What do we do with returning foreign fighters?

There is little doubt that Islamic State is under tremendous pressure in Iraq and Syria. Kinetic action carried out by airstrikes and ground forces have whittled away at the group and and the same time the group’s sources of financing are being targeted.  The size of its so-called “Caliphate” is smaller than it was and there are reports that the number of fighters is decreasing.  There is also some suggestion that the flow of Western wannabe jihadis is dropping off.  All good news.

At the same time, there are reports that some of the “foreign fighters” have expressed interest in coming home.  A few have actually approached their embassies seeking travel documentation.   Is it a coincidence that these “mujahedin” are clamouring to get out of Syria/Iraq just IS’ fortunes have turned?   If they are so disgusted with what they saw and what IS is doing, why did they not try to leave months or years ago?   In truth, a few did want to get out and there is some confirmation that IS killed those it saw as traitors for abandoning the cause.  But the numbers of deserters does appear to be rising now and I am not sure that this juxtaposition is random.

What should we do in the face of this wave of returnees?  Do we just let them in?  Do we charge them with crimes?  Do we make them do community service?  Do we use them in counter radicalisation programmes?

The answers to these questions are: it depends.  To say that there is a one-size-fits-all solution is a poor and inaccurate statement.  Those who went over and are now realising the error of their decision must be looked at on a case by case basis.  Some will be suffering from PTSD or some other psychological disorder. Some will have physical injuries. Others will want nothing to do with IS or any other Islamist extremist movement.  A few may be Trojan horses.

Our challenge lies in determining who fits in which category.   Not surprisingly, the gathering of intelligence/information in that part of the world is tough.  Some returnees may have participated in acts of terrorism or crimes against humanity and it may be next to impossible to ascertain that.  Luckily many jihadis brag of their exploits on social media: it remains to be seen if we can use this data in court cases.

We cannot take the accounts of former foreign fighters at their word.  We need to investigate their claims and their rationale for leaving and these investigations will suffer the same obstacles cited above.  At a minimum it is prudent to assume that those who make it back have NOT abandoned the violent IS ideology.  There have been enough successful terrorist attacks by returnees to back this hypothesis and any other approach is both foolish and subjects us to a potential threat.  If after enough time it becomes clear that these people do not pose a threat to national security, so be it.

For those who are sincere in their rejection of what IS has to offer there is the possibility of using them in counter radicalisation measures.  At the same time we have to accept that some will simply want to put their experiences behind them and not have to relive them as they talk to others.  We have to also acknowledge that analogous anti-crime efforts (such as “Scared Straight”) have dismal track records so that we don’t raise our expectations too high.  It is far from certain that wannabes are deterred by the warnings of formers.

In the end these individuals have broken any number of laws in Canada – whether it is the 1937 Foreign Enlistment Act or the fact that they joined listed terrorist entities- and can thus be charged.  Whether or not it is in the public interest to do so or whether the likelihood of conviction is high enough will have to be looked at.

Regardless of which approach we adopt it is imperative that we do so carefully.  Fighters with battlefield experience and deep exposure to hateful ideologies may pose a serious threat to our security that we ignore at our peril.

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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