mujahidMore 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:

Image of a citizenIf 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?

hammingIt’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?

EntenmannWhere 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).

Foreign Fighters Infographic

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?

hammingI 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?

EntenmannGood 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!

IMAGE CREDITS: Oleg Zabyelin –

118 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. Nando Aidos

    How should European governments deal with their proven ability to create foreign fighters?

  2. nando

    How should European governments deal with their proven ability to create foreign fighters?

  3. Vinko Rajic

    Send them back to Arab countries together with our priest , they can solve their own problems , religion is for peace.

    • SD

      They should be locked up until we can remove their citizenship and forcibly deport them to a muslim country. They knew exactly what they werde doing when they left so they must live with the consequences.

    • Adrian

      You can’t be serious!

  4. Ivan Burrows


    End Schengen & send all those caught to Berlin & Brussels, why should anyone else suffer for the EU’s stupidity.

    • David pike

      Who fought in Iraq and Syria. ?

  5. EU reform- proactive

    It is the result & consequence of failed (western) diplomacy! It has to stop! One should turn the table & demand:

    To send all scheming, dishonest, elitist & “democracy” loving politicians who either:

    * championed or supported past & present regime changes, or
    * aimed & aiming at global domination at any cost, spreading neocon democracy by intrique & force, or
    * approved military actions (without a valid, or false, or manipulated UN mandate, or without a “legal” local invitation,

    -back to these Muslim countries on a peace mission & diplomatic pilgrimage!

    Conditions: to only return “triumphed” once local peace, local law & local order- according to prevailing Muslim- or whatever custom- has been restored. Further, to have successfully negotiated that all refugees in Europe be properly repatriated and financially compensated by the ruling & responsible clique & their banks, incl the US- without using taxpayers money!

    As only protection they may carry their “wits” and the “Dove symbol” with them and are forbidden to return prematurely! The folks at home are quite capable to govern themselves so long. Don’t worry, they are not missed!

    If unsuccessful- to be held accountable & charged for crimes against our diverse humanity by a global, International Court of Justice.

    PS: no promotions and bonuses are applicable!

  6. Francesco Cappai

    A painless death penalty. We shouldn’t be even paying these peoples’ expenses in prison. Sorry it’s harsh but we got to defend ourselves.

  7. Noia Blackcat

    the ones that are known to be foreign fighters or that have traveled several times to particular countries without valid motivation shouldn’t be allowed to leave the native country and put under strict control in the first place…

  8. Tarquin Farquhar

    End Schengen – it’s great in theory but bad in practice. The ‘founding fuhrers’ of the EU have much to answer for on this matter.

    Make all countries (especially France and Belgium) more inclusive.

    Make the censuses in each country collect info on one and all – such data could be used to provide insight and intervention into potentially troubling sub-communities.

    Educate all sub-communities regarding the acceptability and unacceptability of their cultural practices in a Western context.

    Make Imams licensed.

    Encourage Westerners to learn about the good and the bad (slavery, sexual-relations-with-minors, misogyny, homophobia, racism, piracy etc etc) pertaining to Islam.

  9. Marco Bianchi

    Hand them to the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Their crimes have taken place in these countries therefore it is there where they should face trial and serve their time.

    • The Concerned Citizen

      This is by far the best suggestion I’ve heard.
      As well as fix the problem of our worst passport-holders ever returning; it proves our commitment to international justice better than allowing them to use said passports to shield themselves from the laws they violated.

  10. Adrian

    Stripped of citizenship and imprisoned for information.

  11. Redwing

    First of all, the justice system should have the call on every such individual. But, in order to be able to take measures in this kind of situations, the European law that regulates this domain should be unified through all the judicial systems across the continent and it should incriminate joining foreign armies or armed organizations other than those officially belonging to the european countries they are being citizen of and also any affiliation to certain parties identified by european authorities as criminal organizations abroad. The punishments should be very high also, but it should have effects on those that received the citizenship by choice, because these acts are incompatible with the condition of EU citizen.

  12. Tony Cartwright

    I think everyone knows the answer to the question but Political Correctness and Human Rights brigade will turn things round making these people the ones who are the victims

  13. Isobel Jardine

    They are more than ‘fighters’ many have gone to join a very brutal terror group that has horrifically persecuted and murdered local civilians There are issues to address about those behind the group but calling them ‘fighters’ is hardly accurate Depending on how long they were there, some have been with this barbaric group for a long time

  14. Stuart Parkinson

    We should welcome them with open arms, give them a house to live in, give them access to medical care and education and forget they ever went to fight for some Islamic extremists so we don’t offend them, oh wait, we do that already.

