Since the fall of the “ISIS caliphate,” thousands of European foreign fighters and their families have been stranded in Syria and Iraq. So far, European capitals have been reluctant to repatriate their nationals and children born in the territories formerly controlled by the Islamic State, despite experts warning that inaction may be more dangerous in the long run.
Reports estimated that some 5,500 foreigners in Syria and Iraq were either coming from the EU 27 or were born to parents of EU nationals. The numbers may be higher due to gaps in the available information and under-reporting by countries.
A review of the 10 states that yielded the largest numbers of ISIS foreign fighters and family members found that most of these countries, especially in Europe and the Middle East, are reluctant to repatriate their citizens. Children and women - the latter are often seen as victims - have been the primary exceptions, especially in Central Asian countries.
The reason is that some European leaders believe that “Repatriating terrorists would be political suicide…,” said Thomas Renard, a senior research fellow at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Belgium. European nations also claim that home-country courts might not be able to successfully prosecute fighters due to a lack of battlefield evidence, Renard said.
Estimated ISIS Numbers
The European Commission estimated that more than 40,000 fighters joined ISIS, and 5,000 of them are believed to have come from Europe. 30% of them were returned, and 10% was killed in the combat zones. Thomas Renard and Ric Colsait, two Belgian experts on extremist affairs at the Egmont Institute in Brussels, confirmed that on March 30, 2021, there were more than 600 children of European ISIS fighters and families being held in northeastern Syria. In addition to 400 children detained in the Syrian city of Al-Hasakah, their number is about 1,000 Europeans. France is the on top of the list of European detainees, followed by Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium.
Since the ISIS territorial collapse in 2019, thousands of women and children believed to be affiliated with ISIS have been held in detention camps in northeast Syria, under inhumane and life-threatening conditions.
An estimated 1,000 European women and children are currently detained in the camps—the vast majority of whom (more than 640) are children. France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK are among the major European countries of origin for these detainees. An increasing number of voices—including the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, the Council of Europe as well as other actors ranging from security experts and child protection agencies for the relatives of the women and children—have been calling on European States to repatriate their child nationals from the camps.
Complexities of Prosecution
Beyond the legal complexities of prosecution, the question what to do with foreign fighters has put some of our core values up for debate. While Europe and the Netherlands does not support capital punishment and has signed international conventions on human rights, several politicians have argued in favor of letting the captured European, Dutch fighters be tried in Iraq or Syria, where they would likely be put to death. In that context, the death penalty has been called the “ultimate consequence.” The fate of the children of captured foreign fighters is an even more sensitive issue. While most agree that these children cannot be held accountable for their parents´ crimes, the question whether this means that the state has the moral obligation to try to repatriate them has been an ongoing matter of contention.
Repatriation opponents often argue that they would be unable to deal with returnees due to a lack of capacities and resources. It holds true that past terror incidents on European soil involved returnees who were well-known to intelligence agencies but fell off their radar due to insufficient means and poor cooperation between security services. Learning from these failures, however, European states have increased both their soft and hard power capacities. Thus, they augmented their counterterrorism budgets and improved inter-agency and inter-state information sharing, homogenized EU policies towards adult returnees, strengthened the prosecution, and accumulated experience in the deradicalization and rehabilitation of extremists. Hence, instead of leaving foreign fighters in an environment prone to alienate them further, repatriation allows European states to turn them away from violence.
The departure of substantial numbers of ‘foreign fighters’—citizens from European countries travelling to Islamic State (ISIS)-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria—and the occurrence of terrorist attacks on European soil, have prompted renewed interest in citizenship deprivation as a policy measure. Especially since the fall of ISIS in 2019, a fierce debate has emerged on what to do with foreign fighters who are still believed to be in Iraq and Syria.
While there have been calls upon European states to repatriate those foreign fighters held in Kurdish and US captivity and deal with them in the domestic criminal justice system, most European states have so far refused to bring ‘their’ foreign fighters back. Rather, there are clear indications that European governments do what is in their power to prevent foreign fighters from returning, making use of legislative reforms that have expanded deprivation powers in recent years, or initiating new reforms to prevent a similar situation in the future.
A number of escapes by ISIS women and children have been reported in Al-Hol camp. According to the Kurdish forces, more than 700 attempted escapes were prevented between March 2019 and September 2020, noting that these attempts have increased since October 2019. This significant number of attempted breakouts highlights the growing importance of financing and smuggling networks that allow these women to raise funds and get support for their exfiltration, the cost of which is estimated about $10,000.
Repatriation is necessary
The Special Rapporteurs reiterate their clear and consistent positions that the urgent return and repatriation of foreign fighters and their families from conflict zones is the only international law-compliant response to the increasingly complex and precarious human rights, humanitarian and security situation faced by those women, men and children who are detained in inhumane conditions in overcrowded camps, prisons, or elsewhere in the northern Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq. Such return is a comprehensive response that amounts to a positive implementation of Security Council resolutions 2178 (2014) and 2396 (2017) and is considerate of a State’s long-term security interests.
Children in the ranks of ISIS have been often defined as a ‘ticking time bomb’ by European security services and also by the EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, who recently warned States about the worrying fate of children detained in Iraq if they - and their mothers - do not have access to effective disengagement and deradicalization processes. Generally speaking, children associated with armed forces or armed groups get there in one of three ways: they are abducted or conscripted through force or serious threats; they present themselves and become enlisted - enrolled; or, they are born into armed forces or groups. Unlike other non-State armed groups and terrorist organizations, child soldiering under the ISIS rule affected the whole family unit as many adults who moved to Syria and Iraq brought their next-of-kin along with them or started a family there.
Terrorism poses multi-dimensional challenges and requires multi-dimensional responses. Experience has shown that respecting and protecting human rights and fundamental rule of law principles are not an impediment to, but a vital condition for addressing security threats effectively. The threats posed by so-called “foreign terrorist fighters” (FTFs) and the responses required to address those threats are no exception. Human rights and the rule of law provide a solid framework for effective action to address the potential threats posed by individuals who travel for terrorism-related purposes.
Since the 2015 wave of terrorist attacks in Europe, foreign fighters have become persona non grata. In order to avoid returning their imprisoned citizens, European governments have considered many options in the region, including deportation programs, international courts or other specific jurisdiction mechanisms - everything except for repatriation. It is impossible to predict what will happen to the residents in the Kurdish camps and prisons in Syria since hundreds of European fighters have been captured or surrendered during the campaigns against ISIS, with most of them in Kurdish prisons in northern Syria and others in Iraqi prisons.
Europe has still not resolved its position on the return of foreign fighters and their families, despite international pressures. So far, it is still arguing that it needs to obtain data and criminal examinations, but it seems that Europe has taken the political position of rejecting the return of ISIS elements and their families. Europe has only repatriated a few women, although children and others managed to sneak illegally into Europe.
It is estimated that the return of ISIS fighters is very unpopular in most European countries and Europeans see that efforts made so far to rehabilitate former and potential extremists across Europe have not produced encouraging results. If European countries agree to take back the fighters and their families, it will likely cost the governments a loss of many electoral votes and will make them a relatively easy target for far-right and populist political parties.