It is estimated that around 40,000 citizens from western nations have gone to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The majority are fighters, of which most have been killed. But it is thought that around a quarter of that figure are women and children. As the caliphate collapses the remaining fighters and their families, along with many ‘ISIS widows’ look to return to the West. Dealing with these returning citizens is proving to be a headache for many Western governments.
The fear is that those returning will bring new knowledge, networks and expertise on how to carry out terror attacks. The answer to the problem is increasingly becoming citizenship revocation. The out of sight, out of mind policy. However, there is little evidence to suggest this works as a counter-terrorism measure, arguments suggest it is counter-productive.
Passing the Buck
Removing citizenship simply pushes potentially dangerous and vulnerable individuals on to nations that do not have the capacity to deal with them. Once stateless, these foreign fighters end up in refugee camps or fragile nations. It is no surprise that deradicalization and integration programs, along with robust aftercare do not exist there. Pushing such individuals into poverty and unstable living conditions seems a counterproductive measure that only goes to perpetuate the issue of extremism.
In a world so connected, communication and physical presence are two things that are quickly becoming disconnected. Radicalisation does not happen in person, those who left to join ISIS were not recruited face to face. It happened online; vulnerable youths are targeted by terrorist recruiters on social media. Those newly expelled can just as easily radicalise from abroad. They will have a rejuvenated animosity towards their home country and its government which may spur on radicalisation efforts. Being stuck stateless, with no opportunities, they have little choice but to carry along the same path.
Illegal entry is still an option. A lack of citizenship risks pushing them further underground. Migrant smuggling from France to the UK is a prime example. This is big business for criminal groups, some of which are linked to terrorist organisations. Moving in these circles only goes to perpetuate the disenfranchisement with society. To add to this, women and children could be vulnerable in illegal entry. Rather than dealing with the issue head on, pushing the problem out of sight only goes to create different and arguably bigger problems.
Are they actually a risk?
Fighting for and living under ISIS does not necessarily translate into a desire to carry out terror attacks on home soil. For some it was a matter religious identity, community or even naivety as a teenager, rather than a wish for violence against the West. The stark realities of war and life under ISIS rule have acted as a deradicalized tool. Many want to return to a normal life in the West. This seems a missed opportunity for western governments to deradicalize and reintegrate its citizens, testing and proving the efficacy of their counter-terrorism policies.
Focus on those at home:
Concentrating on returning foreign fighters is a strategy to win favour in the polls. It does little to combat the threat from within our boarders. Individuals currently radicalised, or vulnerable to it, are the real risks
A seemingly bigger threat to those returning, are the individuals who have been prevented from going to Iraq and Syria. They are mentally committed, frustrated with society and have a glorified view of ISIS. A potent mix that those returning from Iraq and Syria do not necessarily have. The fact one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers was stopped from going to Syria serves as a painful lesson.
Those currently living in the West, seeing members of their community having their citizenship stripped and left stranded abroad only intensifies their beliefs and perpetuates the narrative that Muslims are under attack from the West. Political Scientist, David Malet, states ‘recruiters capitalize on a sense of commitment to the transnational Muslim community under threat’. This points towards the policy potentially intensifying the domestic risk of terrorism.
Why Governments use the Policy:
While there is little evidence for the policy being effective in a counter-terrorism sense, it is not hard to see why the policy is so widely used by Western governments. It is a popular policy, keeping potential terrorists out of the country is a winning strategy. A quick fix that wins favour with the majority. In theory, if they are not physically in the country, they are not a domestic security threat. Of course this isn’t necessarily the case, but the thought process is not hard to see.
There is a lot of talk about rehabilitation. To go through a rehabilitation scheme, foreign fighters need to be prosecuted with a terrorism offence. However, it is hard for governments to prosecute those returning for their crimes in Iraq and Syria. In this case, it would leave them free to live in society and without proper attention, the risk is high. It is therefore somewhat understandable when governments decide to stop them entering. If they do not have the legal powers to ensure these foreign fighters are, or at least can be, safe members of society, it is in theory safer to revoke citizenship.
Children of ISIS:
Children are major talking point in this debate. They are the innocent product of the caliphate dream. Many ISIS widows wish to return to the West with their children. The case of Shamima Begum is a clear example of the ramifications of revoking citizenship. Denied re-entry to the UK and stripped of her citizenship, resulted in her living in a refugee camp. With poor sanitation and a lack of medical care, her three children died. Those children were innocent and should not have been subject to punishment because of their parent’s actions. The children that do survive are still incredibly vulnerable in refugee camps. They are at a high risk of indoctrination and there are reports of children as young as 6 in terrorism training camps.
Upon return, the research points towards a three pillared approach; rehabilitation, reintegration and aftercare. I have touched upon this in a previous article. The premise is that governments can ensure returning citizens are full and safe members of society. Removing their radical beliefs and eliminating the factors that can lead to radicalisation.
If the aim of the policy is to deter and secure, it is highly unlikely to do either. The arguments in favour of the policy were all very much in theory and symbolic. The short-term gain does not justify the potential long-term implications. Abandoning citizens and putting them at further risk could well come back to haunt Western governments. There is of course a genuine risk, and that cannot be denied. All it takes is one; and that one is too many.