Who takes responsibility for returning Foreign Fighters?

After numerous defeats Daesh were suddenly left with no territory after previously occupying large parts of Syria and Iraq in recent years. With the loss of territory a new phenomenom has gripped Europe in recent months; the return of Jihadi fighters.

In recent months we have seen front pages dominated by ‘Former Jihadi’s’ seeking to return to their former home countries. Examples include Shamima Begum, Yago Riedijk, Jack Letts and Hoda Muthana. This phenomenon is not limited to a single state, as Begum and Letts seek to return to the UK, Riedijk to Holland and Muthana to the US. All of these people were a part of Daesh, and as such can they be held partly responsible for crimes the organisation committed? Shamima Begum dominated headlines when she recounted how the first severed head she saw in a bin did not ‘faze her’ at all.[1] Daesh of course were famous for their brutal beheadings of captured western prisoners and enemy groups.

In this article I will explore what the different options are with returning Jihadi fighters. Should it be the responsibility of the state they are currently in, most likely Syria or Iraq? Perhaps it should be the responsibility of the state in which the Jihadi fighter left? Maybe the best solution is to leave them in camps like Al Hol where many Daesh members are being held. Even beyond this complexity there then remains the key question. Do we attempt to rehabilitate these people in the hope they can one day be integrated back into society, or do we place them in prisons and give them sentences which means they will never step foot in society again? Furthermore should these fighters be tried by an international court for war crimes? These are all important questions this report will delve into.

Currently the Syrian Democratic forces hold about 12,000 prisoners across 7 detention centres in North East Syria.[2] Most of these people are suspected Daesh affiliates, and of the 12,000, 4000 of these people are foreigners; meaning they are not Syrian or Iraqi. The Human Rights Watch claim that there is strong evidence that the prisons fail to meet basic international standards. The bigger issue however, is that perhaps the reason for these conditions in overcrowded premises stem from the lack of desire from European states to take back Jihadi fighters that fled from their country. The White House even released a statement claiming that it pressed France, Germany and other European nations to take back foreign fighters, but that this was refused, and the European states wanted no responsibility for them.[3]

The reasons for this are that European nations have no desire for these fighters to return to Europe. The main reason for this is that European nations are concerned with the security implications that returning fighters could bring to their states. Alex Younger, the head of MI6 stated that he was concerned by the skills and connections returning fighters could bring to Europe.[4] This is a logical conclusion to make as many foreign fighters flee to terrorist training camps, where they learn skills in weaponry and bomb making. The Dutch Minister of Justice Ferd Grapperhaus refused a US request to repatriate 10 Dutch women and their children who fled to join Daesh, claiming that in doing so he would be threatening The Netherlands and other European states’ national security. Journalist Jane Arraf also claimed in an interview that France are refusing to take back foreign fighters as they believe it to be the responsibility of the state they were captured in.[5] The rhetoric of European countries is similar, and all states have so far all EU states have refused to take back foreign fighters except Italy, who in March 2019 took back a 25 year old male who fled to join Daesh.

The reason for this could also be political. There is already hugely negative stigma against immigration in the EU after the migrant crisis of 2015. To take back known terrorists could be political suicide. A poll undertaken in France showed that 89% of respondents were fearful of bringing Daesh members back into the country.[6] A similar result occurred in Britain, where 77% of respondents believed that the government should prevent foreign fighters from being able to return.[7] This is not purely a European viewpoint either, as 59% of Australians in a poll believed that Women and Children who belonged to Daesh should not be allowed to return to Australia.[8] Therefore Nations could definitely be refusing re-entry to foreign fighters to please voters, and appear to be politically strong.

The issue however is that there is perhaps a greater chance of escape or an unjust trial for Daesh members if they were to remain in Iraq and Syria. According to Transparency International Iraq are the 14th most corrupt nation in the world.[9] Syria are joint second most corrupt on the list.[10] Daesh can trace its origins to prisons in Iraq in the 2000’s. At that time also, there were too many pressures on prisons and a lack of proper legal infrastructure to prosecute and terrorists.The same pressures are already taken place on Iraqi prisons, and Iraq do not have the resources or funding to properly station prisoners, and as such prisons are holding thousands more than they have the capacity to hold.[11] Perhaps there is a chance of history repeating itself if nations refuse to take back foreign fighters once more. This is arguably why the European Nations should take back these fighters. Perhaps there is a security risk attached to this, but European prisons also have the infrastructure to contain these suspects in secure prisons. These suspects could even be kept in more solitary locations, if their risk to other inmates was deemed too high. This however is not possible in overcrowded and underfunded prisons in Iraq and Syria.

There has also been a growing momentum for an International Court to prosecute Daesh members. The issue with this though is that an International Court could only prosecute members of Daesh for international crimes, such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.[12] Whilst senior leaders of Daesh could be prosecuted with this, it would be a lot more difficult for members of the organisation who are lower down the hierarchy to be prosecuted. Furthermore, whether intentionally or non intentionaly the capture rate of influential leaders in terrorist organisations has been very low in recent years. Both Al-Baghdadi and Bin Laden were killed rather than captured, and so it remains to be seen whether it be possible to see any Daesh members be prosecuted in an international court. In fact the ICC’s (International Criminal Court) chief criminal prosecutor stated that it would be very difficult for the organisation to prosecute Daesh members.[13]

