In the United Kingdom, a complex international case has fueled a heated debate, with deep legal, ethical, political, and security implications. The last development depended on a controversial ruling: the UK Supreme Court had to decide whether Shamima Begum, the London schoolgirl who traveled to Syria in 2015 to join the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), could return home to mount her defense. Eventually, on 26 February, the president of the court said the judges had decided unanimously to rule against Begum.
The Begum Case is a Symbol of a Bigger Problem
The 21-year-old Begum, who was stripped of her citizenship in February 2019, is still in a small detention camp, al-Roj, in northeastern Syria. When she was rediscovered by the international press around that time, she was in another, larger camp, al-Hawl. Begum inspired disgust in Britain when she expressed continued sympathy for the jihadist organization in media interviews, and some sympathy when she lost her newborn son in March 2019.
In recent years, similar cases have emerged across Europe and beyond. Despite a general drop in public attention, the foreign fighter problem has not disappeared. Thousands of jihadists and their families are still detained in Syria and in Iraq, in a condition of precarious suspension. Handling these people also represents a major counterterrorism challenge in our time, especially for Europe.
The latest wave of jihadist travelers, headed for Syria and Iraq, has shown unprecedented pace and scale. Available estimates refer to no less than 40,000 individuals (mainly adult men but also adult women and children), from more than 100 countries. Among these volunteers, over 5,000 thousand came from Europe, with significant differences from one country to another. Around 80 percent of them were from four states: France (about 1,900 individuals), Germany (more than 1,000), the United Kingdom (over 900), and Belgium (more than 500).
According to recent estimates, approximately 1,000 to 1,100 European foreign fighters are still in camps or in prisons in Syria, while only a few dozen are in Iraq. They have different backgrounds, motivations, affiliations, and responsibilities.
European Governments Are Reluctant to Take Back Jihadists
So far, European governments have adopted different national policies but they have generally shared a common reluctance to repatriate their own citizens, with very few exceptions (in particular, Kosovo, facilitated by U.S. assistance), despite repeated requests from Washington, especially after the Turkish offensive into northern Syria in October 2019.
Interestingly, while on many occasions governments give the impression of overreacting after terrorist attacks, in this case European states are accused of underreaction in the face of increasing risks. Both types of response are problematic. The European states’ substantial inaction in repatriation is not based on a lack of information about the issue and the risks involved. Moreover, there is no genuine ideologically driven resistance. On the contrary, it appears to be a combination of deliberate intention not to act (especially when it comes to male adults) and passive reluctance, due to real limitations and constraints.
Specifically, we can distinguish four main reasons for such underreaction: legal issues, domestic political risks, economic costs, and, above all, security concerns:
- From a legal point of view, prosecuting jihadist returnees at home can be demanding. Not all European countries have appropriate legal instruments to successfully handle criminal court proceedings against these individuals: in a few countries, for example, foreign fighting per se is not a crime. Moreover, collecting relevant evidence in Syria and Iraq is not easy and, additionally, “battlefield evidence” from combat zones may not always be considered admissible in proceedings. As a consequence of this sort of limitations, in February 2019, for example, British authorities admitted that only one in ten jihadists (around 40 out of more than 400) returning from Syria to the U.K. had been successfully prosecuted.
- Domestic political risks are not less relevant. In several European countries, the idea to re-import, so to speak, potentially dangerous people—and particularly adults who, unlike children, had voluntarily left their country to join jihadist armed groups abroad—is not popular. Governments or at least some majority parties prefer to avoid potential blame. Furthermore, in general, as public policy scholars can teach us, it is harder to blame decision makers for doing nothing than for doing something. Perhaps the most telling case in this regard came from Norway. In January 2020, the Prime minister in Oslo lost its parliamentary majority when the right-wing Progress Party withdrew its ministers for its opposition to take back a suspected ISIS member with her two children from Syria, on humanitarian grounds (one child required medical treatment).
