The Maastricht Diplomat

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Is ISIS Coming Home?

When Mr Trump recently unilaterally announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria on December 19, 2018, he opened up a whole new can of worms.

The Kurdish forces in the area, more often than not supplying the boots on the frontlines of the fight against ISIS, would no longer be supported by the world’s largest military. Not only did this put them directly into the crosshairs of long-time enemies – Syria’s dictator, Bashir Al-Assad, and Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey – but presented a new dilemma for Europe. With barely enough funds to survive as is, the capability to sustain captive forces in camps will disappear. There it is estimated that there are around 800 foreign ISIS fighters, as well as 700 wives and over a thousand children. If the Kurds cannot hold them, then where do they go? Will Europe let them back in? And if so, what will they do with them?

These are important questions being discussed across Europe at the moment. With thousands of Europeans having left to fight in the jihadist war, nations face sticky legal dilemmas. Led in part by 19 year old Shamima Begum’s recent request to be let back into British society, Mr Trump’s proclamation that European countries “step up and do the job that they are capable of doing” sent warning bells across the continent. Germany has expressed a willingness to prosecute the returning fighters while France has demonstratively not responded to the demands of the White House. Rather it has thus far been taking the issue on with a case-by-case policy.

While the UK government has declared that it will do all it can to halt the return of fighters, the Minister of Justice, Mr David Geake, has said that although the key thing is to protect the British public, they “can’t just make people stateless”. Citizens, in more states than just the United Kingdom, have the right to return to their homelands. The question lies with what to do with them when they do; in most European courts the inability to provide concrete evidence for their presumed actions in the Middle East will not suffice for prosecution, but then there is also the duty of governments to protect the population against possible attack – a duty that absolutely has to be taken into account.

Although the West and its Allies have maintained that this is the last push against ISIS in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned that this is just “a setback, not a defeat” for ISIS. There is the very real threat that they could go completely underground and continue to pursue random terror acts in Western cities. Are these returning fighters the beginning of this underground radically ideological movement, or are they the disillusioned and brainwashed wishing to come home and forget about it all? A military defeat does not equal an ideological defeat, a lesson seemed never learnt. One only has to look a few borders over to the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the group has been defeated in combat by US forces but maintain strong grassroots support to this day.

There are some calls for reintegration into society, especially for those young girls who married into the forces and now have multiple children fathered by Jihadis. Is it right to turn them away from European borders and send them back into near-certain death in the deserts of Iraq? Is it fair to punish the sons for the sins of their fathers? Will this not only lead to further radicalisation?

Or should they perhaps, as the Times of London calls for, be made to do their duty as citizens and inform us on the makeup of the Islamic State – a terrorist organisation that the West knows near-to-nothing about. After all, how did this group achieve the task of calling Europeans in their thousands to join their violent crusade? The radicalisation of so many, and curiously many youth and women, has never been achieved on a scale like this before, especially in such a relatively short amount of time. Surely, it would be beneficial to governments to take these fighters and families in and learn how this all happened?

Related to this topic is the thorny field of de-radicalisation, an “extremely arduous, and seemingly never-ending undertaking”, according to Belgium’s De Standaard. Some disagree, arguing that this is playing into the hands of the jihadis and once the ideology has made it across borders then it will only spread. Here we revisit the case of Ms Begum.

A 19 year old girl from London, she left her home four years ago as a teenager to join the extremist group, recently resurfacing in Syrian refugee camp. Her case is controversial because while she is expecting to be able to return to the land of her birth, she has also expressed “no regret” for her actions and “cannot see how she is a threat”. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid soon after declared it was the intent of the Home office to strip her of her citizenship. This was done upon the erroneous assumption that she was the bearer of dual citizenship; however, it has since come to light that although her lineage goes back to Bangladesh, she does not carry two passports. Therefore she cannot lawfully be made stateless by the United Kingdom, which will force their hand in another direction. Is she made to return and enter a de-radicalisation process, drawing her away from the anti-West culture she so willingly joined four years ago, and thereby potentially helping inform the UK government on the methodologies of ISIS recruitment and radicalisation; or will she be denied access to the UK on the grounds that she is a threat to society? No doubt this very public case will prove to be landmark in the way that returning jihadis are treated.

There are no immediate answers here, but there are some things that we can be sure of. As the United States continues to pull out of the area, the situation will only grow more urgent. These captives have to go somewhere and the Kurdish forces cannot take on the task, embattled as they are. As is his wont, Mr Trump has only made things worse for everyone else. By doggedly pursuing his isolationist and short-minded desires, he is leaving the rest of the world to pick up after him. ISIS is, once again, Europe’s problem.

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