Young French, Turkish and Russian ISIS fighters in a 2017 beheading video. (ISIS video)

ISIS and Foreign Fighters: Assessing the Threat and Potential Repatriation, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration

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Concerns over ISIS returnees remain pressing for many western governments, as does apprehension over domestic actors potentially spreading violent extremist ideology or carrying out terrorist attacks under the banner of ISIS or other terrorist groups. Some argue the November 2020 Vienna attack, in which four people were killed, marked the relaunch of ISIS’ “Europe campaign.[i] Debatably, al-Qaeda supporters and sympathizers back in the day exhibited more fortitude as sleeper cell agents, sometimes waiting up to two or three years for marching orders before taking action. ISIS’ “flash to bang” indoctrination peddled vis-à-vis its follower base nowadays seems to have become rapid and has been tightening. Perhaps the case of the French middle-school teacher who was brutally murdered in October 2020 in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, France, by a militant jihadi adherent serves to demonstrate the point and perhaps draw attention to newly emerging forms of violence and terrorism in Europe. This particular terrorist act has once again intensified the public debate over a “radical atmosphere” in Europe, interspersed with diverse opinions on subjects such as secularism, terrorism, endemic violence, immigration, and freedom of expression.

European media claimed that the suspect had contacts in Idlib in northwestern Syria, and that he was close to Hayat Tahrir Al-Cham (HTS),[ii] though the official investigation in France is ongoing. Abdoullakh Anzorov was shown to be very active on social media, and his tweets leave little doubt about his fundamentalist vision of religion.[iii] Nicolas Chapuis from Le Monde accessed Anzorov’s Twitter accounts and found 3,000-plus tweets published between June and October 2020, all of them under various accounts. In the beginning, he exchanged jokes with his connections. Gradually, his conscientious exposition of the religion of Islam grew stronger. “He detailed his vision of the world in binary terms, namely what is considered halal [permitted] and haram [prohibited],” Chapuis explained.[iv] Anzorov seemed vigilant in concealing extremist compulsions, however, and on several occasions he had expressed his support to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to “Aqmi,” a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He retweeted a post referencing ISIS but was mindful not to immerse into discussing terrorism issues. Therefore, Anzorov managed to escape the radar of the French intelligence services.

Questions over whether returning foreign fighters will opt at all costs for violence once back in their home countries of origin will likely continue to linger. Hundreds of detainees and prisoners linked to terrorism and radicalization remain housed in European prisons, with approximately 220 of them located in Belgian prisons alone. This number includes “returnees, terrorist convicts, hate preachers, and so-called radicalized criminals.”[v] Different countries have adopted their own varied solutions, ranging from forgiveness to punishment and punitive measures. Adding further to the complexity is the fact that  thousands of children continue to remain in a limbo in Syria and Iraq,[vi] with the UN and other organizations stressing that governments have “the primary responsibility to address the plight of their nationals, including children trapped in conflict zones.”[vii] The following testimonies from State Department and other domestic and international legal and psychological experts lay a groundwork on some important considerations as governments continue to address the issue of FTFs and their family members.

Historical, Conceptual Considerations

There is an overarching need to approach every issue with several factors in mind, one being history. History repeats itself and ensuring there is an adequate understanding of our past will allow us to be better prepared for the future and any challenges that may arise. [viii] As stated by John Giduck, “The question is not only how we combat terrorism, but how do we live with the people upon whom we have placed the brand of terrorists.[ix] Both the legal and humanistic perspective have to inform each other and work together. From the legal perspective, we need to define terms like FTF as well as the many threats that we strive to reduce. The United States government has at least 13 different definitions of terrorism, creating challenges within the legal realm. Giduck stated, “If the United States itself cannot agree on what exactly terrorism is and what a terrorist is, how does the world come together to arrive at a single, commonly accepted understanding and definition of terrorism?”[x]