  15. Antonio Guagni

    I fronti non di esauriranno presto. Anzi di nuovi si apriranno spaventosi.
    Questi mercenari guadagnano molto e si sposteranno

  16. Kaled Al-frzai

    it depends,if they were fighting on the side of the rebel army i would say a prize and statue would be not much to ask for.If they fight on Isis or Assad’s side…shot in the head

  17. catherine benning

    Exclude any right to entry and return them to country of departure. They will be safe and happy there and unable to do any damage to our citizens on our soilt.

    They made the decisions to leave that decision is the only decision needed to be taken into account.

  18. George Grangeon-Amaral

    Is that even a real question ??? Perhaps the US Sixth Army should invade Europe again and we have trials in Nuremberg with Merkel on the rooster ??? Can’t imagine the shock real people like Patton, Eisenhower, Montgomery etc… would have if they were to see this mess …

  19. Susan Hutchison

    Simple really …send them back and dont let them back into the Country ..but of course we cant …can we ??

  20. Kenny Evans

    Let’s not forget people, were part of the Europe at the moment, so we must tread on egg shells , so this is what will happen,👍one , they have to think of there human rights, two ,think of there family’s , three ,they may have children, four ,need i say any more 😀

  21. John Rowland

    Execute them for treason,oh hold on a bit didn’t bliar abolish the treason act to cover his own arse

  22. John Storer

    Fighters ? You mean rapist’s, murderers, beheaders , and future terrorists, no deal, they’re not wanted

  23. Abu Sajid

    Confiscate their passports even better get them killed where they have gone to kill innocent people

  24. Roy Redbourne

    No return I cannot believe that so called leaders of the west do not have the backbone to stop these murderers coming back they should? Hang there heads in shame

  25. Richard L Ward

    Send them to the countries they have destroyed and let them deal with them as they see fit !!

  26. Graham Dennis

    Don’t waste bullets,use 1 rope to kill them all,and make it public,great deterrent to other so called radicalised British Muslims.

  27. Gyorgy Gajdos

    They should be jailed. there should be laws in place that allow their incarceration.

  28. John Williams

    Send them back ,they know that dickhead Cameron will leave them back in to claim benefits and plot to kill us let Orlando be an example

  29. ironworker

    A “pseudo”question. It implies that terrorists went where they usually go and do what they are usually doing. The first who should be held responsible is the government. Wonder, why all these radicalized muslims (to be fair, all muslims should be included with no exception), are not under permanent surveillance 24/7/365 yet ?

  30. Yasmine

    They should have been placed on the persona non grata list when they left and had their citizenship removed.

  31. Carol Ilse Anne

    They made a choice to go, invalidate their passport so they can’t just return, pass a law saying anyone joining in will also have family members parcelled up and sent after them, the invalidate their passports too!

  32. Martin Stuart

    Execute them , get rid they are brainwashed damaged goods who will spread hatred and violence till they depart

  33. Geoffrey Webster

    Send them back on the same plane they came in on, minus their British passports, then present their parents with the bill.

  34. Gerhard Landwehr

    At least your country is debating this.
    Here these guys practically don’t exist. Another issue which is not addressed

  35. Philip M.

    Hi. Mr Hamming is correct – it is not just on the battlefield where peace will be won; I would ask though, who exactly is going to change them? The people whom Mr. Hamming is saying will be able to provide healthier options? A few points to remember here:

    1. On the battlefield is the first place the battle needs to be won because innocent people, especially Christians, are being slaughtered.

    2. The West helped to build many of the problems in the East so it is not ‘us and them’ but just ‘us’. The world is smaller. They are our neighbours, yes, even the very naughty ones.

    3. Those in the East are deeply religious people, muslims included, and despite that fact that some of their customs leave a lot to be desired, they might well in turn think the same about ours. Because life in the Middle East can be a lot more brutal doesn’t mean they are stupid. So who exactly is going to teach them – a Europe that stands for what?

    6. If muslim fighters come here then what are they going to be faced with: blanket atheism? This isn’t exactly going to fill in that hole that the West has helped make.

