Europe confronts problem of returning Isis fighters

Return of up to 4,000 fighters represents a security, political and legal nightmare

Shamima Begum left London as a 15-year-old schoolgirl to join Islamic State in Syria. Four years later and with a baby born days ago, she has pleaded to be allowed back to the UK.

Her case is emblematic of the security, political and legal difficulties facing a clutch of European governments as they debate whether and how to take back hundreds of former Islamic State (also known as Isis) fighters and their supporters.

The tensions over how big western European countries deal with Islamist radicals who joined Syria's civil war are long-standing, but they are being brought to a head in the UK, France and Germany.

The catalyst is an offensive by US-backed forces on Isis’s last stronghold in northeastern Syria.


It has led Washington and its military allies in Syria and Iraq to step up efforts to move captured foreigners out of former Isis-controlled territory. But European countries are resisting the pressure.

France said on Monday that it would take back militants on a “case by case” basis but would not comply with US president Donald Trump’s call at the weekend for European fighters to be repatriated immediately.

Nicole Belloubet, French justice minister, told France 2 television: "At this stage France is not responding to [Trump's] demands."

London has taken a hard line on the case of Begum. Sajid Javid, UK home secretary, has said he will “not hesitate” to prevent the return of British nationals who have supported terrorist organisations abroad.

“If you do manage to return you should be ready to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted,” Javid said.

On Tuesday the family's lawyer said Begum's citizenship was to be revoked by the home office. Tasnime Akunjee said the family had received a letter which said Javid had ordered the move and explained it had already been processed.

Research in 2016 estimated that between about 3,900 and 4,300 EU member state nationals had become Isis fighters, most of them from the UK, France, Germany and Belgium, according to a European Parliament report published last year. An estimated 30 per cent had already returned home.

Some 1,500 foreign women and children have now reportedly fled to a desert camp outside Isis’s final stronghold in Al-Hasakah province, Syria. More than 40,000 people are living in dire conditions in the Al Hol camp with few other options than to try to go home.

Security threat

The security threat that returnees may pose is a source of mounting concern. Alex Younger, head of MI6, the UK's secret intelligence service, said last week that they were "likely to have acquired the skills and connections that make them potentially very dangerous".

One estimate is that of about 900 UK nationals who went to join Isis in Syria, a fifth have died, two-fifths have returned, and another two-fifths have yet to come back.

Another worry is possible public anger with both returnees and the authorities for allowing them to come back, particularly if they have shown no remorse. Begum has previously told British media she has no regrets about travelling to Syria to join Isis.

Steffen Seibert, German government spokesman, said Berlin was co-ordinating with European counterparts as it decided how to handle the "middle two-digit" number of Germans it believed had fought with Isis and were now held by Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.

“We have to deal with this because it involves German citizens and we are in close contact on this matter with France and the UK, in particular,” he said, adding that Berlin had also held talks with Washington on the matter.

Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the BfV, estimates that since 2013 more than 1,050 Islamists left the country for Iraq and Syria.

The BfV has found that about a third of those German Islamists have now returned to Germany, with another 200 thought to have been killed in Syria and Iraq.

Of those who have returned, more than 110 played an “active part” in the fighting, and remain “the subject of police and judicial inquiries”, the BfV said in a statement.

Trump raised the stakes over the weekend when he threatened to release more than 800 captured foreign Isis fighters if European countries, including Britain, France and Germany, did not take them back and put them on trial.

The US-allied Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have complained for months about the burden of holding captured foreign Isis fighters and their families – and Trump’s surprise decision last month to start withdrawing US troops from Syria has further stoked their anxiety.

Face justice

Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of the SDF’s foreign relations commission, has accused fighters’ foreign countries of origin of trying to “shirk their responsibilities” for people who “may pose serious threats [to] Europe and the international community”.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, has previously branded Isis fighters and their wives as “enemies” of France who should stay and face justice in Syria or Iraq.

But Younger of MI6 underlined the difficult legal dilemma Britain faces in dealing with returning extremists.

“British nationals have a right to come to the UK,” he said last week.

European countries are also unwilling to risk the safety of their own officials by sending them to retrieve the Isis fighters and followers from a war zone.

If militants do return home, prosecution may be difficult or impossible, even for suspected fighters. Proving specific actions on the battlefield to the standards needed in a European court might be impossible, given the difficulty in securing witness testimony and other evidence.

The UK has responded by bringing in a new law this month that makes it a criminal offence to travel to any “designated area”, such as the war zone in Syria, unless the person is engaging in an exempt activity such as humanitarian work or journalism.

A further European concern is that if returnees are not prosecuted it is likely to be difficult and expensive to integrate them back into society, protect them from retribution and monitor their activities. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019