Varying definitions create barriers to success and hinder our ability to indict and prosecute individuals at a consistent level, especially internationally. Practitioners need to consider what we do with the individuals who are involved in terrorism, whether that includes sheer incarceration or de-brainwashing or deradicalization. “We are never going to kill our way to peace in this situation… and we need to start thinking now about the long-term solution,” Giduck explained.[xi] Countries need to give more consideration to individual circumstances and promote sustainable results. The Guantanamo Bay experience, for example, allows us to recognize that the world has not come together to develop a definition or agree on U.S. conduct when dealing with detainees. Countries are not in agreement on which individuals they should take back. Giduck further explained, “We are facing a similar situation in Iraq and Syria, including the status of the individuals once they return and how will home nations react to them and what opportunities will they give them.”[xii] Giduck also placed an emphasis on how repatriation is defined in varying countries along with the extent and degree to which foreign courts’ rulings will be honored and possibly appealed. In terms of prosecution, Giduck posited, “The United States deserves a lot of scrutiny because the statutes are just an association law that says there has to be evidence of active membership and specific intent.”[xiii]

Reintegration, Rehabilitation, and Repatriation Imperative

Many countries remain focused on successful reintegration and rehabilitation of FTFs. Those who have accompanied them in Iraq and Syria serve as a “cautionary tale for others in their home communities who may be considering following in their path.”[xiv] The coronavirus is presenting challenges within this arena and we need to ensure it does not magnify grievances and lead to further recruitment. Some countries, such as the United States, place an emphasis on children who are swept up in conflict and view them as victims regardless of the roles in which they serve. Devoting attention to the impact of trauma and children is important to work through these circumstances and restore normalcy as soon as possible. Michael Duffin stressed, “Even if countries do not actively elect to repatriate their citizens, we have learned that many ISIS family members find their way back to their home communities on their own.”[xv] Duffin argued that success is far more likely among those who are involved in the formal repatriation process rather than those who travel and reintegrate entirely on their own. The risks that they pose to society need to be addressed and alleviated to lower their overall level of threat. Duffin further explained, “If we don’t develop effective rehabilitation and reintegration programs now, these children could become the next wave of terrorist fighters or supporters.”[xvi]

The long-term health and well-being of children is critical as some of their issues may not present themselves immediately. To assist with this, governments need to leverage their resources and acquire the tools to help communities address vulnerabilities that push individuals toward extremism. The United States is known for sending specialists to many different countries to work toward successful repatriation. It is important to adjust our approach when meeting different individuals and to collaborate with each other. Psychologists, social workers, religious leaders, and those who have experience with traumatized children need to come together and calibrate their knowledge. Virtual programs now allow for longer-term engagement and strengthened trust among international partners. Creating long-term sustainable protection programs helps ensure that the government and community have the resources that they need for success. Duffin concluded, “We need to be concerned with the newer generation who hasn’t heard the horror stories of ISIS and extremism.”[xvii] Understanding how and if their rhetoric will be accepted in coming decades is key when developing counter messages and reducing the overall threat. Among those who wanted to fight for ISIS but did not, it is important to capture their voices that help dissuade others.

Children Repatriation, Psychological Needs Considered

The issue of repatriation is multidimensional and applies to a variety of different levels. In reflecting on the experiences of children who have lived under ISIS and how to help them achieve a sense of normalcy, Dr. Heidi Ellis explained, “Disruptions in any one layer of social ecology can have profound implications for a developing child at its core.”[xviii] Under ISIS, every layer is disrupted within society. Education, family life, all are infused with violence. Practitioners need to leverage this information to create successful rehabilitation and reintegration plans. We also need to understand how the brain processes threats. “When we experience trauma there are shifts in our behavior, emotions, and how we perceive and process both ourselves and the world around us. But when a child lives in an environment of chronic or severe threat, the brain system that perceive and respond to a threat become potentiated,” Dr. Ellis explained.[xix]  Individuals will mistakenly respond to a safe situation and environment as if they are in danger because of how their cognition is impacted by their experiences. Even if children are removed from an unsafe situation, their mental trauma and affiliation with fear is not resolved. Dr. Ellis further elaborated, “We can reintegrate them into a safer context, but the brain will respond as if their survival is at stake, leading to developmental cascades that inhibit their ability to thrive in safe settings.”[xx] One ought to understand the correlation between stressors and psychological adjustments.

