Returning ISIS fighters: How should governments deal with them?

theconomist_ISIS fighters are returning home to Europe. In Britain, half of the 850 citizens known to have joined ISIS have already come back. As France marks the two-year anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack on its soil, governments have to decide what to do with returning foreign fighters.

Many Europeans have gone to fight for ISIS, close to 6000 of them and those are just the ones we know about. With the caliphate crumbling, many of these foreign fighters are heading home. But what should be done about them?

On November 13th, 2015, eight suicide bombers and a gunman attacked Paris, killing 130 people and injuring more than 400. The attackers were French and Belgian nationals, six of whom had returned from Syria where they had been fighting with ISIS, also known as ISIL or Islamic State

What to do when fighters return is a major concern for western governments. One solution is to make sure they never come back. Many foreign fighters have been killed on the battlefield. James Mattis, the American Defence Secretary, says his aim is to make sure the rest won’t survive the fight to come home. Those who do survive will face legal obstacles. A number of governments, including Britain’s, have passed new laws to try to prevent fighters from returning. According to one security think tank, of the 850 of the British citizens known to have joined ISIS, half are already home. Around a third of German, and a quarter of Belgian fighters have also returned. And in France, the Western European country with the most foreign fighters, 271 have come back.

Government’s have to decide what to with them.

Even going to live in ISIS territory is a crime under EU law. Locking up returning fighters demonstrates a tough stance from government, and reassures the public. But prison poses its own risks. Many jihadists had previously been in jail before committing attacks.

Convicted terrorists should be behind bars. But not all returning fighters fall into this category. Usama Hasan took part in jihad in the 1990s when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. Many foreign fighters travelled to Syria long before ISIS emerged and the brutality and beheadings began. They went to defend fellow Muslims in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Others went to live in the newly declared Islamic State, in search of a more pious life. Vera Mironova spent 7 months embedded with the Iraqi Special Operation Forces in Mosul, trying to understand what makes ISIS fighters tick.

Many who went to live under ISIS have seen and done terrible things. Those who felt the caliphate did not live up to the utopian propaganda wanted out, but faced imprisonment if they went home. Not many governments are willing to offer returnees a second chance, but in Denmark they’re giving it a try. Instead of prison sentences, some get counselling and help finding jobs and housing. The aim is combat the root cause of terrorism.

With ISIS almost defeated on the ground, it may seek to step up terrorist attacks around the world. The Danish authorities hope that former fighters reintegrated back into society will feel less alienated and disillusioned, traits that ISIS recruiters prey upon. But critics cite a lack of hard evidence that the Danish model is working, and rehabilitation is a hard policy to sell.

It only takes one or two determined individuals to carry out an atrocity, so close surveillance of returning fighters is essential. Even those in prison may eventually be released. But keeping a close watch on just one person, long-term, takes a lot of manpower. So governments face the difficult decision of who to watch and who to ignore.

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