Seemingly then there are only two real solutions. Returning foreign fighters are either prosecuted in Syria and Iraq where they were captured, or are they are prosecuted in their native states. We could break this down further. On one hand they could be prosecuted in two states that have some of the highest corruption ratings in the world or in a region that is arguably the most stable region in the world. They could be prosecuted in two countries that have an endless amount of foreign influence, and are in the midst of constant fighting, or in a European region that has its problems, but overall has fantastic security and stability compared to other regions in the world. They could either be prosecuted in two states which have some of the worst prisons in the world, which are overcrowded, the infrastructure is poor and have the ability to interact with many other terrorists or help make people become extremists; the other option? They could be prosecuted in Europe, who have some of the most secure prisons in the world, they can be properly monitored, and their chances to escape are near on impossible. They could also be in a prison system where there are analysts and psychologists learning and observing their behaviour. This over time could lead to lessons learnt about how they became extremist which would help in future cases. To me the decision is clear on what is the better option.

Politically across Europe there is a wave of nationalism sweeping over the continent. As such we are seeing many politicians trying to put on a ‘hard man/woman’ persona which puts the people of that particular state first. As such the very idea of taking these people back is absurd to these politicians, as it damages this very persona. But in order to prevent this becoming a problem in the long term once again, they must take bold action now. States must step up and take responsibility and make collective action in order to control this crisis. In 2016, the EU spent around 200 billion euros on defence.[14]

According to some experts European spending on defence will hit 300 billion euros by the year 2021.[15] In 2015, according to the Council of Europe, the median cost of an inmate per day was 51 euros, which was a decrease from the year before.[16] As such the median cost of an inmate per year would be 18,615 euros. If we assume the statistics are true, and that their are indeed 4000 foreign fighters in detention in camps in the Middle East then the median price to keep them all in prison for a year would be 74,460,000 euros a year. This is of course the median price, and also perhaps additional measures would have to be taken which makes it more expensive. Even so, the cost is a fraction of what Europe spends on defence, and as such it should not really be a cost issue if they truly wanted to do this.

In conclusion, I believe that states need to commit to taking back foreign fighters. Do these terrorists deserve nicer conditions and three meals a day for the atrocities they have committed? Definitely not. But it is about taking charge of the situation, and preventing a future crisis that could be worse. We condemn the barbaric acts of groups like Daesh, and now we need to take the moral high ground and show why we are hold values that are worth fighting for, rather than wash our hands of responsibility.

Here at CTG we are constantly on the watch for updates regarding this issue. We have teams focusing on regions all over the world that use OSINT and other methods to keep a watchful eye on developments. We have the ability to work with other agencies to contribute to research, and alert law enforcement to threats should we spot one. We try to analyse a variety of sources so we can try and spot threats before they develop into full scale security threats. We strive to continue learning what the risk factors are for extremism, in the hope they we can try and intervene before a person becomes an extremist.


[1] Shamima Begum bring me home, The Times, February 2019, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/shamima-begum-bring-me-home-says-bethnal-green-girl-who-fled-to-join-isis-hgvqw765d

[2] Northeast Syria: Boys, Men Held in Inhumane Conditions, Human Rights Watch, October 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/08/northeast-syria-boys-men-held-inhumane-conditions

[3] Islamic State: Who is taking back foreigners who joined?, BBC news, October 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49959338

[4] Islamic State group plans to rebound with more attacks - MI6, BBC news, February 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-47255230

[5]France Won't Take ISIS Fighters Back, But Doesn't Want Them Executed Either, NPR, May 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/27/727358705/france-wont-take-its-isis-fighters-back-but-it-doesnt-want-them-executed-either

[6] Les Français approuvent massivement le jugement des djihadistes par l’Irak et ne veulent pas voir leurs enfants revenir, Odoxa, February 2019, http://www.odoxa.fr/sondage/djihadistes-francais-approuvent-massivement-jugement-lirak-ne-veulent-voir-leurs-enfants-revenir/

[7] What should the government do about British Jihadists?, Opinium, 2017, https://www.opinium.co.uk/government-british-jihadists/

[8] Voters’ Newspoll verdict: don’t let ISIS wives, children return, The Australian, October 2019, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/voters-newspoll-verdict-dont-let-isis-wives-children-return/news-story/6f4daf71f646fd5750052ecfd5147f9e

[9] Iraq corruption ranking, Transparency International, 2019, https://tradingeconomics.com/iraq/corruption-rank

[10] Syria corruption ranking, Transparency International, 2019, https://tradingeconomics.com/syria/corruption-rank

[11] Rare photos shine light on 'degrading' conditions in Iraqi jails, The Guardian, July 2019,

[12] A tribunal for ISIS fighters?, ECFR, May 2019, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_a_tribunal_for_isis_fighters

[13] Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, on the alleged crimes committed by ISIS, ICC, April 2015, https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/item.aspx?name=otp-stat-08-04-2015-1

[14] Defence: Member state’s spending, European Parliament, May 2018, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2018/621784/IPOL_BRI(2018)621784_EN.pdf

[15] Europe’s defense spending nears $300 billion as experts say Trump’s pressure is paying off, CNBC, October 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/01/european-defense-spending-to-hit-300-billion-by-2021-analysts-say.html

[16] Council of Europe releases new prison statistics, The Parliament, May 2018, https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/news/council-europe-releases-new-prison-statistics

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square

© The Counterterrorism Group - 2019 - This website and all of its contents are copyrighted by The Counterterrorism Group, Inc. 2019. Any use, reproduction or duplication of the contents of this website without the express written permission of The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is strictly prohibited.