Europe’s State of Denial About Islamic State Returnees
The latest developments in Syria should serve as a warning to European countries that they will not be able to put off indefinitely the challenge of repatriating their nationals who had joined Islamic State (IS) and their families. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed, but jihadists in the region are determined to reorganize. And Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria could lead to the reconsolidation of IS in the Middle East and potentially boost global-scale recruitment to its ranks. It is therefore imperative that European states deal the return with “their” foreign fighters currently held in the country before they rejoin the jihadi movement.
The Kurds, a key ally of the United States in the fight against IS in Syria, have warned about their limited ability, because of Turkey’s intervention, to keep running the prisons and camps containing tens of thousands of individuals, among them many jihadi fighters. About 11,000 of these, including foreign nationals, are still detained and guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The number is even higher if one counts IS families that live in refugee camps.
"The question of what should be done with these fighters and their wives and children currently in detention in northeastern Syria is thus more urgent than ever."
According to different estimates, several hundred of the detained men are from Europe, including countries like Ukraine and Kosovo. They are held in prisons across northeastern Syria, with the largest ones thought to be those in Hasakah and Dashisha. Most women and minors have been held in three refugee camps: al-Hol, al-Roj, and Ain Issa. A recent study shows that there are 400 to 500 men and women from EU states, as well as around 700-750 minors. The biggest group—130 adults and 270-320 minors—comes from France. The risks of Turkey’s intervention have already been manifested, with breakouts from a detention center near Qamishli and almost 800 women and minors leaving a camp outside Ain Issa. U.S. officials have raised the alarm about the escape of IS prisoners.
A Far-reaching Security Concern
The risk of more IS fighters escaping prisons in Syria is a security concern not only for the region but also for the West. The question of what should be done with these fighters and their wives and children currently in detention in northeastern Syria is thus more urgent than ever. Europe collectively does not have a plan for dealing with them, however. EU member states have been tackling the problem of foreign fighters individually, driven by domestic politics and national security priorities. However, not having a pan-European policy to address such a cross-border security issue may lead to dangerous inconsistencies in law enforcement and security gaps among states.
Taking back jihadists and prosecuting them in their countries of origin is not on the political agendas across European countries. At the same time, their governments have the responsibility to provide a humanitarian response and to evacuate women and children from the conflict zone in Syria. But decisions on such a sensitive security matter has been nothing but event-driven. Only now, when there is a sense of emergency following Turkey’s intervention, do EU states feel the pressure to react. Belgium is preparing to evacuate its IS suspects from Syrian detention camps, while others like Germany and France may also take actions to repatriate women and children.
Among large European countries, the United Kingdom has been the most reluctant to repatriate its IS fighters and their families. However, it is also likely reconsider its policy and to bring IS children home following the latest events in Syria. The government has repeatedly tried to address the matter of foreign fighters by stripping them of their citizenship where possible—most prominently in the case of Shamima Begum, a London schoolgirl who married a Dutch IS fighter in Syria. More recently, the case of “Jihadi Jack” caused a dispute between the United Kingdom and Canada. Jack Letts, a British-Canadian man who travelled to the Syria to join IS, has been stripped of his U.K. citizenship and left solely with his Canadian one, although he was born in the United Kingdom, went to school there, converted to Islam there, and left for Syria from there. So, far the government’s message seems straightforward: “British jihadi fighters are not our problem.”
Small Countries Step Up
Paradoxically, while large EU members with years of counter-terrorism experience, money, and well-functioning security institutions have not responded immediately to the risk of foreign fighters held in Syria rejoining jihadi ranks, two small countries with very limited institutional capacity and resources have taken steps to repatriate and to try to reintegrate their IS-affiliated. Kosovo has contributed 359 people to the jihadi ranks, and many of the Kosovan fighters who got killed left behind wives and children. In April, in a secret operation coordinated with the United States, Kosovo brought home 110 IS returnees (74 children, 32 women, and 4 men) who had been living in Kurdish camps in northern Syria. The men were sent to a high-security prison, while the women and children received medical and psychological examinations. Bosnia’s authorities are preparing to reintegrate IS families when they return from the Syrian camps and considering whether female IS supporters should be prosecuted.
Despite their efforts to tackle the issue, there are a lot of reasons to doubt that young Balkan, non-EU counties have the resources in place to reintegrate their jihadi returnees. Putting IS children back in school or finding opportunities for their mothers, for example, would pose a challenge in countries with high unemployment, low education levels, and poor socio-economic conditions. Besides, repatriation poses serious challenges for local security institutions. Many returnees lack identification or citizenship documents. The capacity for intelligence and information collection and sharing, border management, and prison rehabilitation programs are further concerns. Constrains in budget and expertise may also limit the opportunities to provide law-enforcement agencies with training to ensure the fair and consistent treatment of IS family members.
"Public opinion in most countries strongly opposes taking IS members back."
So far, repatriation of jihadi fighters and families is politically unpopular across Europe. Public opinion in most countries strongly opposes taking IS members back. Thus, addressing the question of returnees is not an easy task. Cooperation at the EU level is more than necessary: from better intelligence sharing to the transfer of rehabilitation and reintegration policies. European states differ in terms of the legal frameworks and resources that determine their different approaches in deciding on an individual’s culpability and deciding the appropriateness of criminal investigation, prosecution, and interventions. In theory, those European countries that choose not to deal with their own jihadists have the institutional capacity to apply criminalization and reintegration approaches, but they probably consider the political and security costs of repatriating IS individuals too high. In contrast, Kosovo—a tiny country on the periphery of Europe with limited expertise and resources in counter-terrorism—is acting more adequately in giving a chance to its citizens who went to Syria to get back to a normal life, as well as to local institutions to address the issue.
No “Best Practice”
As IS has become more adaptive and geographically diffused than ever, security gaps between countries is something it can exploit. Meanwhile, there is a need for comprehensive actions to address the case of returnees individually. They may require special attention and their human rights must be respected, regardless of the threat they may pose or the criminal activities in which they may have participated. These challenges stress the imperative of addressing criminal accountability, rehabilitation, and reintegration for everyone returning from the ranks of IS.
The lack of “best practice” in Europe in dealing with returnees may also have negative effects on smaller states with no substantial counter-terrorism experience. Bringing back IS foreign fighters is to be encouraged, but a state may not have the capacity to reintegrate, prosecute, and monitor them. Kosovo’s effort is an example from which larger states in Europe might learn. However, such small-country initiatives may be insufficient if local institutions have limited resources (including money, expertise, educational and socio-economic conditions, and acceptance from society).
The lack of mechanisms, procedures, and programs in small European countries for dealing with returnees should not be underestimated and should be discussed at the EU level. Moreover, IS fighters and families from non-EU members in the region are linked to expanded diaspora communities in Western Europe. Europe needs to set standards for addressing the issue beyond the national-security priorities of individual countries. The transnational and decentralized nature of IS requires more cooperation, in prosecuting jihadists and in humanitarian actions to rescue their families from the war zone in Syria. In such efforts, EU members should support their non-EU neighbors willing to reintegrate their returnees but that do not necessarily have the capacity to do so.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.