The fate of foreigners who are caught after travelling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS is a fiercely contested issue. There are no easy answers and no argument has the benefit of absolute certainty. However, there remains the credible risk of increased radicalisation within Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Iraqi-administered prisons, and the danger of prison breaks and illegal re-entry, sometimes without consequences, into their countries of origin. The fate of ISIS-linked individuals requires a collective response and a proactive plan for managed repatriations. For all countries to avoid catastrophic future scenarios, this is the prudent, if politically difficult, choice.
Those who argue against repatriation assert that the fighters are no longer the responsibility of their country of origin. They argue that they lost the right to citizenship when they chose to fight with ISIS, in many cases renouncing their citizenship and burning their passports when they did so. They also argue their repatriation would pose a grave security threat and would be heavily opposed by constituencies who have a largely negative view of the idea of repatriation.
Proponents of repatriation, however, argue that inaction comes with far more serious and wide-reaching consequences. They consider the most significant risks to be the spread of radicalisation in camps and prisons, prison breaks, and the return of those fighters to the battlefield or back to their home countries, evading monitoring, recognition or any prospect of accountability. They also present moral and humanitarian arguments: that nations act against their stated values when they allow their citizens to be held in decrepit conditions or face deeply-flawed trials; and that revoking citizenships or denying citizenship to children of ISIS-linked individuals is inhumane or in contravention of international law.
Challenges to Repatriation
The challenges of repatriation are numerous and are significant. Firstly, making the case to various constituencies is extremely difficult given current attitudes that point to a staunch rejection of repatriation. Secondly, the process of any country moving its citizens in a secure manner in the current environment has to be a highly coordinated and secretive operation, so that extremists operating in the area or other prisoners are not alerted. Rumours of prisoner removals inside detention centres can lead to unrest and rioting.
A third challenge is what do with these individuals once they arrive back in their home countries. Much has been made of the fact that countries do not have the necessary laws or legislation to successfully try and sentence returning foreign fighters. However, several cases across Europe refute this assertion. Officials with direct involvement in the issue also argue that there is a lack of political will, not a lack to tools, to address repatriation. Finally, there are long-term considerations such as what to do with repatriated fighters if there is insufficient evidence to put them in prison, or how to deal with them once they complete their prison sentences.
The result of countries’ refusal to consider repatriation is that between 2,000 and 4,000 foreign fighters remain inside Syria, with a further 1,000 in Iraq. This is at a time when the security situation in both countries is becoming increasingly fraught. Both SDF and Iraqi officials have repeatedly called on countries to take back their citizens, explaining that they have neither the capacity, the resources nor the legal authority (in the case of the SDF) to hold and try the roughly 30,000 total fighters in their custody and need a reprieve in the form of countries taking back their own citizens, which would ease the SDF and Iraq’s burden.
Those who have visited SDF and Iraqi-run prisons report inhumane conditions where hundreds of individuals are squeezed into small spaces, with no separation of the most hardened extremists from younger boys who could have been taken by their parents to Syria or even born there. Extremists worldwide have exploited prison conditions like these to radicalise and recruit fellow prisoners, from Guantanamo Bay to the ISIS-run “repentance centers” in northeast Syria that aimed to indoctrinate and solicit pledges of loyalty (bay’a) from those held inside. The inevitable spread of radical ideas across the prisons due to detention conditions or sheer proximity to extremist leaders will make it ever more difficult to deal with foreign citizens in the future, regardless of where they end up.
Preparing a Plan for Managed Repatriation
Without a plan, foreign countries and their populations risk being caught off-guard by forced deportations or the illegal entry of former fighters. A proactive strategy addresses these risks and allows each country to decide when and how to bring back their citizens, what kind of judicial process should apply to each individual, what kind of rehabilitation programme, if any, can be offered to them, and what resources to expend on monitoring them throughout the process and beyond. In parallel to any of the steps described below, national leaders should begin engaging with their constituencies to make their case for repatriation based on collective (i.e. global), long-term security.
Assessing the individuals: Nations should assign representatives to work with local authorities in Iraq and Syria to prepare a full assessment of each of their citizens’ history, including the breadth of their involvement in ISIS, their psychological state and degree of radicalisation. This would help in deciding the scope of their repatriation plan. Nations that are reluctant to engage with the SDF, a non-state actor, at the risk of implying diplomatic recognition can go through third-parties who would be willing to engage on their behalf (as Kosovo did via the United States when the former brought back their citizens).
Stemming further radicalisation: Countries can also take immediate action to work with local authorities to stem further radicalisation of their citizens held in camps and prisons in Iraq and Syria. This would include separating the most ideologically hardened from the general population, having separate facilities for minors, and ensuring they are subjected to age-appropriate activities geared towards stemming further radicalisation.
Preparing legislation and updating laws: As part of a national repatriation strategy, countries should ensure that their current laws do not ban them from returning but deal with returnees in a manner that minimises security risks. For example, by increasing prison sentences and mandating the returnee completes a lengthy rehabilitation programme, regardless of whether they go to prison.
Staggered repatriation: States could start by repatriating the youngest prisoners on the basis that any indoctrination they may have undergone can be more easily undone. They can be followed by adults who, in the assessment described above, are deemed to be not highly radicalised. The most ideological individuals could be repatriated last. In the meantime, the return of the former two groups would relieve pressure on local authorities, who could focus their resources and manpower on dealing with fewer foreign prisoners.
Left unchecked, increasingly radicalised, unsecured or escaping ISIS-linked individuals could help reconstitute the terrorist threat that took 81 countries and billions of dollars to defeat. The prospect of another multi-billion, multi-nation effort to defeat the next iteration of ISIS should spur countries to accept responsibility for their citizens and do their part to protect the collective security of those affected by terrorism.