractions with U.S. politics, to “take our eye off the ball”. This seeming downtime should be used to interrogate the historical record, to ensure it is as complete as it can be, so it can be drawn on next time.