The initial strong showing by ISIS in the warzone and its ability to set up a Khilafah prompted a ramping up of its media campaign that drew 30,000 fighters from the West who pledged to fight for the establishment of an Islamic state. As time went on, tougher border controls and battleground defeats meant fewer foreign recruits and ISIS turned to Plan B: the waging of ideological war through sensational attacks in the West while searching for new foundations on which to build momentum and legitimacy.
Last year's terrorism attacks in Paris and Brussels, carried out by returned foreign fighters who had been trained by ISIS, were a message to Western policy makers that the new war would be fought in the West. The attacks were also intended to send a message to Muslims, indicating they could not remain either pro-West or neutral in this civilizational war.
These attacks highlighted a serious security and policy issue: how should nations deal with fighters who left the comforts of Western life to fight for ISIS in the Middle East but later returned to their native countries? The EU’s Counterterrorism Chief, Gilles de Kerchove, believes some returned fighters — those who don't have 'blood on their hands' — could be enlisted to boost the counter narrative by speaking publicly about ISIS brutalities.
History tells us this is not a good idea.
If we are to learn anything from the experience of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in dealing with foreign fighters at the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it is that these fighters must quickly disengage from war and everything to do with it. They need to build ordinary lives with ordinary jobs. The failure of the aforementioned countries to realise this allowed trained Jihadis to develop dozens of splinter mercenary militant groups that sold their services to the highest global bidder, sowing the seeds for al-Qaida and 9/11.
Rather than trying to recruit foreign fighters into the anti-ISIS campaign, the emphasis should be on quickly integrating them back into the society by putting them to work, getting them immersed in their families and, importantly, distancing themselves from anything to do with armed conflict. Keeping them engaged on the war with ISIS, albeit from the other side, would only be a successful strategy in the short term — if it all. In the long term it would have a negative impact on the individuals involved who may well end up feeling they have been played by both ISIS and the Western governments.
An alternative approach taken by some governments is to categorise all of returning foreign fighters as either terrorists or criminals and put them in jail. While this approach may provide others with a sense of security, there is a very high likelihood some of those jailed would turn more radical. Attacks can be plotted from prison cells.
We must realise that some of those who have now returned never actually fought but instead engaged in support roles like cooking food. Others who did fight will have had a change of heart. Many more would only have sought to live under the Islamic State for religious reasons. Classifying all of these groups as criminals and sending them to jail may backfire.
All returning fighters should, however, be kept under close surveillance, Governments need to be watching out for people who have come back with the aim of waging war on Western soil. Such individuals may be very few in numbers but they are the ‘carriers’ of ideology, agents of terrorism that will bring the cancer of terrorism to Western nations, as happened in France and Belgium.
There is no easy or right way to deal with returning foreign fighters, but we can learn from the experiences of countries that have demonstrated what not to do. While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia made some efforts to de-radicalise and integrate returned fighters back into society, mostly they tried to use these fighters as strategic assets in different parts of the world. Those efforts largely backfired. A decade later, we can see how the failure to disengage these fighters from war de-stabilised both these countries. The West cannot afford to repeat these mistakes.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robert Maldeno