Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 June 2019

Europe wary of returning fighters

Governments face long-term problem from returning ISIS sympathisers

The case of ISIS member Shamima Begum has focused attention on the problem posed by returning foreign fighters and their families. EPA
The case of ISIS member Shamima Begum has focused attention on the problem posed by returning foreign fighters and their families. EPA

European leaders have shown little desire to welcome home thousands of fighters and their families from the battlefields of the Middle East.

Officials estimate that about 6,000 people left the European Union to travel to Iraq and Syria to answer the call of ISIS. Now that ISIS has dwindling pockets of territory, governments are facing difficult questions about how to minimise the risk posed by defeated fighters who have chosen to return home.

The threat has not been matched by preparations, with the EU’s security commissioner, Julian King, repeatedly calling on the 28-nation bloc to take steps to address the messy aftermath of the war.

A UN report published last year said that returning and relocating former fighters was likely to remain a “significant long-term challenge” but said the numbers of returnees involved in terrorist plots had been low.

The question on the minds of many legislators is the balance to be struck between prosecution versus rehabilitation.

Many EU members states have struggled to secure criminal convictions because of the lack of evidence available from the war-zone.

A 2017 study of nearly 15,000 people from 79 countries who had left the conflict zone found that nearly half had returned home without entering the criminal justice system.

In the UK, a strengthened counter-terrorism law came into force last week that would make it easier to prosecute foreign fighters on their return.

The new law would allow parliament to create no-go zones that could see anyone flouting travel bans jailed for up to ten years. Denmark and Australia have a similar offence which has been used to prosecute its nationals returning from Iraq and Syria.

“I have read many countries' terrorism legislation,” said Alex Carlile, a former reviewer of UK terrorism legislation. “My impression is that they are pretty similar though some countries are better at enforcing it.”

But with the cost of prosecuting thousands of fighters likely to run into the millions of pounds, the preferred option of many European governments has been for fighters to be prosecuted and jailed in the Middle East before any further decisions have to be made on their return.

The UK stripped more than 100 Britons of their citizenship in 2017 preventing them from returning back to the UK. The move has sparked a debate within the UK government with Home Secretary Sajid Javid warning that he would not hesitate to prevent the return of anyone who threatened the “safety and security” of the UK.

The minister in charge of the judicial system, David Gauke, said, however, that the UK could not make anybody “stateless”.

The debate has becoming increasingly urgent with the US announcing plans to pull troops out of Syria. President Donald Trump has called on the EU to take back 800 fighters captured in Syria by US-backed forces and put them on trial.

The US’s Kurdish allies have supported the move and warned of breakouts by battle-hardened warriors if they were not removed to their home countries. Those held include two British members of an ISIS assassination squad known as the Beatles who the UK is seeking to put on trial in the United States.

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh have been implicated in the murders of three US and two British citizens but UK prosecutors said they were unlikely to secure a successful conviction because of their treatment while being held in custody.

Updated: February 18, 2019 08:48 PM

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