More than 4,000 Europeans have joined the wars in Syria and Iraq. 14% are now believed to have died, but 30% have likely returned home – the majority going to Denmark, the UK, Germany, and Sweden.
Citizens travelling to fight in foreign conflicts is nothing new; many Europeans, including the English author George Orwell, fought in the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. And not all returning fighters are a security threat – some may have fought for groups allied with European governments against Islamic State, while others have grown disillusioned with what the fight represents and have renounced violence.
Nevertheless, security analysts warn that returning fighters pose a significant threat. Individuals could return with combat experience and training, determined to commit atrocities like the Paris or Brussels attacks.
How should European governments deal with returning fighters? We published an earlier debate asking whether the citizenship of Europeans who fight in Iraq and Syria should be stripped from them. One of the commenters in that debate, Gio, argued that it was better to allow them to return, and then prosecute them as European citizens:
If the person is born in Holland and has the Dutch nationality and goes to war elsewhere, he should be punished here, but removing the citizenship is absurd! (Its not gonna solve anything!)
To get a response, we spoke to Tore Hamming, an analyst on militant Islamism and CEO of MENA Analysis. What did he think should be done with young Europeans who travel to fight for terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria upon their return?
It’s a very big challenge for Western societies nowadays. I think it’s impossible just to make one rule that should be valid for everyone, because all cases are different. I think we should try as much as possible to integrate these people when they come back, but of course some people are not suitable for reintegration. So, it really depends on an individual analysis of the specific case.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Eva Entenmann, a Programme Manager at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), in the Hague. What would she say?
Where there is evidence they have committed crimes, they should be prosecuted in accordance with the rule of law. But I think where there is not enough evidence, or where charges have been dropped, or where people come back disillusioned and traumatised, there should also be a possibility to address their problems and deal with them in a rehabilitative way. So, for example, some people might need trauma counselling, some people might voluntarily sign up to de-radicalisation exit programme. I think there is a broad spectrum of tools we should use to deal with individuals who come back, in accordance with the rule of law.
Curious to know more about foreign fighters returning to Europe? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
Ultimately, however, dealing with returning foreign fighters is treating the symptom, not the cause. We had a comment sent in from Maia, asking how we can stop the spread of the poisonous ideology underpinning groups like Al-Qaeda and IS. She believes it’s not enough to try and rehabilitate or arrest people returning from fighting in Iraq and Syria, and that the propaganda being put out by terrorist organisations needs to be more effectively countered.
To get a response, we spoke to Tore Hamming, an analyst on militant Islamism and CEO of MENA Analysis. How would he respond to Maia?
I think it is absolutely impossible to defeat an organisation like the Islamic State militarily. Maybe you can beat them on the battlefield for a short period but, as we saw in Iraq in 2007-2008, they can be defeated militarily but still persist as an ideology, and a few years later they re-surged… So, I think winning the ideological battle has more to do with providing alternatives to people. If people have alternatives in their life, be that in the Middle East or in the West, I think they will be less attracted by the ideology of organisations like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Eva Entenmann, a Programme Manager at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), in the Hague. What would she say to Maia?
Good question, and a complicated question. I completely agree that we can’t beat ISIS only on the battlefield, that we need to counter their narrative. So, on the one hand that means countering their very sophisticated narrative. But on the other hand it means coming up with our own alternative, positive narrative; one that doesn’t just respond to the ideology of ISIS, but where we have a positive message in our own countries, communities, and societies that is stronger than their twisted ideology.
How can we convince people to stop fighting for terrorist groups? And what should happen to young Europeans who fight in Iraq and Syria upon their return? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!