Jihadist repatriation to Europe remains to be a thorny subject within the continent
(January 11th 2020)
The notion of repatriating European-born nationals back to their home-country after the collapse of the Islamic States caliphate is one that has been sporadically topical over recent months, and for various reasons. For one reason, the public pleas from expats to their national government has brought significant media attention and as a result stirred public opinion and national debate. Among the most notable pleas are those of British-born Jack Letts, more commonly known as “Jihadi Jack”, an Oxford-born British-Canadian who joined Islamic State, and Shamima Begum, a British-born woman who left the UK aged just 15 to join the Islamic State in Syria with two of her friends. Since their pleas became public knowledge, Letts has since had the British side of his dual nationality revoked by the UK government, whilst Begum has been assured by UK officials that she will never be allowed to return.
Additionally, Turkish offensives in northern Syria have had a detrimental impact towards anti-terrorist efforts and appeared to give new life to Islamic State within the region. After Turkish forces heavily bombed the Syrian region, this lead to scores of ISIS supporters and sympathisers escaping their incarceration, some estimates put this around at least 750. International pressure has also been applied from overseas towards European nations after US President Donald Trump repeatedly called for European nations to take back nationals who left their home-country to fight for ISIS and for them to face justice, and on one occasion threatened to dump ISIS fighters “right at the UK border” and for them to “have fun capturing them again”.
Inevitably, many in Europe are sceptical about having trained jihadis actively returned home. However, are there plausible and valid positive reasons for their return, or are European government right to slam the door? Here are three reasons for and three reasons against jihadist repatriation in Europe.
FOR: They're our people causing problems in other countries.
Given that many of the expats will have grown up within a European country (be it in the UK, Germany, France, and so on) this ultimately makes them a product of this national society. Although foreign influences such as the ISIS caliphate or becoming entranced by ISIS propaganda are likely to have influenced the decisions of many expats to leave for Iraq or Syria (to name a few) these people will ultimately be a product of the European society they grew up in. Some may have been influenced by preaching from British-born and based radicals, some may have left the UK to fight for ISIS as a result of perceived victimisation due to rising anti-Islamic feeling within their home country. For this, is could be argued that European nations must accept at least some of the blame for their radicalisation and decision to leave. Additionally, there is a strong chance that these expats will have already caused significant amounts of damage to Middle Eastern societies one way or another, and given the inevitable mass-overcrowding of prisons within the area, should European nations shoulder some of the responsibility for them and help to ease pressure on Middle Eastern jails and judicial systems?
FOR: We may be able to de-radicalise and learn from them.
What made Jack Letts, the Oxford-born-and-raised son of a charity fundraiser and a farmer, leave the first-world comfort of the United Kingdom to travel abroad to war-torn Syria? What made him join one of the most notorious terrorist groups in the world? Likewise, what made 15 year old schoolgirl Shamima Begum and her two friends leave her home in Bethnal Green to join a ISIS? Although highly bizarre, stories like these will be rife across the continent, and one aspect that cannot be denied is that it makes for highly interesting and thought-provoking reading. British de-radicalisation strategy “PREVENT” offers support to people who security services feel have become extremist in their beliefs and who they feel may become a threat, and whilst many jihadis will be too set in their extremist ways to ever become de-radicalised, others may be able to become reformed and to eventually reintegrate back into society. Here, they may be able to provide valuable first-hand experience and personal knowledge of what drove them towards joining a terrorist group. With this potentially crucial information, European security services and governments may be able to mitigate the likeliness of more people become foreign terrorist fights by making changes accordingly, and to prevent more people going down the same extremist route.
FOR: We would know where they are.
Given previous Turkish offensives leading to many ISIS fighters going free, and given general uncertainty in the Middle East, bringing convicted jihadis back to Europe would be a far safer way of knowing where these people are. Many European fighters are accounted for in one way or another, whether they are known to be dead, in another country, or various other circumstances. Some appeared to have disappeared of the radar entirely, and may be plotting or carrying out attacks abroad. Some may even be in contact with European jihadis. By bringing convicts back to Europe this can help to ensure that they will be accounted for and behind bars, as well as tracked and monitored and as a result they can be kept under great surveillance.
