In many instances historically amnesties were offered to former combatants in the interests of getting the violence to stop and giving a society a chance to rebuild itself. A really good example where amnesty seemed to work would be in South Africa where it was part of that nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after Apartheid was overthrown. On the other hand, amnesty for fighters was rejected in the recent Colombian referendum on ending the half century war with the FARC.
Amnesties can be hard to sell. Conflicts where hundreds or thousands of people have been killed by insurgencies or guerrilla movements or terrorists can result in acrimony and long memories where populations are unwilling to let those responsible for the violence to get off lightly. This is what appears to have happened in the narrow defeat of the Colombian referendum.
A question that is being asked by some is whether we should consider offering an amnesty to returning foreign fighters with Islamic State. One such proposal was published recently by David Wells (full disclosure: Mr. Wells is an acquaintance and, like me, a former intelligence analyst). He wrote that by offering a “plea bargain” to those who are coming home disillusioned security intelligence and law enforcement agencies could focus limited resources on those who do pose a real threat to their homelands upon return.
Mr. Wells does offer a few cautionary statements about the difficulties of carrying out such an amnesty and I want to build on those (NB my forthcoming book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security goes into much greater detail on this issue – it will be published by Rowan and Littlefield in January 2017).
To my mind the single greatest obstacle to social acceptance of any form of amnesty for those who joined IS is the sheer brutality and inhumanity of the group’s actions. Whether we are talking about beheadings, immolations, throwing people off roofs, raping girls or selling women into slavery, the depravity so rampant among IS members puts them in a special level of hell. No one will want to see these animals get any break on the punishment they so richly deserve.
Compounding this problem is determining who did what in theatre. Aside from the really stupid ones who posted videos online boasting of their lust for violence and those even more stupid to return home – assuming they have not been Hellfired into oblivion (the best case scenario really) – we will probably not be able to determine who the worst actors are.
States will want to prosecute those guilty of war crimes but unless we have those posted videos as evidence this will be very difficult. Gathering such evidence in a conflict zone like Syria is unquestionably a challenge and it is not as if we can rely on Syrian authorities for help (besides, given recent cases of Syrian-Canadian “collaboration” in several alleged torture incidents Syrian assistance would be politically impossible even if it were offered).
Furthermore, what do we do with the confessions/denials of some returnees? While it is probable that there are legitimate instances of those who are disgusted with what they saw and may not have actually contributed to the horror, how do we make that determination? Whom do we believe?
In the end, the fact that these individuals have left Canada (or many other countries) to join IS (or other groups) is a criminal offence and it is in the interest of the state to pursue legal action where the evidence is available. Cases will have to be judged on their merits and there may be ones where an amnesty – or the decision not to proceed with trials – can be considered. We do have one instance of this already in Canada when the Crown chose not to charge three young women from the Toronto area after they unsuccessfully tried to travel to Syria to join IS (they were interdicted in Egypt thanks to excellent police work on this end).
We also have to bear in mind that some of these ex-combatants will still pose a threat to our societies. We have already seen attacks carried out by returnees and we will see more. It is not unreasonable to predict that over the next five years or so our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be very busy trying to stop future attacks by returning terrorists.
I suppose that amnesties are feasible where there are at least some people on both sides of the conflict who can see the perspective and justification of violence from the other’s point of view. And yet it is impossible to imagine a scenario where anyone views the actions of IS this way. There are also significant differences in the natures of conflict where amnesties appear to have had a positive effect – say South Africa – versus ones where the “forgiving” population has not been beset by direct warfare in their own backyards. If you are not from Syria or Iraq you have not witnessed the daily carnage caused by IS and are thus less willing to take a chance to end it by offering amnesty.
I fear that anyone who proposes forgiving returning terrorists will have a very tough job ahead of them. And I am not sure that this is a good idea in the first place.