The Challenges of Returning Foreign Fighters: The European Response(s)

The disintegration of the so-called Islamic State since 2015, the decimation of its power structures in Iraq and Syria, the fall of its physical caliphate under the pressure of coalition airstrikes and ground offensive, has transformed the threat that the group and its members pose. Over the last eighteen months, the security concern has coalesced around the challenge of returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) who travelled in the thousands from Europe to fight in the Levant with IS and other militant Islamist groups.

The data on the number of foreign fighters who travelled to join IS and the numbers who might be returning is superficial, for many reasons. The routes taken by many would-be fighters were indirect and illicit. Of those identified, it is difficult to confirm who has been killed, who has already returned and who has travelled beyond Iraq and Syria. Best estimates suggest that globally about 40,000 foreign fighters joined IS in the Levant, including between 4,000 and 5,000 from Europe and the Five Eyes countries. The UK, France, Germany and Belgium make up the majority of this total, which prompt questions of why these countries in particular saw higher levels of radicalization. Of around 850 British foreign fighters, it is estimated that about half have returned to the UK since 2014, according to Richard Barrett, MI5’s former head of counter-terrorism.  The average EU rate of return slightly lower at 30%.

There exist historical precedents to consider in examining the return of foreign fighters from ideological conflicts: FTFs from Afghanistan and the Balkans in the late twentieth-century, from the Spanish and Russian civil wars. That being said, the scale today is something new, as is the level of public anxiety facilitated by mass media and democratized communication.

Given the challenge of pinpointing a FTF’s reason for return, the type of threat they pose is also difficult to identify. Broadly, we might conceive of three types of threat:

  • The direct threat of attacks. Members of the group that attacked the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015 had fought and been trained in Syria, while the Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abaydi had links with IS through time spent in Libya, although he was not trained and radicalized there in the long term. A (not undisputed) study by Thomas Hegghammer suggested that 11% of returning fighters pose a rise of attack.
  • FTFs may pass on knowledge and beliefs, and serve as an inspiration for others. Many FTFs have received training in the use of weapons, explosives and combat experience, although this knowledge may be rudimentary. They may also pose a risk of radicalizing others or form networks of contacts with extremist organizations and groups, nationally or transnationally.
  • The public-political concern over FTFs can engender social conflict in a divisive, even violent, backlash to immigration, the migrant crisis and Islam, thus damaging social cohesion and exacerbating the political polarization seen in Europe in recent years.

Barrett also pointed out that returning FTFs may not be the primary threat to security in many European countries. Rather, extremists who have not managed to travel to Syria and Iraq may pose an even greater risk. Indeed, the attackers in Nice, Ansbach and Würzburg in July 2016, and the London Parliament in March 2017 were all apparent IS devotees who had not travelled to fight with IS. These individuals may be more lethal, in fact, as they feel as sense of lost pride and further grievance in being denied the chance to fight in the Levant. This frustration might spur their desire to commit an attack in Western Europe instead of travelling, a course of action encouraged by IS as they lost power. Indeed, the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove warned that “it would be a bit mistake to just believe that the threat is coming from outside.”

Several issues complicate the challenge of returning FTFs. Firstly, a lack of reliable information on the number of foreign fighters and their whereabouts. Multiple exit avenues exist for fighters in Syria and Iraq: capture or death in the Levant itself; a return to Europe, either via regular channels of travel or illicit migrant flows; escape into North Africa, the Gulf States or Central and South Asia, whose porous borders and political instability present problems for tracking and monitoring movement. Escape into these regions, in which Al-Qaeda and its affiliates operate, provides other militant groups with a convenient stream of experienced recruits. The approach to returning FTFs is further problematized by the fact that a significant number of returnees are young women and children. Children may have been born whilst in Syria and Iraq, raised in a warzone within IS’s militant ideology. They require a different social, psychological and educational approach to adults who travelled and participated, to at least some extent, willingly and knowingly. Security and law enforcement figures are increasingly recognizing the security threat posed by women and children, radicalized and trained in Syria and Iraq, who may have taken part in political violence there.

