Islamic State abroad: How can we deal with returning fighters?

The recent attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait confirmed a growing trend of global Islamic State (IS) violence. IS has been organising its foreign fighters into battalions tasked with transferring military experience gained in Syria to violent action in the wider international community. Yet this simultaneous trifecta of terror illustrates an escalation in the reach and ferocity of the group.

IS has continually used brutality to force a reaction from international media and commentators. The horrendous executions gave IS the column inches and reports it needs to stay relevant and prominent in the thoughts of potential recruits. A media blackout on the executions in late 2014 proved controversial but did starve IS of media oxygen. So IS responded in early 2015 by refocusing its propaganda machine on the destruction of Heritage sites. The world reacted suitably to the heartbreakingly mindless demolition of Hatra and Nimrud, but the pain felt from the smashing of stones could never equal the agony inflicted by massacre and butchery.  Global action, through beach shootings, mosque bombings and beheadings, re-establishes IS at the forefront of our newspapers and minds.

Domestic terror is now a credible threat in many countries. France is currently at its highest stage of security alert following the Charlie Hebdo and Lyon attacks. Yet this heightened security presence did not prevent the recent theft of explosives from a military base near Marseilles. In the UK, recent ceremonies marking the 10 year anniversary of the 7/7 bombings provide a blunt reminder of the continuing threat of Islamist violence.

These developments transform the discussion on how returning fighters should be dealt with. From 18th Century Europe through to 1970’s Angola, foreign fighters have been a staple presence in war. Yet there is still an incomprehensible paucity of laws written to deal with their return. Indonesian prosecutors had to resort to using an old 1921 Dutch colonial law – to punish those engaged in “rebellion” against a friendly state – to charge Afief Abdul Madjid after he returned from an IS training camp in 2014.  UK policy changes, from an initial hard-line position towards fighters, to one more accommodating of returnees, is also symbolic of an international community that has no common, comprehensive policy of dealing with those who return from fighting for IS.

International responses currently range from Australia threatening to revoke citizenship for IS fighters, to a structured rehabilitation programme offered by Denmark. The ‘Aarhus model’, taking its name from the port city, welcomes returning fighters through a series of reintegration programmes, free counselling and job support. The programme has been credited with stemming the flow of young people to Syria, but also allowed a compelling counter-narrative to emerge. This model echoes the Saudi Arabian programme, which has rehabilitated 3,000 men since its inception in 2008 by focusing on social re-integration. A compassionate reaction to the issue is backed by the reality that many returning fighters have rejected IS. Homesickness and disillusion are pertinent factors to the return of individuals. Ignoring their suffering wastes an opportunity to create engaging anti-IS voices within society and, more worryingly, could lead to resentment and a re-descent into violence.  Evidence of historic returning Islamist fighters shows that only a small proportion will continue to engage in terrorist actions, however these actions are then more likely to succeed thanks in part to the experience of the returning fighters.

Yet with IS intentionally looking beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq, the potential threat from returning IS fighters could logically be greater than the historic statistics currently show. Moreover, IS propaganda is more pervasive than the efforts of any group before it. Individuals are acutely aware of how violent IS are.  When this does not stop them from joining IS, consideration must be taken to how dangerous these individuals are when they return as hardened fighters. These dynamics expound the risk inherent in the Aarhus model. Knowledge of potentially violent individuals has been repeatedly shown to be insufficient in preventing their violent actions. The Islamist who beheaded his boss near Lyon, an attack similar to the Charlie Hebdo and Lee Rigby murderers, was known to security officials. ‘Cautious’ estimations show that around 1,300 former jihadis have returned from IS action to their homes in Europe alone. If all are welcomed home, and only one individual harboured murderous intent, could rehabilitation programmes and security monitoring be expected to prevent that one individual attacking a restaurant or busy subway station?

Rehabilitation programmes provide a human response to a radicalisation process that is complex and individual. They give returnees a second chance and afford countries the chance to prevent their own citizens from submitting to a life of radical, Islamist violence. Locking up foreign fighters is at best unproductive, and at worst potentially toxic, as prisons have long been seen as effective incubators of radicalisation. Banning passports helps to defend borders but ignores the complexities considered above, leads to divided families and fails to tackle the wider issue of radicalisation. Denmark is currently championing a scheme that some will see as nuanced, others as naïve. Yet with IS peering over the parapet and looking beyond its areas of control in Iraq and Syria, clear policy answers to the threat of returning fighters need to be developed.

Author Biography

Tom Walpole is currently studying Arabic and Middle East Studies at the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. During his degree, Tom lived in Cairo and has focused his studies on security policy and Islamist movements within the Middle East. Tom is also alumnus of the European Youth Parliament and has an interest in researching the potential role of the European Union in Foreign Affairs.

*Cover image ‘Islamic State‘ by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

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