The Many Complications of Returning Islamic State Fighters

As the Islamic State (IS) transforms into a flat organization with autonomous cells around the globe, the foreign fighters returning to their home countries pose a significant challenge to both western and Muslim majority countries alike. A number of violent episodes, including the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the 2015 Paris shootings, and the 2016 Brussels bombings were conducted by returned IS fighters. The list of countries with high returnee fighter numbers includes Turkey (900), Tunisia (800), and Saudi Arabia (760). European countries also face high numbers as almost a quarter— approximately 1,700—of the 6,800 European nationals who joined the fight in Syria and Iraq have already returned. In addition to fighters, there are large numbers of noncombatants such as women and children who have also returned from the so-called caliphate. Such complex dimensions of the challenge have raised controversy among western pundits; while some emphasize the value of long-term rehabilitation policy programs, others defend law enforcement and criminal sentencing for the returnees.

Going beyond the foreign fighter terminology is practical and necessary.

The reluctance of European authorities to deal with this situation is most evident in their responses to calls from the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) regarding the handling or repatriation of thousands of captured IS fighters and families in the prisons of northern Syria. The SDF’s Kurdish commanders warn that they cannot undertake the burden themselves and have asked European nations to take back their citizens or to take specific steps for establishing an international court in northern Syria for trials. Statements of French and British officials have been most negative. The United Kingdom’s defense minister’s dictum best reflects the mood in European capitals, saying that “A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain.” In fact, according to some European security experts, the UK and France have prepared a hit list to deliberately target their own citizens, aiming to prevent their return. For the captured fighters in Iraq, most European countries demand that the Baghdad government take care of their trials and sentencing—as well as repealing death penalty. The Iraqi prison system, however, is unlikely to overcome the burden of 20,000 IS suspects. International human rights groups worry about the quality of the judicial process, extrajudicial killings, and the use of torture, with concerns that prisons may turn into a breeding ground for the next generation of extremists.

The Lure of the Term “Frustrated Travelers”

In January 2018, the United Nations Security Council released a report on the next phase in the fight against IS, emphasizing the need to “focus on [the threat posed by] less visible networks of individuals and cells acting with a degree of autonomy.” The report coined the term “frustrated travelers” to define the loose network of individuals who were not able to travel to Syria and Iraq as well as those who returned from the caliphate—combatant or noncombatant—and other relocators with a variety of reasons, including disenchantment with the extremist ideology after the collapse of the utopian caliphate.

Going beyond the foreign fighter terminology is practical and necessary indeed. Statistics on foreign fighters do not include those who attempted but failed to join IS or al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that such individuals may provide a support net to foreign fighter returnees, most are not under the watch of law enforcement—with the exception of the United States, where 50 individuals were already sentenced for “attempted travel.” One of the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris hailed from this group of these frustrated travelers who had been prevented from going to Syria.

The Nordic countries have been the most supportive of the rehabilitation approach of former IS fighters, which may partially explain the high percentage of returnees to those countries.

Using information provided from 146 states, Turkish authorities recorded 53,781 names of individuals who were feared to attempt to join the fight in Syria and Iraq. Among Muslim nations, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco stand out for having large numbers of failed travelers to Syria. Tunisian authorities, for example, stopped more than 12,500 people before their travel, and another 4,605 Tunisian citizens were caught by Turkish officials and watch listed before entering Syria. Similarly, as many as 7,523 Saudi Arabian and 2,831 Moroccan citizens were stopped by Turkish authorities.

The frustrated travelers also include the early cohort of returnees from Syria, before and until 2014. A recent report funded by the European Union describes the early returnees as primarily motivated by “humanitarian reasons” to fight the Assad regime’s brutality, being “more prone to disillusionment, arguably less violent and relatively free to leave the terrorist-held territory.” The report finds such qualities worthy of exploration, especially when compared to the current generation of returnees who are “more battle-hardened and ideologically committed” and “had to evade pervasive surveillance by IS to escape and may have come back [to Europe] with violent motives.” Although there is limited public data, there are many first-generation returnees who joined Jabhat al-Nusra [now Jabhat Ahrar al-Sham] (and not IS) then arrived back to Belgium and the Netherlands before the rise of IS in the Syrian war.

Criminalization or Rehabilitation: A Never-Ending Debate

Approaches to the puzzle of returnees have been remarkably different among European nations. The Nordic countries have been the most supportive of the rehabilitation approach, which may partially explain the high percentage of returnees to those countries. Denmark and Sweden experimented with expensive re-socialization programs to integrate ex-fighters, including offering them housing, employment, and education opportunities. About half of the travelers have returned back to Denmark (67 individuals out of 135) and Finland (43 out of 80). Southern Europe, in comparison, has relatively lower rates with more repressive measures to deal with returnees. Shares of Spain (30 out of 204) and Italy (13 out of 124) are between 10 and 15 percent. Since 2015, Italy has deported more than 200 individuals for allegedly being a threat to national security. Not surprisingly, Muslim majority nations such as Bosnia (46 out of 248, or 18 percent) and Kosovo (127 out of 317, or 40 percent) have higher numbers in southern Europe; the latter figure includes over 40 women from Kosovo.

