Caring for the enemy? Repatriation of Islamic State fighters

Written by Professor Stig Jarle Hansen

Over the last months, discussions over the repatriation of foreign fighters in Syria, and their children,  have reached new heights, partly due to the Islamic State losing its last territories and Donald Trump’s plea for Western states to take the foreign fighters back – something that has received mixed responses from European allies. Commentators arguing against repatriation consider it to be too costly for the West, involving legal trials, expensive surveillance of individuals, and possibly new investments in de-radicalization schemes and other psycho-social expenses, as well as the potential costs of integrating the returnees back in the labour market. There is also a potential for returnees to implement terror attacks.

Radicalized in the West

Much can be said for the above arguments; there are high costs associated with repatriation, but these costs are perhaps heavier to bear for fragile state structures in the Levant, just emerging from civil war. Fragile local institutions may also face new security risks caused by foreign fighters, possibly aiding a regrowth of the Islamic State. Moreover, it should be considered that the returnees were radicalized whilst here in the West, and Western countries must thus shoulder some responsibility for handling them.

Statistics seem to indicate a very limited likelihood of returnees implementing terror attacks. Moreover, it is likely that many of the individuals in question will attempt to continue their insurgency in the Levant and become guerrilla fighters rather than return to the West.

Some commentators have suggested an international war crimes tribunal, supported by the international community as a compromise solution. In the past, however, such tribunals have limited their focus to the top echelons of the organisations they investigate, whilst the reality may be that low-ranking Islamic State members or/and their wives contribute significantly to local radicalisation and insurgency. This is especially relevant for weakened state institutions, such as in the Syrian case where there is continued civil war. The West might well be better-equipped to handle these individuals, with more effective de-radicalisation programs and surveillance capacity, resulting in an overall reduced likelihood of regrowth of the Islamic State. 

Duty of Care

The rights of citizens (even criminals) to receive assistance from their home countries is often neglected or misunderstood in the current debate, despite being stated in legislation and practiced through the traditional conduct of the civil services of Western countries. The Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) has recently completed a project addressing these issues; the Duty of Care project included an element that addressed ‘assistance’ to foreign fighters inside the Islamic State, Jabath al Nusrah, and the Harakat Al Shabaab.

In many cases, citizens of Western countries who joined the Islamic State have requested support from their governments whilst placed in refugee camps in Syria and Iraq. Whilst some Western countries do not have provision of such services in their laws, such assistance is a practice that has anyway developed over several years. Such aid should be non-discriminatory, and should not exclude individuals. Under normal circumstances, the citizen in question is expected to request such services him/herself by contacting the relevant embassy. Most countries are restricted in the help they can provide within war zones, as governments are reluctant to risk the lives of diplomats. Several Western countries put emphasis on aiding individuals who are in direct danger, for example facing death penalties in a foreign court system, or individuals who are kidnapped. Many IS members in Syria are now placed in refugee camps or prisoner of war camps, and thus do not face such threats, and are considered to be in too stable situations to be prioritized.

A country can declare a crisis situation when its citizens are affected by large natural disasters, the outbreak of war, or large-scale terror attacks. Such situations do not, however, generally involve citizens considered culpable, as is the case of foreign fighters. Several countries have launched action plans to address problems that arise from forced marriage and female circumcision, and some of these countries, including Norway, will try to assist citizens in war zones, though they still  hesitate to send diplomats directly into harm’s way, resulting in a lot of time passing before such programs take effect.

The development of such programs is probably the way to go; they are ethically sound and provide a way out for innocent children born from IS marriages, children who should not bear responsibility for their parents transgressions. Parents choosing to take their children to war zones is, anyway, a case for the child-protection authorities of most Western countries. 

Follow our own standards

The above principles need to be carefully followed, even when not enshrined in law and only in practice. A scenario in which an IS fighter gains more assistance than an ordinary citizen could lead to protests, while treating former IS fighters worse than other citizens (and it should be remembered that these fighters are usually not yet convicted of any crime) will simply undermine the help ordinary citizens can get in a crisis situation, as the principles behind such assistance are undermined.

To strip a person of his/her citizenship is also a poor idea,  even when they have dual citizenship, or can obtain it, as this signals to large emigrant groups that their passport is not as valuable as other passports, which can lead to alienation. The removal of citizenship only for individuals with double citizenship can also be complicated, as such individuals are often emigrants who, in some cases, had children before having the citizenship revoked.

Rather, it may be a good idea to develop a specialized program for this issue. Several countries have done precisely this in the past, to address issues that involve the children of parents who have committed crimes. The West has shown that it can take care of its citizens in adverse conditions. In this case, individuals that were radicalized in the West should be treated as a Western problem, and should carefully follow existing principles.

Want to know more about this topic? On 11 April, U-Turn is hosting a seminar on ‘Foreign Fighters, the State’s Role, Law, Identity and Security. Open event with Professor Stig Jarle Hansen, Maja Touzari Greenwood, Researcher at DIIS,  Atle Mesøy, Director at U-Turn and others.

Stig Jarle Hansen is a Professor of International Relations at the Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Noragric. He works primarily within the fields of organized crime, religion and politics (including religious terror) and political theory, with a special interest in British idealism and Islamic political thought processes.



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