Why we should treat returning foreign fighters as criminals

Imagine the following scenario.  There is a person who comes from a good home, not necessarily privileged perhaps, but who ‘has it good’.  Despite this advantage in life  – let’s face it, many people don’t have it so good – this person becomes bored.  In their boredom, this person hooks up with a gang that is quite violent – everyone knows that the gang is nasty so it is not possible to dismiss the decision to join up to naivete.  The individual in question sees this experience as ‘an adventure’.  Before too long the person gets wrapped up in the gang’s activities and ends up taking part in a serious crime, for which an arrest is made.

What would your reaction be upon arrest?  Throw the book at this person?  Let them go?  Blame society for the setting the conditions under which gang membership is necessary?  Feel sorry for the gangbanger?  Sentence the person to death?

Now, let’s change the parameters a bit.  Instead of a gang, the group to which the person migrated was a terrorist group, in this case Islamic State (IS).  Furthermore, contrary to what you may have assumed at the outset, the person in question is female.

This is exactly what is being reported in Swiss media.  Here is an excerpt:

The 29-year old woman is currently held by the Kurds in an internment camp along with her daughter.  She has stated that “I guess I was just stupid. If you have everything you want in Switzerland, you might get bored at some point. You think, let’s go on an adventure!… “I know it’s naive, but we thought life there would be pleasant. You get a house, you get money. But when you arrive, you realise everything is a lie.”  She now wants to go home, even if it means a jail sentence, and there are apparent diplomatic negotiations taking place behind the scenes by the Swiss foreign ministry to see if repatriations are possible.

So, what should be done in this case?  I find it interesting that the story makes no mention of what she did, saw, or contributed to while with IS.  We know nothing, at least not publicly, about whether she collaborated in any crimes while in Syria, although Swiss intelligence was monitoring the couple after they left for the Levant.  What we do know is that the chances of gathering solid evidence about her activities  is going to be tough in that environment.  In addition there is every risk that some will accuse her of all kinds of heinous acts out of a sense of revenge or collective punishment.

To my mind, however, one crime has definitely been committed: she willingly, by her own admission, left Switzerland to join a terrorist group (at least that is a crime in Canada: I know nothing of Swiss law).  Does that not count for something?  Is there not a minimum punishment for this act?

I find it scary that there are many who feel sorry for people like this and who want us to rush to bring them home and ‘help’ them (rehabilitate, de-radicalise, re-integrate…).  And no, I am not an ogre.  I just want to point out that those who elected voluntarily to join IS – or any other Islamist extremism organisation – were likely heavily radicalised before they left and if anything were most certainly dragged into more radicalisation while in theatre.  These potential returnees pose a clear and present danger in their homelands, not necessarily because they will blow stuff up at home but because they can serve as a focal point to radicalise others (who may blow stuff up at home ).  Am I the only one that sees the problem this way?

Can we please stop treating this issue as a ‘woe to the foreign jihadi’ one?  These people made choices – bad choices – and choices have repercussions.  We must deal with this threat first and foremost through our justice system.   Rehabilitation, etc. may be an option but it can only be applied after the legal recourse has had its turn.  Anything else is insane – and dangerous.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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