Returning ISIS Fighters

Could Preventing Return of Home-Grown Jihadists Pose a Greater Risk?

As the U.S. prepares to eradicate a small remaining ISIS force in eastern Syria, stories have emerged of regretful Americans and European Muslim women looking to return home. With more than 1,000 European ISIS prisoners detained in northern Syria by US-aligned PKK forces, and US President Donald Trump’s threat to release the fighters if European powers did not take them back and put them on trial, long-standing questions in big western European countries over how to bring home-grown Islamist radicals detained in the war-torn nation to trial are being brought to a head.

France said on Monday that it would take back militants on a “case by case” basis but would not comply with US president Donald Trump’s call at the weekend for European fighters to be repatriated immediately.

Nicole Belloubet, French justice minister, told France 2 television: “At this stage France is not responding to [Trump’s] demands.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a meeting of his counterparts in Brussels that his country has had few opportunities to check on Germans held in Syria.

“They could come to Germany only after ensuring that they could immediately be taken into custody," he told reporters Monday. "At the moment it’s not evident how all this could be guaranteed.”

The UK has taken a hard line on the case of Shamima Begum, the British teenager who travelled from east London to Syria to join ISIS in 2015. Sajid Javid, UK home secretary, wrote to her family on Tuesday informing them he had made an order revoking her citizenship. He said the fact Begum’s parents are of Bangladeshi heritage means she can apply for citizenship of that country – though Begum says she has never been there.

On Wednesday morning the solicitor for the Begum family, Tasnime Akunjee, said the home secretary’s actions were excessive because the government had allowed hundreds of Britons to return, some of whom were suspected of fighting for ISIS. The teenager was not suspected of being an ISIS fighter and has claimed she was a housewife while married to a suspected Isis fighter.

Begum’s case is an emblematic illustration of the security, political and legal difficulties of this new problem. The 19-year-old made the decision to leave her family and school in Bethnal Green at 15 with two school friends to join the terror group. Four years later, she appealed for public sympathy following the birth of her son, as a row intensified in the UK over whether she should be allowed to return.

In the hours after the news broke that a Times journalist had located Begum in a refugee camp in Syria, it became clear that her story would be defined by many layers of entanglement.

Begum exists in two overlapping spheres: Begum is undoubtedly vulnerable and was 15 when she was lured via sophisticated online propaganda to a part of the world she knew little of and married off to a jihadist fighter. But it is also true that she is an unrepentant jihadi that supported an abhorrent murderous terror organisation and whose own children have become victims of the war she entered and claims to be unfazed by the sight of severed heads in a bin.

The question of security and responsibility and the threat that home-grown ISIS members pose is a source of mounting concern. One estimate is that of about 900 UK nationals who went to join ISIS in Syria, a fifth have died, two-fifths have returned, and only one tenth of them have been prosecuted upon their return to the UK. In some cases this because proving who is who and gathering solid evidence against suspects that would stand up in European courts and secure a conviction is difficult.

Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick, acknowledged that travelling to Syria was not an offence in itself, and that if the teenager returned to the UK she would face questioning but that the current law might not be sufficient to see her prosecuted. The Commissioner said: “If there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution it is our job to look at the threat they pose if they are returning from Syria and we do that with every single person who comes back from Syria and then manage the risk with colleagues in the (security and intelligence) agencies."

Alex Younger, head of MI6, emphasized last week that home-grown jihadists were “likely to have acquired the skills and connections that make them potentially very dangerous”.

“That fact needs to be uppermost in our minds as we approach this admittedly extremely complex and difficult problem. Public safety is the first thing that we will consider.”

Sajid Javid wrote in an opinion piece in The Sunday Times newspaper that while he felt “compassion for any child born or brought into a conflict zone" when considering the repatriation of their parents who joined the ISIS he has to think about “the safety and security” of children living in the U.K.

However, Qadir, a senior expert with the government’s counter-extremism Prevent programme and whose charity Active Change Foundation was supported by police and worked with high-profile extremists until 2016 highlighted the threat to public safety of not letting Begum return to the UK: “Javid is fuelling the [ISIS] narrative and giving wind to the sails of other extremists. If we continue with this trajectory we’ll be sowing the narrative for them to reap and use against us.”

Qadir said the home secretary’s emphatic response would backfire. “If the government doesn’t change their approach to this, we potentially have a second wave of ISIS coming, the connecting up and reloading of Isis, fence-sitters who are more sympathetic to another kind of narrative,” he said.

This point was backed by Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, who said any country which chose to punish children for the crimes of their parents would be haunted by that decision.

“Its shortsightedness,” he said. “You cannot leave them in the desert, in the wilderness because they’re going to grow to be wild or feel the need or urge to exact revenge.”

Gerges said governments also have a legal and ethical responsibility to help these children reintegrate. “It’s not their fault that their fathers are killers and their mothers were participants” in ISIS, he said.

Robert Verkaik, author and journalist specialising in extremism and education said that ministers appear oblivious to the “wider influence this iron-fist approach will have on the problem of the radicalisation of young Muslims.”

“Knee-jerk legislation and knee-jerk counterterrorism policy are never good ideas, and may only serve to make martyrs out of common criminals.”

Dr Usama Hasan, senior researcher in Islamic studies at the Quilliam Foundation and a part-time imam, has said that he agrees with Trump that EU nations should take back ISIS fighters as “it is our moral duty, since most of them were radicalised here.

“The knee-jerk reaction of stripping nationality from dual citizens means we would export terrorism abroad.”

If foreign fighters are left in Iraq and Syria, they will be less likely to face justice which could lead to more instability, conflict, and violence. It will also inadvertently allow for hundreds of children to be radicalised. This risks developing into a global security threat as violence could be exported back the world beyond Syria, including the UK and Europe. European nations therefore could be seen as giving up their duty of care towards their citizens by failing to bring terrorists to justice if jihadists are not taken into custody, thoroughly interrogated and put on trial.

Subscribe to the discussion