A “significant proportion” of returning IS jihadists “no longer pose a security threat,” according to the British government. The U.K. government has so far refused to disclose its procedures for dealing with returning jihadists who have gone to fight with ISIS in the Middle East, but upon being questioned in parliament, a counter-extremism official has revealed that some have been deemed safe to accept back into society.
An estimated 40,000 people have travelled from 110 countries in order to join IS in the Middle East, and with many returning to their home countries, governments are struggling to find a way to deal with jihadists who want to resume their place in society. While the U.K. stripped 150 jihadists of their passports and banned them from returning, they only took the measure with people who already held dual nationality, to avoid making anybody stateless.
A lack of solid evidence is often cited as an obstacle to pressing charges against successfully returned jihadists. Although some, who have been charged and deported to their home nations from midpoint destinations, such as Turkey, have clearer documentation, European governments have been reluctant to follow through with their own prosecution.
NO LONGER A THREAT
According to a Soufan Centre report, the U.K. has accepted back the largest number of returning jihadist out of any non-Muslim country, though Europe as a whole is facing a similar problem, with around 1,200 IS members thought to have returned to their home countries in the European Union. While an appropriate solution is eluding European governments, it’s unlikely that many citizens would be happy to learn that the answer, at least in the U.K., is to pretend that they had never left.
Out of approximately 850 jihadists who left Britain to join ISIS, around 425 ( 50%) have already returned to the country, while 15% are thought to have died overseas, and it’s believed that around another 300 are hiding in Turkey with unknown intentions. While those numbers have been identified by the Soufan Centre non-profit research organization, the government itself has declined to inform the public about the fate of those IS members who have returned to the country. Last week, opposition Member of Parliament John Woodcock questioned the government on its refusal to release information on returning jihadists:
Are more than 400 of those returning individuals in jail or going through the court system? We simply do not know, because the Government will not release the figures, despite repeated requests. There is strong demand from the public to know how many who travelled to fight foreign jihad are currently free in British communities.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability Victoria Atkins, whose portfolio includes responsibility for victims of terrorism, refused to give any information on whether any IS members had been charged or put on trial but admitted that:
A significant proportion of those individuals who have already returned are assessed as no longer being of national security concern.
She downplayed the risk associated with returning jihadists, instead emphasizing those who have been killed fighting overseas – a much smaller proportion than the number who have returned from IS held territories.
REHABILITATION OR PUNISHMENT?
While North America has proved relatively resilient to the problem of citizens joining ISIS, Europe has seen almost 6,000 departures. Governments have been indecisive on how to deal with the issue, vacillating between appeasement, punishment and just ignoring the presence of jihadists. A leaked British counter-terrorism document revealed that this year a de-radicalization program would start under the title Operation Constrain, giving known extremists preference for government housing, education, employment and healthcare.
Meanwhile, despite 2015’s Copenhagen shooting at the hands of a returned IS fighter, Denmark’s Aarhus Model works to “build on the principle of inclusion” in order to “stop or redirect the process of violent radicalization” via mentoring, education, life skills workshops and so on.
Controversially, France is the only western nation that has been actively hunting and killing its own citizens in the Middle East, a stance that was viewed as barbaric when a similar policy suggested in Britain. However, with the French de-radicalization program falling apart, it appears they have no idea what to do with jihadists who have already returned.
It’s not just supposedly “soft” Western governments who are under pressure to find a solution. Perhaps because of its decisive military intervention in Syria, Russia has become the largest exporter of jihadists, with Russian intelligence worried that over 4,000 have left to join the terrorist group and at least 400 already returned. De-radicalization programs are unlikely to satisfy Russians and even Muslim nations have proven dissatisfied to have known IS members among their communities. Security analyst Ryan Cummings spoke to Deutsche Welle about the risks that returning jihadists pose in Africa:
We saw in Tunisia recently there was some legislation being promulgated in terms of trying to rehabilitate Islamist extremists back into their communities and kind of engaging in a deep de-radicalization program. But in itself, it caused significant social instability in the communities because we saw quite a large number of protests that were taking place in cities such as Tunis. And I think a few other cities in Tunisia as well, where there was quite a large presence to such initiatives because the communities didn’t want these individuals to be reintegrated. They wanted them to be prosecuted for the role that they played in Islamist extremism within the Levant.
While many of us would choose to deal with returning jihadists in different ways – the softer approach of de-radicalization or the harsher one of punishment – perhaps the most troubling aspect of this story is the British government’s refusal to publicly discuss the situation.
While some secrecy is to be expected surrounding a national security issue like terrorism, the reluctance to disclose even general information is unlikely to ease public discomfort around the issue of terrorism and does cause one to wonder exactly why the public is being left in the dark.