Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1438, (11 - 17 April 2019)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1438, (11 - 17 April 2019)

Ahram Weekly

IS returnees

The defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria poses the question of what happens to fighters who fled the field and returned to their home countries or others, writes Eman Ragab

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US President Donald Trump’s call to some European countries to facilitate the return of citizens who had enlisted in the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group and who are currently in a detention camp in Al-Baghur, which is controlled by the predominately Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has reopened debate over the repercussions of the military defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq. One of the most serious outcomes of this defeat, which brought an end to the terrorist organisation’s control over portions of territory in these two countries, is the reverse flow of an estimated 42,000 foreign terrorist operatives from 86 countries recruited by IS during the past five years. 

Discussions concerning IS returnees from Syria and Iraq began some years ago. I, myself, have participated in many regional and international seminars and conferences on the fate of foreign recruits into the terrorist organisation and how to raise the capacities of countries that are likely to receive the largest numbers of returnees to accommodate them and cope with the security problems related to their return. 

It is important to bear in mind that there have already been two waves of returnees. The first and smaller one began in 2015. The second began in 2017 in tandem with the intensification of military confrontations against IS and it is still ongoing. So far, the last wave saw the departure of 43 per cent of the total number of foreign terrorists in Syria and Iraq from these two countries to other countries in the Arab region and elsewhere. 

Two main factors determine how governments respond to this second wave. The first is that although many of the terrorists may have left their countries of citizenship alone, they are not returning alone but rather together with family members which sometimes includes children under six born in areas that IS had controlled. The second factor is that these returnees have acquired various degrees of knowhow about IS’s terrorist practices, either because they received training in these methods or because they lived alongside the practitioners, as is the case with IS wives. In both cases, the returnees have both knowledge of and connections with other members of the organisation from around the world. The countries to which these terrorists return clearly face risks from this second wave of returnees and the gravity of the risks is contingent on how effectively the countries in question handle this phenomenon. 

There are three possible scenarios for the homecoming of IS foreign recruits. One is for security authorities to succeed in apprehending them upon arrival at airports, seaports or border crossings. The difficulty here is how to determine who returnees are, since their routes back home are unlikely to be direct from Syria or Iraq but rather lead through third and fourth countries. Also, authorities have no set “terrorist profile” to go by while governments that possess databanks on the identities and fates of foreign recruits in IS are often reluctant to share this information with countries to which the recruits are likely to return. 

The second scenario is assimilation into their home societies. The returnee begins a “new life” characterised by respect for his country’s laws and ways of life. The assimilation may be voluntary after a form of introspection and ideological revision or by taking part in an official rehabilitation programme. However, it should be borne in mind that, in many cases in the Arab region, assimilation did not prevent the returnee from becoming a propagandist for extremist thought and even a recruiter of other young men and women into terrorist organisations at home and abroad. In fact, there are certain instances in which returnees reverted to terrorism even after having participated in a rehabilitation programme. 

In the third scenario, the returnees manage to re-enter their countries undetected and then resume terrorist activities either as lone wolves or in collaboration with others in small cells. These cells may exist entirely in a single country or their members might be spread over several countries and communicate via Telegram or similar applications. In addition, the cells may remain dormant for long periods of time before staging a terrorist attack. 

Some Arab countries that have received IS returnees in recent years have already had some experience in some of the abovementioned scenarios. The lessons learned can be of use when it comes to designing policies and strategies for managing IS returnees in the coming phase.


The writer is head of security and military unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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