The recent liberation of Mosul and subsequent fall of Raqqa deprived ISIS of its ability to project a threat from its territorial possessions. However, the verdict is still out on what will become of the remaining ISIS fighters. Without a future in their self-declared caliphate, many foreign fighters are returning to their homes. In fact, a recent joint by the Soufan Group and the Global Strategy network estimated that 5,600 ISIS fighters from 33 different countries have returned to their country of origin. This return represents a serious issue for these countries who must find ways to address the return of battle hardened militants. In dealing with these former fighters, countries have to answer the following question: reintegration or not?
At the time of writing, U.S. policy has been to kill ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq before they can return. Official dialogue has described the fighting as a war of annihilation. For example, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis claimed, “our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to north Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa. We are not going to allow them to do so.” Such a plan may seem straightforward, however, the reality is that ISIS fighters are fleeing and surviving in great numbers. A recent investigation found that 250 battle hardened ISIS members were allowed to leave Raqqa under a deal with the Syrian Democratic Defence Force (SDF). The deal was seen by the SDF as a way of saving lives. However, the result of the agreement was that many of these fighters have spread throughout the region. Since it is unrealistic to simply kill every last militant, governments must find solutions that deal with them once they return home.
The level of threat posed by returning ISIS fighters is debatable. Despite their threat level, attempts to reintegrate radicalized fighters is controversial by nature and involves risks. It is impossible to guarantee that they will not conduct violent attacks or attempt to radicalize others. In fact, some of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe were perpetrated, at least in part, by returned fighters. According to the , at least six of the perpetrators of the 2015 Paris attacks and three associated with the Brussels attack in 2016, were returning fighters.
This issue is exacerbated by the huge number of returned militants. Governments are often aware of radicalized individuals but have to calculate risks in choosing who to prioritize for surveillance and action. This means that when radicalized individuals carry out attacks, it is not necessarily because the government wasn’t paying attention. Many times, limited resources force governments to prioritize the surveillance of some individuals at the expense of others. This creates a problem because it infuriates the public, who feel as though their governments aren’t acting quickly or decisively enough.
While many countries have criminalized going overseas to fight for groups such as ISIS, it remains difficult to accumulate sufficient evidence to convict returning fighters. Even if returning fighters are convicted, they will one day be released and jail time has often been found to exacerbate radicalization. This is especially true if radicalized individuals are grouped together.
De-radicalization programs are an alternative to a purely punitive approach. However, these programs come with their own set of issues. They are notoriously difficult to manage due to the ambiguity of the subject. Radicalization is subjective, which makes it difficult to determine whether someone is sufficiently radicalized to pose a danger. Additionally, claiming that someone can have the wrong ideology assumes that there is a “right” system of values. It is almost impossible to simply re-program people into new belief systems. Therefore, when dealing with radicalized individuals it is important to give them the tools to make their own independent decisions rather than attempt to de-radicalize them by force. This is no simple task and requires both time and money. De-radicalization programs often face opposition from a public that is impatient and sceptical of taking chances with dangerous individuals, particularly if their good treatment requires spending public resources.
Another problem with reintegration is that many of the people who are returning were never properly integrated in the first place. De-radicalization becomes even more complicated when children are taken into account. The reality is that many fighters brought their families to the Islamic State with them. The length of ISIS’s occupation of Syria and Iraq means that there is a whole generation of children whose formative years were spent in a radicalized society. It is therefore particularly important for these children to be reintegrated into society as soon as possible.
At first glance, the punitive approach to dealing with the return of radical ISIS extremists may seem the most reasonable. After all, these are people who gave up their homes and countries to go fight for an ideology that is responsible for the death of thousands. However, realities are rarely simple. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away and simply locking up radicalized individuals won’t either. While de-radicalization programs have their own set of issues, the reality is that they may be our only option in the short term. Countries need to deal with the issues that drive people to extremism in the first place. Poverty, poor integration and segregation are often driving factors. Dealing with these core issues is the only way to handle the problem in the long term.