- Taking charge of these individuals could also imply significant economic and (and, in part, logistical) investments, at least for countries that still have relatively large national contingents in Syria and Iraq, such as France (approximately 150-200 adults and 200-250 children). The costs for transfers, trials, surveillance, possible deradicalization and reintegration initiatives, and other expenses might not be negligible—and, even more importantly, these costs might be even considered unsustainable, when combined with political hostilities.
- Finally, we need to consider the risk of repatriating potentially dangerous people, to the extent that returnees have not really abandoned jihadist ideology and remain interested in using or at least promoting violence to achieve their extremist goals.
The Security Threat of Returnee Foreign Fighters
This last reason for hesitancy on the part of European governments is their worst-case scenario: a returned foreign fighters takes advantage of the ties, combat experience, and social status they gained in conflict areas to support or even personally carry out acts of violence. This is not farfetched since many of these people were on the path to terrorism before they left. In Europe, most jihadist perpetrators are known to authorities prior to their attacks and yet cannot be stopped. Adding returnees adds to the threat in Europe.
Furthermore, recent terrorist incidents in Europe, such as the 2019 London Bridge stabbing and the 2020 Vienna shootings, have already demonstrated that, at least some monitored jihadist perpetrators are able to skillfully conceal their real beliefs and plans until it is too late to do anything about it. In this context, if a repatriated foreign fighter actually committed a terrorist attack in a European country, how could the government avoid direct blame?
Still, according to recent original data, among the 101 jihadists who have committed an act of terrorism in Europe since the proclamation of the self-styled Caliphate on 29 June 2014, only fifteen have been returnees, although some of them were associated with high-level attacks in the period 2015-2017, such the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Bataclan attacks in 2015, and the Brussels bombings in 2016.
Regardless of whether an attack is carried out, repatriation of jihadist foreign fighters would increase the workload of European counterterrorism agencies that are already busy monitoring thousands of suspected jihadists, in the midst of a global pandemic.
An additional problem: even if the jihadists are imprisoned on some charge, likely quite briefly, there is a risk of them proselytizing in prison, where the problem of radicalization is already serious.
Most European governments are not ready to bear certain costs and risks in the here and now in order to avoid potentially more serious dangers from overseas in the future. Against this background, the proactive repatriation en bloc of European foreign fighters seems at the moment to be an unrealistic solution. A few countries, including the United Kingdom and Denmark, are even attempting to avoid any responsibility by revoking the citizenship of jihadists like Shamima Begum. This is already spilling out into disagreements and tensions between countries.
There are a few European countries that have taken the opposite route: for example, Italy, has repatriated not only children (including an 11-year-old child with an Albanian passport), but also women, and even, in exceptional cases, two male fighters. But in many ways this is the exception that proves the rule: Italy did this because it has such a relatively small national contingent to deal with, around 145 foreign fighters with ties to the country, so can handle the burden without undue stress.
If taking the jihadists back is troublesome, clearly the alternative of leaving European foreign fighters in Syria also has very problematic implications. Camps for women and children, such as the “annex” of the vast al-Hawl camp, and makeshift prisons for men, are usually overcrowded environments in dire conditions that risk of further facilitating radicalization. Episodes of violence in these facilities are not rare and have increased in recent weeks. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen the situation – and it already caused a suspension of repatriations for months. The greatest danger is that a faction of these individuals, including even battle-hardened fighters in prisons, could escape and continue to advance the jihadist cause.
The opportunity explored of holding trials in Syria under the auspices of the Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” is, to say the least of it, uncertain, and not only because the legitimacy of any such courts from a non-state actor is deeply in question. The other obvious option, establishing a special international tribunal, simply does not have sufficient political support.
Overall, at present, due to the four intertwined motivations mentioned above, large-scale repatriation initiatives appear to be unlikely. Ultimately, the purposeful reluctance of most European countries may not be right or forward-looking, but, on closer inspection, it is not irrational.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.