Dealing With Europe’s ISIS Returnees

Will our allies heed Trump?

“Seven hundred German citizens have gone to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. It’s not what they’re doing over there that scares us. It’s what happens when they come back.”
– Astrid, German intelligence officer, Homeland, season 5, episode 2.

Now that ISIS has been reduced from a caliphate to a cipher, the question arises: what to do with its former members who traveled from the West in order to crush the West – and who remain in the hands of the U.S. military and its local allies? Ship them all to Guantánamo so that the European media can paint them as victims of American abuse? Set them free to fight another day?

Early on Sunday morning, President Trump addressed this issue on Twitter. He wrote:  

The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them....

....The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much – Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!

Trump’s right, of course. Terrorists with British or French or German passports shouldn’t be our problem. But are our allies prepared to go along?

Some observers would say they already are. In 2014, the Guardian reported that Britain had “arrested at least 60 [ISIS] returnees,” while thirty or more others were “facing trial in Germany.” Only last Friday, the Euronews website outlined the ways in which various European governments are purportedly responding to this challenge. “Initially,” wrote Rachael Kennedy, those governments “generally turned their backs on repatriating their citizens, but some have since started to reconsider their stance following US encouragement.” Kennedy stated that France “was considering the repatriation of 130 men and women to be tried,” that Germany was reportedly “watching the French case closely,” and that under U.K. law “some repatriated British fighters could simply walk free once they return.” Kennedy added that “[w]hile Europe appears uninterested in seeking its citizens out, there is one thing that is clear — if an IS member returns to their home border on their own accord, they can probably expect to be prosecuted.”

Both the 2014 Guardian story and last Friday’s Euronews report were rather puzzling, because you would never imagine, after reading them, that ISIS terrorists have actually been returning for years to some of these countries without ever being prosecuted. Generally speaking, indeed, these countries’ approaches to the return of ISIS members appear to have been feeble, confused, and highly uneven, sometimes varying significantly from one part of a country to another. There have been claims that it’s all but impossible to prosecute these people successfully – partly because European courts eschew jurisdiction over atrocities committed in far-off places and partly because hard evidence is hard to come by. But in many cases the reluctance to prosecute also seems to be rooted in the twisted temptation, on the part of at least some European authorities, to regard these evil beheaders (or would-be beheaders) as victims.

Take Britain. First, a brief detour in the name of context. Keep in mind that it’s only recently begun to be officially acknowledged that, over the last few decades, thousands of non-Muslim girls in British towns and cities have been subjected to Muslim gang rape. As of yet, the true dimensions of this emerging horror can still only be guessed at; but given the scale of what has already been uncovered, and given what this horror has illuminated about the true nature of Islam, you might expect it to have been a total game-changer for British society. You might, that is, expect the grooming-gang scandal to have compelled a total rethinking of immigration policies, to have been at the very heart of parliamentary debates, and to have altered entirely the way in which the British media cover Islam. Nope. In fact, even though this nightmare has only begun to be exposed, Britain’s elites are already eager to move on from it.

Precious few Brits, I would wager, could name even one of the girls who’ve been brutally raped by Muslim grooming gangs. But everybody in Britain now knows the name of 19-year-old Shamima Begum, who left Britain in 2015 to join ISIS. Begum, who this weekend gave birth to her third child at a refugee camp in Syria, has said that she wants to go back to the U.K. and live at her parents’ home in London. Even though she’s refused to express the slightest remorse for her treason, people across Britain have fretted over her fate.

For example, Richard Barrett, a former head of MI6, Britain’s counterpart to the CIA, has said that Britain should let her come home “if we are to stand by our values.” Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott concurs, saying she opposes “making people stateless.” On Sunday, a woman with a working-class British accent phoned into the two-hour Nigel Farage Show – on which Begum’s fate was Topic A – and insisted passionately that “we have a duty to look after that girl!”

Home Secretary Sajid Javid disagreed, saying last week that “if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return” and that “If you do manage to return you should be ready to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted.” Not exactly tough talk, especially given that being “questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted” is nowadays the possible fate of anyone in the U.K. who’s caught criticizing Islam on Facebook. Merely by breathing the word prosecution, however, Javid was asking for trouble. Hanif Qadir, a “senior expert” at Prevent – Britain’s ridiculous excuse for an official “counter-extremist” program – told the Guardian that Javid, apparently by failing to offer returning ISIS terrorists candy and flowers, was “fuelling the [ISIS] narrative and giving wind to the sails of other extremists.” In other words, if you don’t coddle these monsters, you’ll create more of them.

Yesterday, fortunately, in what seemed a rare and precious moment of sanity – and genuine toughness- for the Home Office, Javid banned Begum from Britain.

Compare this to the policies in other European countries. But hey, let’s pop over to North America first. Six months ago, a Canadian blogger noted that “over sixty former ISIS fighters have returned to Canada, with more on the way,” and that, instead of being imprisoned or prosecuted, they were being given “thorough rehabilitation.” Some leaders might worry about the risk that such terrorists pose to law-abiding citizens, but the Trudeau administration, unsurprisingly, is more concerned about the safety of the terrorists, whose “identities and locations” are being systematically concealed in order “to protect them.” In a recent speech, a spokesman for Canada’s diplomatic service asserted that “every Canadian citizen – no matter how reprehensible – has the legal right to 're-enter' Canada.” (Don’t ask me to explain those scare quotes around “re-enter.”)

