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Marching home? Why repatriating foreign terrorist fighters is a pan-European priority

Terrorism & radicalisation / DISCUSSION PAPER
Amanda Paul , Ian Acheson

Date: 09/11/2020
This joint report by the European Policy Centre and Counter Extremism Project argues that Europe needs to take responsibility for their nationals and establish a united approach towards repatriating Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) to their home countries.

Since the fall of the 'caliphate' of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), hundreds of European foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and their families remain incarcerated in overcrowded, insecure and unsanitary prisons and camps in Syria and Iraq. While some children have been repatriated, there is a broad popular European resistance to the idea of bringing 'dangerous traitors' home, as they are often viewed as significant security threats. Rather, European political elites prefer to wash their hands of the problem, leaving them in the 'care' of the Kurdish- led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or proposing that they be tried in Iraq or elsewhere.

The future situation in north-eastern Syria remains highly volatile and uncertain. European governments face the risk that more of their nationals could escape from prisons and re-join ISIS or other jihadist groups, perhaps becoming involved in attack plans or recruitment efforts back at home or elsewhere. Allowing European FTFs to return home illicitly, equipped with dangerous skills and connections, should be avoided at all costs.

Moreover, delaying the repatriation of women and children is a mistake. Subjected to brutal conditions and persistent indoctrination, children, particularly teenage boys, are particularly at risk of becoming radicalised. These prison camps are the perfect breeding ground for a new generation of ISIS militants, ready to carry out a terrorist attack on European soil.

European governments must therefore take responsibility and hold their citizens accountable in their home countries, with appropriate punishment and proportionate control measures for those who have committed crimes abroad and remain a national risk.

The process of investigating European FTFs' crimes could already start in Syria and Iraq and then be followed through by the respective judicial systems across Europe. A 'European Entry/Dispersal Model' should be created for this purpose under an expanded Directive 2017/541, which criminalises those who seek to travel to commit acts of violent extremism.

The threat they pose can be reduced substantially by the development of a menu of practitioner-led and -validated interventions, specifically for returning European FTFs who receive custodial sentences. It should include utilising genuine recanting jihadis to combat the attraction of violent extremism inside prisons.

The EU cannot avoid this problem any longer. Dealing with European FTFs appropriately is a crucial part of the Union's broader approach to preventing the resurgence of ISIS. A parallel commitment to human rights in this process is not a sign of weakness but demonstrates the continent's enduring commitment to the values of liberal democracy over theocratic violence.

Read the full paper here.
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