Western governments struggle to cope with their returning 'jihadists'

Western governments struggle to cope with their returning 'jihadists'
With thousands of mostly young Muslim men flooding into Syria and Iraq, governments across the world are struggling with how best to deal with those who come home battle-hardened and indoctrinated.
6 min read
19 November, 2014
The UK government has taken a combative stance on returning 'jihadists' / Getty

The most recent beheading video by so called Islamic State (IS) was designed not just to further propagate fear and discord but also to advertise the global attraction of their militia.

It was a brazen affront to western governments that are grappling with how to deal with the steady stream of their citizens traveling to fight in the Levant.

In the video released over the weekend showing the decapitated head of US aid worker Abdul Rahman Kassig a line of over a dozen young men were shown, knifes in hand, stood behind Syrian officers on their knees in the final moments of their life. Unlike in former videos, the executioners’ faces were not disguised, on the contrary, they were boldly on show. Western intelligence agencies are now in the process of identifying them. 

Among the knife wielding militiamen were Brits, French, South Asians and South East Asians. They are a small selection of the 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries that the United Nations Security Council believes have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Most are in the ranks of IS.

There has not been such a confluence of international 'jihadi' fighters since the CIA and Saudi backed mujahadeen flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets.

The fallout from that conflict had security implications across the globe not least the emergence of Osama Bin laden and his al-Qaeda movement. With the rise of IS  and a resurgent global so called jihad movement, European governments are now forging their own approaches over how to prevent their citizens from traveling to fight and how to deal with those militants who want to return home from the battlefield.

“These recent events have caused some panic among the politicians and security agencies and this is effecting the debate,” says Rik Coolsaet, Chair of the Ghent Institute for International Studies and author of Jihadi Terrorism and the Radicalisation Challenge.  

Talking tough

In the UK the government has taken a combative stance with the prime minister branding returning fighters “enemies of the state”. A new counter-terrorism bill is due to be published by the end of the month, which will include special exclusion orders lasting up to two years that would prevent suspected fighters from coming back to the UK unless they agree to subject themselves to strict control measures and/or prosecution. 

The UK police have made 218 arrests this year and around 40 individuals are awaiting trial on terrorism charges.  

This approach that has an emphasis on deterrence is also being followed by other European governments, such as France where anti-terror legislation is also in the process of being toughened. France is witnessing one of the largest migrations of its citizens to fight in the Middle East.  

Some of the proposals in the new rafts of anti-terror measures under proposal have received criticism from rights groups and activists. 

A group of politicians, human rights campaigners and lawyers recently wrote in the UK’s Guardian newspaper slamming the proposed laws as a threat to democratic rights and bringing the UK closer to "a police state.” 

There is also the thorny issue of who to target and arrest. Travel to Syria or Iraq is not illegal and it will be very difficult to prove whether individuals have been involved in any fighting.

“It will be a huge task for any intelligence agency to pin specific actions on individuals, although there is a vast amount of surveillance and information sharing,” explained Rik Coolsaet.  

The Snowden effect

Surveillance had become something of a dirty word in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks but voices advocating for more robust means for secret observation are becoming more prevalent. 

In Belgium the verdict is expected in the coming couple of weeks in the trial of 46 people charged with belonging to a group that sent fighters to Syria. It is the largest case of its kind in the country and the authorities are hoping the trial will act as a deterrent.   

Back into the fold

In some corners of continent the focus is less on punishment, surveillance and deterrence and more on reintegration. Denmark is the most ambitious country in this regard and the program adopted in the Aarhus municipality has become something of a load star for this kind of strategy in Europe.  

The so-called Aarhus model is about inclusion and working with the community to bring back into the fold young men who may have become disenchanted and at risk from radicalisation.  

Toke Agerschou, who runs a crime prevention scheme in partnership with the local police, schools and social services, explained the thinking behind this approach:

"The goal of our work is to prevent radicalization, discrimination and unequal treatment, as it may lead to criminal acts and risky behaviour...But we make a sharp distinction between attitudes and actions. All attitudes must be dissected and debated. This is the lifeblood of a democracy." 

Teachers, social workers, youth club leaders and religious authorities work together to spot who is at risk and to work with them through mentor schemes, careers services and if need be psychological support.

The ultimate goal according to Agerschou is to, “move them away from the radical environments.....so that they are channelled onto a different life trajectory.” 

It is not a politically easy option nor is it failsafe. More than 100 young fighters have emerged from Denmark since 2012, with only Belgium producing more fighters per head of its population within Europe.

Right leaning political parties have lambasted the current policy as “naive”, “soft” and “dangerous”. There have been calls for more hardline measures along the lines of those being implemented in some other parts of Europe such as the revoking of citizenship or tough jail terms for returning fighters.

'Deteriorating relations'

While the UK is adding to its legislative and legal arsenal to counter the terrorist threat, reintegration does also form part of the wider strategy.

However, the relationship between the government and the very communities it needs to engage with are in many cases frayed or simply non-existent.  

“The relations have largely broken down between this government and most of the Muslim groups active in the communities. There is no serious engagement. There are several reasons for this but one is that there is a lot of disagreement over foreign policy such as the stance over the Gaza war. The government only properly engages with individuals or groups who tow the line on such issues,” explained Khalil Charles, spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain. 

Many fighters who have travelled to Syria have become disillusioned with the brutality of groups such as IS and the internecine fighting between different militias.

In a climate of deteriorating relations between the government and the Muslim community, and with an increased threat of sanction upon arriving home, there is concern this could deter repentant fighters from leaving the battlefield. 

Professor Peter Neumann from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence told the Times newspaper in September that he had been contacted by 30 British fighters eager to leave Syria but they feared arrest on their return. 

In October the British student Muhammed Mehdi Hassan was killed in Kobane in Northern Syria and his family subsequently blamed the government for making it difficult for foreign fighters to return home.

It is incredibly difficult to strike a balance between punishment on the one hand and prevention and rehabilitation on the other,” reflected Rik Coolsaet, “but it is important to understand that among most of these guys coming back the vast majority don’t seem to pose any real threat. It is vital to differentiate between the followers and the leaders and to identify who represents a real danger.”