    If you want to know what to do with foreign fighters: make them join the army as long-term national service, while we try to iron out the issues in the Middle East that we, the West, helped cause. Or send them to some of those schools in the U.S meant for rebellious teenagers. Make them meet the Jewish victims of their brutality and have them apologise – after quite some time in detention. Make them rebuild all the structures that they destroyed in the Middle East and be put on permanent community service in the Middle East for a very long duration to serve those whom they tortured and maimed. And killed.

    Some ideas.

  36. Philip M.

    …as for missing points four and five, you can fill in the gaps – be imaginative!

  37. The Concerned Citizen

    Obviously we should be either shooting them as enemy combatants, or stripping citizenship and extraditing them BACK to Syria to face charges for their crimes (with a guarantee they will not come back).

    What the advocates of ‘rehabilitation’ constantly fail to articulate;
    1- why extremists voluntarily removing themselves from my country is even a BAD thing (as opposed to the best thing ever to happen to our countries in decades).
    2- How extremists are somehow able to do MORE damage as untrained grunts pinned down in a distant war-zone than as sleeper agents in our country.
    3- How the general public supposedly benefits from forking out for ‘rehabilitation’ for returnees, than not having to live with the returnees at all.
    4- How any of the so-called benefits of them returning outweigh the tangible, long-term benefits of an extremist exodus.
    5- How people returning, and REMAINING fanatical salafists, but losing their desire to leave my country (Aarhus), is a “success” at all- as opposed to a catastrophic failure?
    6- How an extremist’s harsh feelings of resentment towards me from being trapped in Syria is worse than them having less-harsh feelings towards me while I have to interact with them in person in my own street?

    It’s clear these advocates have no argument to stand on, and appear to have other motives they don’t want to share (often these ‘strategy think tanks’ put themselves forward for government funding to implement these ‘rehabilitation programs’- meaning these companies benefit even if their ‘programs’ are duds)
    It’s clear they have

  38. Julia Hadjikyriacou

    Firstly, I don’t understand how the US & NATO with billions in defence weapons and armies can’t beat a bunch of mercenaries. Secondly I don’t understand why the US & NATO can’t cut off ISIS’s money supply, sanction countries that buy oil from ISIS and sell then supplies and weapons and cut off routes for new merceneries joining ISIS. Thirdly I don’t understand why you don’t label ISIS as Wahabist extremists and tackle the Saudi sponsored Wahabism indoctrination within the EU. Fourthly mercenaries maybe enticed by the opportunity offered to mercenaries for violence and sexual abuse and that is the hardest to solve as they lack human values.

  39. Julia Hadjikyriacou

    Firstly, I don’t understand how the US & NATO with billions in defence weapons and armies can’t beat a bunch of mercenaries. Secondly I don’t understand why the US & NATO can’t cut off ISIS’s money supply, sanction countries that buy oil from ISIS and sell then supplies and weapons and cut off routes for new merceneries joining ISIS. Thirdly I don’t understand why you don’t label ISIS as Wahabist extremists and tackle the Saudi sponsored Wahabism indoctrination within the EU. Fourthly mercenaries maybe enticed by the opportunity offered to mercenaries for violence and sexual abuse and that is the hardest to solve as they lack human values.

    • EnlightenedTrout

      you now have thousands of religious fanatics in Europe , the amount of ‘people’ going to fight in syria from france and other european countries shows how much of a mess this all is. you are now trying to fight an ideology and
      fighting an ideology is much harder than simply keeping these religious fanatics and islam in general out of the continent …. dark ages ahead , only this time it’s islam not christianity .Adios Evropa

  40. Tomas Mzr

    How to deal with returning terrorists ? simple answer: Guantanamo is waiting

  41. Simple solutions

    Born here or not, these people are no longer to be considered Europeans or part of society. No second changes, at least not in any part of society.
    Take away pasport and nationality and drop them somewhere on an uninhabited island in the middle of the atlantic (even such doesn’t exist, create one)
    Shoot them

  42. Concerned Citizen

    The answer is obvious (and legal!)
    Arrange an extradition treaty with Syria.
    Any of our “nationals” who are or have been present in Syria during the conflict must be turned over to face justice in the Syrian courts.

    If that happens to involve a 100% incarceration and execution rate, then even better.

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