The difference between France and the United Kingdom, however, raises questions about whether the divergence in return rates is mainly about the rehabilitation versus criminalization strategies of the respective countries. The return rate is quite high in the UK (425 out of 850, or 50 percent), while the French rate is very low (271 out of 1,910, or 14 percent). Both countries prefer the law enforcement approach, such as revoking passports and stripping citizenship as well as harsher sentencing for imprisonment. An alternative explanation for return rates, then, may be how the United Kingdom and France are perceived differently in the eyes of potential returnees. Triggering a major controversy in policy circles, William McCants and Christopher Meserole argued that French political culture—which combines hardline assimilationist policies (such as headscarf bans in schools) while at the same time allowing minorities to form protest channels, and therefore, generating more ghettos—has been a major cause in recruitment for IS and other extremist groups. In fact, the McCants and Meserole study is the latest addition to existing literature that finds British multiculturalism more successful compared to French policies of integration. Thus, it may not be surprising if returnees to the United Kingdom carry more hope than their French counterparts, despite the fact that they will face similar sentencing laws.

The main obstacle to the rehabilitation approach is institutional capacity and resource mobilization. Monitoring the returnees often overloads intelligence and security services, and thus introduces an additional financial burden, especially when coupled with social services for reintegration. For smaller countries such as Bosnia and Kosovo, such impediments are difficult to overcome in the long term. For major European powers, the challenge is most severe when thousands of people are in the state intelligence watch lists. France, for example, has watch-listed 15,000 people as suspected radical Islamists, including 4,000 among them deemed as being a “high-risk of committing an attack.” France’s first and only de-radicalization program, the Pontourny Center, was shut down in August 2017. The irony was that the center could not fill its capacity (25 people) because the admission was open solely to volunteers who had neither traveled to Syria nor had their names recorded in the state’s major watch list.

Rehabilitation efforts are destined to remain futile without addressing the root social context that breeds extremism.

Unlike voluntary European rehabilitation programs, many Muslim majority nations have gained experience in mandatory de-radicalization curricula for inmates during and after serving time in prison. After the 9/11 attacks, with the help of the United States, Yemen formed the Committee for Dialogue in 2002 and Saudi Arabia established the Prevention, Rehabilitation, and After Care program. Similar programs then mushroomed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia’s program has been the most comprehensive one with a wide-ranging scope, from socioeconomic support to attention to the romantic lives of the participants. Before entering society, the inmates are required to stay in major rehabilitation centers where they receive therapy, vocational training, religious education, and sports courses. Use of local repertoires and cultural norms was perhaps the most distinguishing aspect in the Saudi model, where familial obligations, codes of honor, and religious counseling are heavily involved. Saudi officials claimed low rates of recidivism and praised their programs’ effectiveness. Critics, however, point out the difficulties in maintaining and replicating the Saudi model in other contexts. First, the model would need a large amount of state funding with a long-term commitment. Second, involvement of religious clerics appears to be a controversial method. For example, as a part of state ideology, Saudi Arabia may use quietist-Salafist scholars effectively as an antidote to jihadism; however, religious clerics in other countries may not be perceived as authoritative figures in the eyes of radicals, and thus, without the bond of trust, religious education efforts may backfire.

Overreliance on religious education rests on the problematic assumption that religious ideology is the key driver for extremism. In most contexts, however, a set of complex social and structural drivers are at play in explaining the marginalization of youth, who eventually become vulnerable and receptive to radical messages. That is why most scholarly reports on rehabilitation programs in both western and non-western countries highlight the importance of future neighborhoods and socioeconomic context for returnees. Without addressing the root social context that breeds extremism, rehabilitation efforts are destined to remain futile.

Trump Will Likely Choose Criminalization

In the criminalization versus rehabilitation debate, Washington has taken a clear position with a strategy of making returnees confront the US criminal justice system. The returnee number to America is relatively low (12 individuals); however, similar to France and the United Kingdom, the United States is also accused of forming extrajudicial killing lists to target and eliminate its own citizens in Syria and Iraq.

An effective policy formula must be developed based on a thorough understanding of prison radicalization and consequences of secondary deviance.

In most cases, the returnees face charges for violating the statute regarding material support to terrorism. As an exception, Abdullahi Yusuf, a Somali American who was found guilty due to his attempt to join IS in 2014, was given a chance to participate in a rehabilitation program after serving 21 months in prison. The federal judge overseeing the case enlisted Daniel Koehler, co-founder of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, to lay the groundwork for the first rehabilitation program in an American context. The experiment has faced a strong backlash from right-wing organizations with the claim that “terrorist rehab is a joke and a total waste of US taxpayer dollars.”

Conservative groups also called on the Trump Administration to urge European countries to undertake severe measures for returning fighters. A recent report by the Heritage Foundation, for example, criticized European governments in their rehabilitation efforts, dismissively citing the views of well-established academics and counterterrorism experts such as Peter Neumann, Arie Kruglanski, and Marc Sageman for their “faulty assumptions.” The report defends a tough approach in order to deter potential foreign fighter travel in future, claiming that western public opinion perceives rehabilitation programs as “rewarding” terrorists.

The weakness of the criminalization argument, however, is its short-term focus. An effective policy formula must be developed based on a thorough understanding of prison radicalization and consequences of secondary deviance. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, about 90 individuals who were incarcerated in US prisons for violent extremism will be released in the next five years. Based on rates of high recidivism and prison radicalization patterns, US authorities expect that some of these individuals “will probably reengage in terrorist activity, possibly including attack plotting, because they either remain radicalized or are susceptible to re-radicalization as has already been demonstrated overseas.” Having the largest prison-industrial complex on earth and a relatively low number of homegrown extremists, the United States will likely respond by re-sentencing those who fell into the trap of recidivism. Such measures, however, may prove to be too expensive and self-defeating in most European nations, where thousands are watch-listed as IS sympathizers.