Trauma needs to be approached from a multidisciplinary standpoint. Dr. Ellis clarified, “You need a multi-actor team that can come together to collaboratively assess and address these needs. No one sector can hold the solution.”[xxi] Psychological, practical, legal, societal, and family factors need to be considered to form individual treatment plans that are based on positive intervention and individual growth. It is critical to have clarity around information flows. There needs to be “a clear line between info gathering of criminal justice separate from what we need to know about an individual to understand their strengths and needs and how we can implement supportive services to give them the best chance at moving forward,” Dr Ellis rationalized.[xxii]

Distinct limitations should be set surrounding information sharing outside of when an imminent risk is present. Too much information sharing, especially for prosecution purposes, can “undermine trust in those services, and once you’ve done that you’ve lost every opportunity we have.” Capacity building programs help identify barriers to healthy development. “Once you’ve strengthened social connection and removed barriers, you’ve positioned someone to have more options in terms of how they relate to society and where they see themselves,” Dr. Ellis stated.[xxiii] Avenues of civic engagement are important, and we need to leverage what we have done in the past in order to learn live. Implementing rigorous monitoring and evaluation of these programs is critical to promote future success.[xxiv]

Legal Barriers, Political Impediments

Generally speaking, European countries remain reluctant to actively repatriate their citizens from Syria and Iraq. In France, specifically, for instance, Dominique Inchauspe explained that nearly 67 percent of the public are against the repatriation of children, which creates many concerns among how the government should respond to these individuals.[xxv]  The French government does not want to accept responsibility or liability for the women and children housed in the camps in northern Syria. Additionally, courts do not agree on the decision-making processes and often promote varying convictions. The gathering of evidence allows sentences to be easily overturned because almost any piece of evidence that is found can be used. Inchauspe explained, “Evidence is free. France does not have an admissibility problem, and there is no assessment on whether evidence can or cannot be used.”[xxvi] Regarding repatriation, Inchauspe suggested following in the footsteps of countries like Kosovo and “to incorporate specialist chambers into the justice system” when prosecuting FTFs. Assessment is a case-by-case basis that is often neglected as authorities do not want to deal with repatriation in the first place. Additionally, prosecuting FTFs in France is easy, but evidence gathering creates hinderances that law enforcement needs to work through.[xxvii]

Some countries have more actively engaged in repatriation of their respective citizens, albeit acknowledging practical, policy, and legal barriers to repatriation and successful rehabilitation and reintegration. Prosecutors often face difficulties from a technical standpoint and how to react best morally and legally. Atdhe Dema argued that women returnees, for example, are often placed on less harsh restrictions as their presence is viewed as being necessary for their children to thrive. House arrest is a common sentence to ensure the family can continue to function and grow. Even when a woman’s presence in ISIS-controlled territory could be established, it is difficult to display whether or not a passive or active role was assumed. Additionally, varying elements must be established in order to convict the individual to avoid having any procedural issues. Women oftentimes provide material support to ISIS to appease their husbands and are able to receive lesser sentences, assuming they express remorse and are first-time offenders.[xxviii]

Dema also explained that “repatriation should be carried out when it comes to citizens of your country, they must bear the responsibility to treat them in accordance with the law.”[xxix] From a legal standpoint, we have to respect the rule of law. While cooperation among various institutions and psychologists is beneficial in the repatriation process, a strict set of guidelines and policies has to be followed. Psychologists care about those individuals and their reintegration in a proper way and should be involved at every step, Dema pointed out, further noting, “A sentence itself isn’t effective, and we need to work with them and reintegrate them.”[xxx]

Conclusion

Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) who fought in Iraq and Syria are likely to remain a key security concern for many western countries for years to come. ISIS has also transformed into a covert network, both in Iraq and Syria, while it also remains a global threat with centralized leadership,[xxxi] which is equally problematic. Failure to recognize this danger and develop appropriate policies to combat it, along with the relatively low returnee rate, runs the risk of terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere. A peaceful reintegration into society seems possible. Indeed, some foreign fighters are far from continuing their radicalization once they return and, thus, as demonstrated by expert insights in the article, it is essential to further explore aforementioned considerations that can lead to effective repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration solutions of FTFs and their family members.