AGAINST: People don't want it.
Sentiment around jihadist repatriation appears to be almost unanimous in most countries, or at the very least resoundingly in opposition to the concept. Responses and opinion towards Letts and Begum in the UK were overwhelmingly unsympathetic to their plight and fiercely opposed to their return. Even Letts apparent remorse and Begums youthful age did not arouse much sympathy from the British public, and hostility towards repatriation appears common throughout Europe. In France, one survey showed that 89% of respondents were opposed to the concept of adults returning, whilst 62% were opposed even to children returning home. From a political standpoint, parties can only really lose. Evidently, not much support or appraisal is there to be won by allowing jihadis to return, and if anything to do so would only serve to become a political nightmare even at the best of times. Should the worst occur however, and an attack were to be carried out by a repatriated jihadi brought home with the help of the government, this would be highly damaging to whichever party is believed to be responsible. Blood would be seen to be soaked into their hands.
AGAINST: Free movement in Europe.
One country deciding to repatriate their jihadist nationals could prove dangerous to them domestically, however this could also prove to be highly dangerous to large parts of Europe where free movement is allowed under the laws of the European Union. A jihadi could return home to France (for example) then proceed to carry out a terrorist attack in neighbouring Belgium or Spain. The perpetrator of the truck attack upon a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016 was a Tunisian asylum seeker who arrived illegally into the Italian island of Lampedusa. After serving time in two Italian prisons for rioting and robbery, the attacker left jail and left Italy for Germany. In December 2016, his truck attack left 12 dead and 56 injured, before he fled to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and then back to Italy. After the Strasbourg Christmas market shooting in December 2018, security officials feared the gunman had fled the country to either Germany or Switzerland, prompting an international manhunt. A convicted jihadi in Germany (for example) is a convicted jihadi with access to almost all of Europe, prompting possible danger for almost the whole continent. Not only is this a threat to the health and safety of the citizens across Europe but it also threatens to create international arguments and conflict over whether or not they should be allowed back as two neighbouring nations may have entirely different standpoints on the matter.
AGAINST: They could radicalise or network in our own prisons.
For many jihadist extremists who want to recruit younger and more impressionable people to their cause then the inside of a prison is in many ways an ideal place to do so. For many reasons, prisons are ripe with potential recruits for jihadists, whether due to an inmates impressionable youth, personal naivety, overwhelming and easily-manipulated fear, or their desperation to simply make their residence in jail as agreeable and easy as possible. Aside from these reasons, it is understandable that many inmates would have begun to hate “the system” and society that imprisoned them (whether rightfully or wrongfully) and these angry vengeful convicts could be swayed into thinking that a terrorist attack against the government or the country could be the ultimate in revenge. For some who become radicalised in prison this gives them something to look forward to upon their release. The killer of British fusilier Lee Rigby is believed to have constantly attempted to radicalise other inmates towards jihad whilst serving time in HMP Frankland.
It is not only those who could become radicalised that are the issue. Given that several prisons throughout the UK hold a significant population of convicted jihadists, whether they are convicts who have already carried out an attack, have previously plotted an attack, or a variety of other terrorist offences, this gives ample opportunities for networking among jihadis who otherwise may never have met. The problem of radicalisation and terror within British prisons was brought sharply into question after the recent terrorist attack at HMP Whitemoor during which two jihadists, one who was convicted of terrorism offences and another a Muslim convert, attacked and injured five prison staff using improvised sharp objects. What this duo had in common was sharing a prison with Usman Khan, the perpetrator of the 2019 London Bridge stabbing. Combined, their attacks left 2 dead and 8 injured, and while this is devastating enough this could have potentially been far worse if the trio had networked in prison then left to carry out a three-man attack in public.
The possibility of bringing even more jihadis back from Iraq or Syria, especially those who will most likely have been trained and hardened to committing terrorist atrocities, does not bear thinking about.