The perception of the threat from jihadist terrorism, which looms over the different countries of the European Union (EU) and indeed the wider world, has undergone an important evolution of late. This has changed the governments’ perspective on the appropriate responses.
The defeat of the Islamic State (Daesh) in Syria and Iraq has caused a shift in the main concern for EU Member States. Where previously they were most worried about domestic radicalization and their citizens leaving to join the ranks of foreign terrorist groups, now the concern is about the return of these citizens to their countries of origin and the threat they pose to national security and social cohesion.
The recent media reporting on European citizens who joined armed groups in conflict zones, namely Syria, returning home has triggered a broad and contentious debate, which has divided not only public opinion but governments, with various departments pushing for different solutions in terms of the most appropriate way to manage these returnees—or whether to allow them to return and keep their nationality.
The Spanish government is among those that has been tasked with developing adequate tools, and communicating their necessity, in the face of this phenomenon. The results of these efforts have been the recent Spanish National Strategy Against Terrorism (NSAT), published on February 22, 2019.
For the first time, it identifies the return of terrorists from conflict zones as one of the main risks that the state has to be cognizant of when delivering Spanish counter-terrorism policy.
Currently, according to the data provided by the Spanish Ministry of Interior, a minimum of 230 people from Spain, either citizens or residents—mainly from Ceuta, Melilla, Madrid, and Catalonia—went abroad to conflict areas and joined the various jihadist groups. Approximately 25% died there and 20% have returned, so about fifty cases are being followed or managed.
These returnees, per the recently delivered NSAT, are the group that represents the greatest risk, due to the training and indoctrination they received, and the real chance they will incite, recruit for, or assist in terrorist attacks within the national boundaries. The main response intends to control and monitor these individuals through surveillance, prosecution, and imprisonment.
The Spanish strategy to deal with the phenomenon of returnees had been developed previously through the National Strategic Plan, analyzed previously at EER, which tried to prevent and counter radicalization, focusing on monitoring and assessing the risk of individuals. This relied on the Spanish security forces working alongside local prevention groups and the site Stopradicalismos.com, where civil society can alert authorities to possible cases of radicalization.
Part of the Spanish counter-radicalization strategy includes a penitentiary policy. Special attention has been given to preventing and countering radicalism in the prisons, and the returnees’ phenomenon places stress on this. In many countries, in the Middle East and beyond, prisons have become a breeding ground for Islamist extremists. If Spain succeeds in imprisoning dangerous returnees, it then faces the problem of preventing them from radicalizing other inmates. This is as well as the ongoing struggle to find a process of de-radicalization and disengagement for those already radicalized inmates.
In Spain, in recent years the prison population linked to jihadist terrorism has experienced an exponential growth as a result of the increasing proficiency of the counter-terrorism security forces. People convicted or in prison for crimes related to jihadist terrorism exceed 130 and are distributed in thirty prisons.
The prisons’ policy has been carried out in Spain under the Framework Program to fight radicalization. The available data shows that since it was launched in 2017, 41 inmates have participated in the program. Thirteen of them continue to be actively involved; ten have successfully completed the program; and eighteen have abandoned the program for various reasons—either released, transferred to another prison, expelled, or have voluntarily withdrawn.
This innovative new Spanish strategy against terrorism aims at “developing specific comprehensive treatment and monitoring programs for returned foreign terrorist fighters, with special attention to the perspectives of gender and age”.
The intent is to support the securitized aspects of policy with the necessary measures to disengage, deradicalize, and where possible reintegrate returnee foreign fighters. This means involving other family members, meeting mental health needs, and providing for basic material wellbeing in order to boost the success of these programs, as advised by international organizations from the EU and United Nations to the Radicalization Awareness Network, Council of Europe, and OSCE.
Serious as these issues are, the greatest immediate challenge for the new Spanish strategy is the legal one: there has been tremendous difficulty prosecuting the returnees in an appropriate manner.
To try to overcome this, the new strategy highlights international collaboration as a must for the returnees’ management. It establishes as its main objective the establishment of “mechanisms that allow the incorporation into the judicial procedure of the evidence obtained in conflict zones, with the corresponding procedural guarantees and safeguarding the reserve of investigations in progress”.
Therefore, the judicial way to proceed with the subsequent processing and imprisonment of these returnees is considered as a priority.
In sum, the revamp of the judicial and penitentiary approaches, and the improvements to the national policy on prevention and countering violent extremism and radicalism, including the necessary update of related legal tools and frameworks, is a good start, but there are a number of issues that still need to be addressed and developed in order to properly manage the returnee jihadists to Spain. The follow-up or after-care phase is the primary policy area that remains to be developed. Proper practitioners, plus buy-in from local authorities and probably families, will be needed to track the situation of those who are allowed back into the community after they have passed through disengagement and deradicalization programs.