The Fate Of Foreign ISIS Affiliates: Part 1

When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL, ISIS or its Arabic acronym Daesh) was at the height of its power and influence, it occupied over 35,000 square miles of territory, had an average monthly income of $81 million, and was reinforced by over 40,000 foreign fighters who had travelled from more than 120 countries to support the jihadist cause. ISIL has since withered in strength, crippled by key international interventions and Iraqi and Syrian advances. In 2017, ISIL lost its crucial holds in Mosul and Raqqa, and in October last year, the organisation’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, committed suicide. The deterioration of ISIL has left tens of thousands of foreign men, women and children detained under the Syrian and Kurdish forces. This situation poses unique challenges for foreign fighters, their families and home governments regarding the prospects of return to their national countries of origin. As the first part of a three-part series, this report will introduce key issues related to repatriation and deradicalization, and offer an evaluation of a recent case study on Britain’s response to Shamima Begum, a jihadist wife wanting to return to the UK.


A number of issues arise upon considering the fate of ISIL-affiliated foreigners. Firstly, though ISIL’s position has been significantly weakened, international security and counter-terrorism specialists have urged governments and the international community not to lower their guards. The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation emphasises that ISIL is “playing the long game”, and thus remains a threat despite its territorial demise. In fact, the decentralisation of ISIL forces as foreign fighters return home could even increase the global threat, the Center purports, as sympathisers turn their attention towards targets at home instead of to the caliphate abroad. The Foreign Fighter Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that fighters returning from Iraq and Syria should be considered as “‘militant entrepreneurs’ capable of aggravating simmering social discontent or conducting attacks themselves”. The ever-present threat continues to invoke fear and further disincline governments from granting repatriation for their respective nationals.


This continued threat, however, raises a second key issue. Though governments’ predicament regarding the repatriation of male fighters is understandable, the case for women and children should be considered differently. International organisations like the International Crisis Group (ICG) have recommended that governments begin with the “less controversial” act of “repatriating women and children”, given the “presumption of innocence” granted to children, and the fact that many women have been “uninvolved operationally”. Human Rights Watch has implored the countries of origin of detained women and children to “bring them home”, reporting the “dire” conditions of Syria’s al-Hol camp, where approximately 70,000 ISIL related women and children are being held, 11,000 of whom are foreign nationals. Quentin Sommerville from the BBC at the al-Hol camp in April 2019 testified to the critical lack of sanitation, medical services and general living space in a camp originally built for 7,000. He also warned of the continued spread of “toxic ideology” amongst children whose mothers still subscribe to extremist ideologies – an additional motive for foreign governments to prioritise the repatriation of children. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, told the Human Rights Council in June 2019 that “[c]hildren, in particular, have suffered grievous violations of their rights – including those who may have been indoctrinated or recruited by ISIL to perpetrate violent acts”.


In the event that repatriation is granted, a final key issue presents itself: governments face the challenge of appropriately attending to returnees. This could include anything from prosecution to counselling, as attitudes, approaches and methods vary between nations and regions, and depending on the individual of concern. Some authorities advocate more nurturing and holistically supportive methods, notably in Denmark, whilst others adopt more restrictive measures and hardline reeducation practices, as in Malaysia and Indonesia.


The intersection of the aforementioned issues shapes the fate of foreign ISIS affiliates and their families, whether still in captivity, or back in their country of national origin. A closer analysis of the UK’s response to Shamima Begum grants insight to the debates and perspectives on the early stages of an individual’s post-caliphate life.


Spotlight: Shamima Begum and the revocation of citizenship


In early February this year, the UK’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission rejected Shamima Begum’s appeal against the Home Office’s decision to revoke her British citizenship in February 2019. Begum left the UK for Syria in 2015 at age 15, but sought return to the UK to raise her unborn third child, as expressed in an interview with The Times in February 2019. The Home Secretary at the time of the initial decision, Savid Javid, shared his views on the issue in an article written for The Times, titled: “If you run away to join Isis, like Shamima Begum, I will use all my power to stop you coming back”. Javid affirms his prioritization of “the safety and security of [the UK]”, and thus whilst “feel[ing] compassion for any child born or brought into a conflict zone” ultimately gives precedence to the safety and security of children in Britain. Others, however, argue that the inhumane and cruel conditions of Begum’s detention in al-Roj camp should compel the UK to take responsibility for Begum, if only to uphold broader national commitments to human rights. Director of human rights group Reprieve, Maya Foa, has described the government’s response as “rank hypocrisy”, whilst Clare Collier, advocacy director of Liberty, says such actions “show how little regard [the government] holds for fundamental rights”.


The situation of foreign fighters in Syria could thus be said to present both a threat and an opportunity to their governments of national origin. From Javid’s perspective, the threat posed by returning ISIS affiliates is disproportionate to the responsibility of the government to ensure the safety and security of the nation and its citizens. By extension, then, Javid is adamant in his support of preventative community programs, which serve to nip radicalisation in the bud. On the other end of the spectrum, Javid maintains that “those who do manage to return” should be subject to questioning, investigation and possible prosecution, and upon the impossibility of prosecution, come under strict controls, including possible travel restrictions and compulsory deradicalization sessions.


Whilst Javid’s awareness of the potential threat that returnees pose aligns with the caution raised by counter-terrorism experts, opposing voices suggest that the revocation of citizenship and failure to facilitate repatriation implicates Britain’s “moral responsibilities”, as argued by Kenan Malik in The Guardian. Malik criticizes the government’s decision for not only absolving itself of responsibility for its own citizens and in turn casting it off unwarrantedly to other states or organisations, but also for its neglect of the rule of law and humane values that are so often quoted by British leaders as distinctive features of the UK. Even if the government has “reasonable grounds” to suspect a returnee’s violation international law, it should still be accountable for facilitating proper and fair investigation and charges, Amnesty International clarifies. Revocation of citizenship denies individuals like Begum of such fair legal processes. Repatriation aside, the ICG notes that international human rights law also compels states in the meantime to provide financial and material support to creating “safe, humane conditions” for their nationals abroad.


Ethically challenging situations like these test existing definitions and understandings of the notions of nationality and citizenship. How far should the state’s agency be stretched for the sake of upholding and safeguarding the rights of its citizens? Britain’s treatment of Shamima Begum suggests there is a limit to the degree of mercy the government is willing to show nationals who have betrayed national values and ideals. Still, it is undoubtedly irresponsible and merciless to revoke an individual’s citizenship, thereby unprecedentedly lumping responsibility onto another unsuspecting state or organization. In Begum’s case, though born and bred in the UK until leaving for Syria, responsibility falls on the nation of her parents’ origin, Bangladesh. More broadly speaking, Kurdish forces are bearing the brunt of the humanitarian crisis in detainee camps where Begum and thousands of other foreign nationals are being held, despite the Kurds themselves having been target victims of the IS regime. Though Britain is fearful of the threat that people like Begum would bring home, it does not give them the right to shove that burden on another blameless state or organization. Islamic State is the only state to blame, and it lies in ruins. National governments must therefore make an ethical decision to step up and cooperate at this crucial juncture for international counter-terrorism, by providing financial and material assistance to the front-line in the camps, facilitating repatriation and rolling out appropriate rehabilitation measures for returnees. If the international community can show such collective mercy, redemption and hope will truly prevail over fear and judgement.


Continued in ‘The Fate of Foreign ISIS Affiliates: Part 2’ (29 March 2020)

Naomi K L Wang


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