Tackling the surge of returning foreign fighters
In this ICCT publication authors Alastair Reed and Johanna Pohl address the problems connected to the phenomenon of returning foreign fighters. The full text can be read here.
Over the past year, the fortunes of so-called Islamic State (or Daesh, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fil Iraq wa al-Sham) have turned in Syria and Iraq. As the Caliphate has begun to contract, the seemingly intractable flow of foreign fighters has started to slow, down from a high of 2000 a month crossing the border from Turkey to around 50 by September 2016. With the noose tightening around Daesh strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, the tide has begun to reverse and the steady trickle of returnees is beginning to pick up pace. An estimated 15,000 foreign fighters were still in the conflict zone at the end of 2016, so policy makers have been warning of a potential surge in returnees. Until recently, the focus has primarily been on preventing the travel of potential foreign fighters; now it will have to extend to addressing their return.
"Hard" or "soft" approaches?
Returnees are often perceived as a threat for two reasons: first, their enhanced capability of carrying out attacks, resulting from battlefield experience and network connections; second, their presumed motivation to do so, as many are thought to have been desensitised towards violence and brainwashed by the organisations they join. While some studies have found that most returnees do not present an acute danger (only 1 in 360 foreign fighters perpetrated an attack after they return), other evidence suggests that a substantial number of returnees stay active members in extremists networks at home.
The bottom line
Returning foreign fighters clearly present the next major challenge to policy makers in tackling the ever-evolving foreign fighter phenomenon. There will be much clamour from some quarters for a “hard approach” of prosecution and long prison sentences. But it should be clear that this will fail to address the entirety of the problem and that criminal justice measures need to be augmented by prevention and rehabilitation policies. However, much still needs to be done to evaluate best practice in these programmes. With many countries taking different approaches, it is crucial that proper evaluations are built into these programmes and that their outcomes are widely discussed, so that everyone can benefit from the lessons learned and avoid repeating past mistakes.
This article was originally published in the NATO Review on 14 July 2017.