Foreign Terrorist Fighters – An Overview of Policy Responses and Debates

This post provides an overview of recent policy developments and debates in relation to the phenomenon of returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). The news and publications presented here focus in particular on the implications that new policies and proposed measures could have for the prevention and countering of violent extremism within Europe.

Throughout recent months, the so-called Islamic State (IS) has lost control of a significant portion of the territories it previously held across Iraq and Syria. These losses have resulted in increasing financial and resource constraints, threatening the sustainability of the group’s current operations [source]. As the IS struggles to maintain financial and military control in these regions, European men and women who left their countries of origin to join the IS as FTFs may be less inclined to protract their presence in Iraq and Syria. Those that choose to leave may opt to relocate to other conflict zones, such as Libya, where they might continue their militancy with the IS or other terrorist organisations, or they may return to their countries of origin or residence [source]. It is estimated that 30% of foreign terrorist fighters who left from the EU have already returned to their countries of departure [source].

The return of European nationals from conflict zones where they may have engaged in terrorist activities poses a number of challenges for European governments and societies. The return of battle-hardened fighters represents a potential threat to national security, as these individuals may be returning to Europe with enhanced skills, knowledge and networks to carry out attacks within European borders [source]. Their status as veteran fighters with first-hand experience of the so-called Caliphate may also make them more effective recruiters within vulnerable communities [source]. However, it is expected that returning foreign fighters will have varying experiences of and levels of engagement with violent extremism, and are likely to include disillusioned individuals who are already de-radicalising and who may be successfully reintegrated into society with appropriate support. Commentators have also noted the potential value that rehabilitated former foreign fighters may bring to prevention and de-radicalisation work, because of the credibility that their voices and experiences may bring to developing effective counter-narratives (see, for example, this Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) Issue Paper and this conference paper from Hedayah).

In response to security concerns posed by returning foreign fighters, national governments have increasingly turned to criminal justice and administrative measures which aim to restrict and therefore contain the threat of FTFs. These have been reported to include travel and entry bans, house arrest orders, and the revocation of citizenship [source]. Such measures have generated criticisms relating not only to the efficacy of criminal justice procedures in a context in which there is typically little evidence for prosecution, but also to the safeguarding of human rights, and to the potentially counterproductive effects of repressive approaches [source]. The risk of further radicalisation in prison settings in cases where foreign fighters are subject to custodial sentences has been highlighted as a particularly acute concern (see, for example, this report from the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT), and this conference paper from Hedayah). Recent debates have therefore sought to explore a range of policy options to minimise the risks posed by returning FTFs to both the physical security and social fabric of receiving countries. Attempts to find new solutions have included suggestions that governments offer amnesty to returnees by granting a more lenient prison sentence to those that plead guilty to terrorism offences, enabling states to more reliably prosecute and manage FTFs [source]. This proposal, however, has been fiercely criticised for being both unworkable and ineffective [source].

The return of children from conflict zones has also attracted attention. These children may be the children of European FTFs, or non-European children displaced from IS-controlled territory. Children from both groups are likely to have suffered abuse and violence, as well as attempts to indoctrinate them into violent extremist ideologies, even if they themselves have not carried out acts of violence. These children’s roles as both victims and perpetrators of violent extremism have been outlined in a recent RAN issue paper. In this paper RAN advocates that any intervention targeting child returnees must first and foremost address the trauma that they may have experienced or be experiencing, in order to support their psychological and social adjustment and rehabilitation [source]. In this context, it is also worth noting recent evidence from the Quilliam Foundation that highlights the ways in which violent extremist organisations are exploiting the vulnerabilities of young migrants and refugees as a recruitment opportunity [source].

Given the broad diversity of profiles and needs that characterises the returnee population (e.g. in terms of their age, gender, background, engagement and experiences of violent extremism), policymakers and practitioners face the challenge of developing holistic and scalable responses that can be tailored to individual cases. Experts have stressed that the risks posed by FTFs, both in terms of short-term security concerns and the long-term safety  and resilience of communities, will require a mix of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches. These would draw on a range of preventative, criminal, administrative and, crucially, rehabilitative measures, supported by multi-disciplinary and multi-sector collaboration (see, for example, reports published by ICCT and the Brookings Institution).

Ultimately, efforts to achieve longer term preventative outcomes, including increased societal cohesion and resilience to violent extremism, will rely on a robust understanding of the dynamics of radicalisation and de-radicalisation. Research and evaluation of current and future rehabilitation and reintegration initiatives are therefore urgently necessary in order to develop an evidence base for the development and scaling-up of best practice.


[Image shared by Paul Keller via Flickr; CC BY 2.0]