The problem of returning foreign fighters has been brought to the fore in British politics and security by the case of UK citizens Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, part of the IS cell known as ‘the Beatles’ that executed the US journalist James Foley in 2014. Captured and detained by Syrian Kurdish forces, they have reportedly been stripped of their British citizenship by the Home Office, rendering the two men stateless, thus prompting discussion of the appropriate methods by which to address the activities of FTFs.

The initial issue of how – or if – to manage the return of FTFs is the first hurdle states must face. European countries generally condemn the targeted killing of nationals abroad, although public comments  by ministers in several countries and the death of Sally Jones in a drone strike in Syria in 2017 raised questions of British and European policy on the subject. Most European countries will also not revoke citizenship if an individual will be rendered stateless, given the human rights implications of such an action. Such an action may be counter-productive if it removes an avenue of disengagement for the individual from terrorist activities. Belgium and the Netherlands currently defer to a criminal justice approach, arresting every (known) returnee upon their return and placing individuals in pre-trial detention until a judge determines, based on law enforcement and security service evidence, that they can be released.

The issue of radicalization in prisons is one with which law enforcement and security services have grappled for years. In pursuing a criminal justice model of counter-terrorism, the Netherlands and Belgium must confront this challenge. The Netherlands choses to imprison FTFs in so-called ‘supermax’ detention centers where individuals are isolated from the general prison population to prevent recruitment and radicalization, subject to the assessed threat of a returnee. Belgium, meanwhile, tends to hold FTFs with the general prison population, although with extra attention to monitoring their behaviour and the risks of proselytizing and recruitment. Increasingly, female returnees are treated on the same grounds as men, previously having been viewed in a far more sympathetic light – as victims, rather than perpetrators. Public information is limited on the UK’s policy towards the several hundred foreign fighters that have already return, although British security and border control are able to halt suspected fighters upon entry to the country and invoke temporary exclusion orders to invalidate the passport of British nationals for a given period, allowing a managed return to the UK.

The risk of radicalization in prisons – and, thus, the need to secure and isolate FTFs – must be balanced with the long-term need to facilitate rehabilitation and disengagement. It is not desirable – socially, culturally or economically – to have individuals imprisoned indefinitely, so the ability to re-engage with society is of paramount importance. Most European governments recognize the crucial importance of deradicalisation, disengagement and reintegration efforts in addressing the return of foreign fighters. While different national initiatives prioritize deradicalisation (changing thoughts and ideologies) or disengagement (changing the violent expression of these thoughts), Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands all take a proactive approach to countering the actions and thoughts behind violent extremism in returning FTFs and potential extremists, through projects like Hayat and the Violence Prevention Network (in prisons) in Germany, and the Netherlands Comprehensive Action Programme to Counter Jihadism.

These programmes involve a co-operative and integrated role for government agencies, local authorities, social services, educational facilitates and religious institutions to create a tailored approach to facilitate a re-socialization and reintegration to the national community and disengagement from violent behaviour. The United Kingdom, by contrast, has no programs that address FTFs and returnees, but rely on existing initiatives like CONTEST, Prevent (in Scotland), Channel and Ibaana (in prisons), which have been largely criticised for their narrow definition of ‘radical’ and for placing a disproportionate responsibility on communities and civil society to provide the best response. Without effective and sustainable reintegration efforts, the end of prison sentences for FTFs will become a ‘fourth wave of returns’. All countries – and the UK in particular – should therefore focus on education, re-training, social-psychological and community support and reinsertion-via-probation, in order to disengage extremists from a radical ideology exercised through violence and conduct outside the law. This will not be a quick or an easy fix, but politicians and policy-makers must commit to long-term, integrated projects.

The challenge facing Europe due to the return of foreign fighters thus presents a number of difficulties, now and in the years to come. Yet it also offers an opportunity to reassess and re-approach national and supranational policies around security, intelligence, counter-terrorism, deradicalisation and reintegration that have utility not just for addressing returning FTFs, but for the approach to domestic violent extremism. It demonstrates a need to maintain and develop proactive and sustainable policies to address returning foreign fighters – not simply detention and criminal justice approaches, but integrated socio-psychological measures involving multiple agencies and organizations. The UK, in particular, is lagging behind in this. In dealing with this threat, however, national governments and security services should not disregard the continued threat of domestic terror, religious, ethno-nationalist and right-wing.

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