What about the Netherlands? At least a few Dutch citizens who have fought for ISIS have reportedly been flown back home free of charge by the government and given places to live. In February 2017, De Volkskrant ran a rosy report claiming that returnees, then numbering about fifty, seemed to pose “no violent threat at all”; on the contrary, many of them, poor things, were themselves “traumatized.” (Reality check: by the time that piece appeared in De Volkskrant, returnees had already been involved in major terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris.) “Last month,” reported the Economist in December 2017, “a court in the Netherlands convicted a 22-year-old Dutch woman” who had moved with her Palestinian husband to ISIS territory “of helping to plan terrorism. It then set her free.” Indeed, though there are ISIS trials in the Netherlands, the percentages don’t look good: as of February of last year, according to one source, only seven of 50 ISIS returnees had been tried and convicted of criminal charges, while eight were being prosecuted. The other day, the Netherlands’ Minister of Justice and Security, Ferdinand Grapperhaus, affirmed that his country is, at present, actively involved in repatriating female ISIS members who hold Dutch passports. He didn’t say anything about arresting them.

And Sweden? In that country, it’s up to individual municipalities to decide what to do about returning ISIS members. In 2015, Expressen reported that one such municipality, Örebro, was giving them jobs and offering them “help by a psychologist” to “process the traumatic experiences they’ve undergone.” In 2016, the Sun reported that the city of Lund was offering them “free housing, a driver's license and a range of tax benefits.” (This policy was formulated in accordance with a criminologist’s warning that “terrorist fighters will face difficulties unless they are supported”; a Lund official, Anna Sjöstrand, explained: “We cannot say because you made a wrong choice, you have no right to come back and live in our society.”) And just last week it was reported that the city of Stockholm, in response to critics who claimed it had failed to provide sufficient succor to returning jihadists – this is not a joke – had formulated a new policy to ensure that “the children of returnees feel good and receive the protection and support they need” and was also planning to set up a “help line” for the ex-jihadists themselves. In any event, as of last December, Swedish officials acknowledged that they’d lost track of the great majority of returned ISIS members. 

Denmark? In 2014, the Guardian reported at length on “the so-called Aarhus model,” named after Denmark’s second-largest city, the premise of which was summed up as follows by a psychology professor at Aarhus University: “Look: these are young people struggling with pretty much the same issues as any others – getting a grip on their lives, making sense of things, finding a meaningful place in society. We have to say: provided you have done nothing criminal, we will help you to find a way back.” Of course’s that one hell of a big proviso: how to know what some returning ISIS member has or hasn’t done? As it happens, a report that appeared last Saturday in The Local seemed at least in part to contradict that account: Denmark, it implied, had thus far not taken in ISIS returnees, but might be obliged to do so in accordance with U.S. wishes. Interestingly, while no ISIS terrorist had yet been prosecuted in Denmark as of last summer, a Danish citizen, Tommy Mørck, was sentenced in June to six months for joining the fight against ISIS – and prosecutors were seeking a stiffer sentence. According to Mørck, the Danish judiciary was “cracking down on those who fight IS instead of going after extremists that have returned to Denmark.”

What of Norway? Last week, at a security conference in Munich, Prime Minister Erna Solberg told VG that her country will accept returning ISIS jihadists who have Norwegian citizenship. Will any of them be put on trial? Hard to imagine, at least with Solberg in power.

Germany? In January 2018, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Berlin government believed that over 960 people had left Germany to fight for ISIS, and that about a third had already returned home. In that country, too, the goal is “deradicalization.” Although state, not federal, officials are responsible for carrying out that process, the federal government provides “support for families of those who left Germany to fight for Islamic State” and, since last year, has funded programs “to educate and deradicalize returning foreign fighters.” Not a whisper about prosecution or punishment. This past Sunday, a statement by the German Interior Ministry asserted that “all German citizens, including those suspected of having fought for the so-called IS, have the right to return to Germany.” It further indicated that Germany’s goal is to “deradicalize returnees.” Notwithstanding that 2014 Guardian mention of thirty arrests of returned jihadists, the German Interior Ministry made no mention of putting any of these returnees on trial.

Let’s move on to the European country that has contributed more members to ISIS than any other. That would be France. According to one report, as of last August, when it had “1600 people in prison on terrorist offences…including returnees,” France had “made clear that it has little desire to repatriate and try those returnees who committed terrorist offences off the battlefield.” On January 31, the Guardian quoted French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner as saying that all ISIS members returning to France would be locked up at once and put on trial. Also quoted was Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, who declared that it was better for French jihadists to be “judged, convicted and punished in France rather than disappearing to plan other actions, including against our country.” This past Saturday, the same newspaper quoted a professor at Ghent University as saying that, of all the countries in Europe, only France wants its ISIS members back.

One last country: Belgium. A February 2018 Egmont Institute report noted that while its terrorist laws had been beefed up and returnees were “now more likely to be prosecuted and condemned for terrorism than they were before,” most Belgian returnees were not behind bars at that time. The most important detail in the report was this: “returnees are typically sentenced to 5 years in jail.” Yes, five years. Five. Such grotesquely brief sentences are, alas, par for the course in western Europe.

And that’s the ultimate problem here: our allies may be willing to go along with Trump and prosecute at least some of these barbarians, but their tame punishment regimes haven’t been overhauled to take into account the realities of the world we now live in. In most of these countries, most of these savages, if locked up at all, will get ridiculously short sentences in cells far nicer than they deserve, then be released into the general population, where they’ll pose an ever-present danger to everyone around them. As Danish Defense Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said the other day about the prospect of giving ISIS terrorists a Danish trial: “They have beheaded people, raped women and children and sold people,” he said. “For me, it is paradoxical for those militants to now claim Western norms regarding protection of rights.”

Perhaps what each of these countries really needs is its own Guantánamo. But what are the chances of that happening? Besides, even if every last one of these monsters could be fenced in forever on, say, the island of St. Helena, what to do about the innumerable sons and daughters of Allah who, though they themselves never went to fight for ISIS, cheered on the caliphate from the safety of their homes in the West?

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