Returning ISIS Fighters: Forgiveness or Punishment

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People stand in front of a former base used by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after rebels fighters captured it from the ISIL in al-Dana town in Idlib province January 9, 2014. Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken on an international flavor as foreign fighters continue to pour into Syria and Iraq from eighty nations as disparate as Kyrgyzstan and Spain.

The number of foreign fighters is currently estimated to be as high as 16,000. While the most foreign fighters originate from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, up to 2,000 are from the United Kingdom (UK), 930 from France, 300 from Sweden, 300 from Belgium and 450 from Germany.

The growing scope of the foreign fighter problem has made it a priority in policy discussions on ISIS, either as Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution wrote, “Homeward Bound? Don’t Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists,” or as Pascale Siegel, founder of Insight Through Analysis, warned, “Foreign Fighters in Syria: Why We Should Be Worried.”

These discussions ignore the real question—what happens when these people want to return to their home countries?

Policy discussions among Western countries have been insufficient to address the foreign fighter problem, given that their citizens are now at the center of an increasingly deadly conflict. Some fighters try to return under-the-radar, but these attempts often require logistical and monetary assistance and, as intelligence improves, the odds that their  absence will go unnoticed are diminishing. Countries are being forced to develop their own piecemeal policies to prepare for the future scenario of returning foreign fighters and the wide range of approaches is striking.

On September 24, the Australian attorney general presented the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014. It is the most comprehensive legislative approach among Western countries and lays out clear boundaries and consequences for those who leave to fight in foreign conflicts or train with extremist groups.

There are two new criminal offenses proposed in the bill, one for “advocating for terrorism” and another for entering a “declared area” (which has yet to be precisely defined) in a foreign country. Also contained in the bill are new powers to suspend travel documents of those suspected of joining foreign terrorist groups and the extension of the special investigative powers given to the Australian government to combat terrorism in 2008.

Read Newsweek's feature article "My Family And Other Extremists"

Denmark has taken a strikingly different approach by offering citizens the opportunity to return and receive rehabilitation without prosecution. The government is coordinating with intelligence agencies to repatriate fighters who want to return, then finding them work and offering treatment for injuries received while abroad.

Between ten and fifteen people have already returned and gone through this reintegration system. As Steffen Nielsen, a Danish crime prevention advisor, told Al Jazeera, “We are actually embracing them when they come home. Unlike in England, where maybe you’re interned for a week while they figure out who you are, we say, ‘Do you need any help?’”

The measure he refers to, also in place in Canada and under deliberation in the UK and Netherlands, is the hardest line against those who leave to fight. This year the Canadian government passed a law allowing it to revoke the citizenship of dual citizens (such as Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau) convicted of one of several major crimes, including terrorism, in Canada or abroad. While there are still no cases of revoked citizenship, the government has used its power to invalidate passports of terrorism suspects. The measure can be challenged in court, but only within a month of the decision.

In the UK, foreign secretary Philip Hammond stated that returning ISIS fighters could face the first treason trials since World War II. Approximately 250 fighters have already returned to the UK, and those who leave may be rendered stateless by the country’s policy.

Unfortunately, these various policy options do not fully consider the international nature of the foreign fighter problem. The piecemeal approach by individual countries has created a number of loopholes that allow fighters to return by traveling through other countries with their Western passports.

Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen who spent a year in Syria and had links to radical Islamists, returned to Europe this March. Rather than flying directly into France, where he was on a watchlist, he made his way through Thailand and several European countries, before arriving in Brussels, Belgium, where he murdered four people at the Jewish Museum.

The Belgians were unaware that he was on a watchlist—a loophole that could be addressed simply through increased coordination and information sharing. The Nemmouche case demonstrates that countries must communicate with each other on threats posed by their citizens.

On December 9, the UK and Turkey announced a program to cooperate and share intelligence about foreign fighters. In many ways, it’s a natural partnership—Turkey is one of the main crossing points for Westerners traveling to Syria, and the UK is one of the primary sources of foreign fighters. They also fundamentally agree on how to treat British citizens fighting in the Middle East.

The new partnership will facilitate information sharing so the UK can compile a more comprehensive list of its citizens traveling to Syria and more effectively track their movements when they return. Identifying these fighters is the first step to minimizing the threat they pose.

Similarly, the United States should begin to share information with allies about foreign fighters in order to prevent ISIS fighters from carrying out attacks or returning to Western countries unmonitored in larger numbers.

A comprehensive policy discussion in the United States is needed to clarify how to deal with citizens fighting abroad before they start to return home. Potential jihadists need to understand that there will be consequences for affiliating with terrorist organizations.

However, leaving citizens who want to return stranded in the Middle East will not have positive ramifications. The United States should discourage citizens from traveling to join terrorist groups, but also leave an avenue for people to eventually return and reintegrate into society.

Returning foreign fighters have the potential to provide crucial intelligence on enemy groups or discourage others from joining terrorist groups.

Harry Oppenheimer is a research associate for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.