BY BENNETT NAGTEGAAL, Middle East Editor
The Beginning and End
It was in April 2013 when al-Baghdadi, a previously quiet and shy Islamic cleric, declared the unification of the al-Nusra front and the Islamic State in Iraq, leading to the creation of ISIS.
The extremist Salafi jihadist group went on to not only contribute to a bloody war in Iraq and Syria but also commit terrorist attacks around the rest of the world. Unlike the Taliban, a loosely connected network of terrorists in different countries, ISIS asserted itself through its united territory spanning both the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Self-proclaiming itself as a global caliphate, and being described by others as a “proto-state”, ISIS has undoubtedly established a legacy of brutality and horror, one which will fundamentally transform the Middle East.
But it’s nearly all over. Although in 2014 ISIS controlled over 30,000 square miles of territory, in just November last year, IS lost their last Iraqi stronghold. The loss of Raqqa in October 2017, and the town of Rawa just a month later has forced the group to hold a thin slither of territory on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Whilst in mid-2014 the group controlled a taxable population of roughly seven million, and vast swathes of oilfields, grain stores, smuggling routes and huge stockpiles of arms and munitions, this has all been lost. With continual Russian, British, American and French airstrikes, ISIS has lost over 60,000 men and most of its territory. The dreams of a global caliphate all but seem lost in the rubble.
For many, this would be where the story ends. The tale of an extremist and violent group rising to a terrifying height, and then collapsing under its own weight makes a good enough story for most. Whilst we will possibly never know the true extent of ISIS’s impact on the lives of people in Iraq and Syria, we can, however, still feel the impact on our own lives after its collapse. Their fighters are coming home.
A UN report estimated that 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries left to join the ranks of ISIS. Of these, 5,600 have returned home to their countries of origin. A majority of the outward flow of fighters came from Europe, with Turkey being the highest contributor, followed by the United Kingdom. In both cases, it is suspected around half of the fighters have returned home, although due to a lack of public sources the numbers remain unclear.
The key question that undoubtedly arises in relation to returning foreign fighters is how are they to be reintegrated into society? Concerns have been made that these individuals now pose a permanent security threat to their country, having experience and skills in bomb-making, combat and recruitment. Indeed, at least six of the individuals who carried out the 2015 Paris attacks were suspected to have previously fought in Iraq and Syria. Although no foreign fighters have committed terrorist attacks in the UK yet, fears still remain high over the possibility of another terrorist attack in the near future.
Couple the potential security threats with the high-costs for demobilisation and reintegration programs, the UK and US have turned to a more archaic way to deal with the problem. In order to avoid a myriad of security, economic as well as legal problems for returning fighters, one minister encouraged British Armed forces to kill combatants in the field. Rory Stewart, Development Secretary stated in an interview with Radio 5 that although the government faces “difficult moral issues” when dealing with returning fighters, the “only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, kill them”. This position has been echoed by the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who stated: “a dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain”.
Britain’s stance on strong punitive measures for returning fighters stands in stark contrast to Danish and Dutch rehabilitation programs. The Danish authorities argue that in order to unravel the complex psychological and social factors that give rise to radicalisation in the first place, an emphasis on punishment, however desirable can set the seeds for radicalisation in the future. The Danish model, for example, relies on personalised interviews which rebuild familial and social bonds. Unique to their model, in particular, is that the rehabilitation program is entirely voluntary. Danish authorities argue that the voluntary aspect of the program shows that by even signing up, individuals have gone some way in cognitively dissociating themselves from the group.
Whilst it can be easy to applaud the Danish system in light of the seeming brutality of the British and American policy, this is not the whole picture. In many respects, the availability of personalised and rich rehabilitation programs is something unique to the European context. The strong European bureaucratic framework, as well as welfare systems, coupled with the relatively low level of foreign fighters, means European governments can often handle the flow of returning fighters. Turn to Tunisia on the other hand, a government recently shocked by the Arab Spring, and a country which saw over 6,000 foreign fighters leave, is clearly in no perfect position to deal with the large numbers of those coming home. The role that European countries play, therefore, in dealing with returning fighters in their own countries, is just as crucial as helping other states who may be struggling too. The role of a post-Brexit Britain in dealing with both the domestic and international problem of returning fighters, is, unfortunately, a story that we may not want to hear.