 

Biographies

Antoine Andary

Antoine is a political communication and international affairs, counter-terrorism research fellow and intelligence analyst. Currently, he is the Vice-Chairman of the International Association for Political Science Students – IAPSS’s Research Committee on Conflict, Security and Crime. Formerly, he served as a counter-terrorism intelligence analyst at the Counter-Terrorism Group – CTG within the crime unit. Antoine is a research fellow at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), where he researches crime-terror nexus in the context of both militant Jihadi, terrorist groups and violent extremist in the EU. His research focuses on developing counter-terrorism ingenuity and capability on understanding the inducement of terrorists individual and organizations worldwide. He leads different research and information collection on the role of law enforcement and prosecution strategies in combatting extreme ideologies, specifically, vis-a-vis the Middle East and the European Region.

Amanda Garry

Amanda serves as a Cyber Defense Technologist within Raytheon Missiles and Defense, where she is responsible for maintaining security posture of information systems, auditing, ensuring compliance, and upholding key security practices to promote a secure and sustainable network from infiltration. She has previous experience in counterterrorism research and intelligence analysis. Amanda graduated from Nichols College in 2018 and 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Master of Science in Counterterrorism degree, respectively. She has explored roles in criminal justice including security, fraud, and risk mitigation. Her interests include examining terrorist recruitment, radicalization, and rehabilitation, and she strives to counter terrorism on a global scale with primary research, actionable recommendations, and consistent program evaluation. At the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), Amanda researches both far-right and militant jihadi radicalization, recruitment, rehabilitation, communication platforms, and technology. She also looks at structural, psychological, and social processes associated with domestic terrorism and targeted violence in the United States. She is currently leading data collection for the upcoming ACTRI database.

Allison McDowell-Smith, Ph.D.

Allison is Deputy Director at American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). She is also the Director of the Graduate Counterterrorism Program, Chair of the Undergraduate Criminal Justice Program, and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Nichols College. She has launched the Nichols Master of Science in Counterterrorism (MSC) Program, the first graduate program in the United States with a focus on Violent Extremism (VE) and leadership for those pursuing careers in the fields of security, intelligence, and public policy. She has spearheaded pioneering innovative approaches to shape understanding of violent extremism and terrorism globally while pursuing data-driven policy security solutions and tackling unique proficiencies needed to understand the field of the study at both private and public sector levels. As an interdisciplinary researcher and educator, she strives to identify and advance criminological approaches that may be relevant to violent extremist and terrorist thought and violence, offering unique perspectives on the often-overlooked relationship between the two. Beyond her teaching experience in the fields of violent extremism and terrorism and program management skills, she has a significant record of collaborating and liaising with law enforcement, military, and intelligence components on security related trends and events, focusing on a wide range of issues, from violent extremist and terrorist motivation to technology and cyber security threats. Prior to her academic life, she has worked in non-profit sector, most recently as a Senior Research Fellow for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), where she conducted research on ISIS recruitment strategies, de-radicalization processes, and counter messaging. She obtained a Ph.D. from Northcentral University focused on Homeland Security, Leadership, and Policy; M.S. in Criminal Justice administration from Northcentral University; and B.S. in Criminal Justice from Rochester Institute of Technology.

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.

Ardian is Director at American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). He is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer, and security analyst. He has conducted terrorism and violent extremism related research in in Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, and Central Asia. Ardian serves as a visiting lecturer and adjunct faculty, including at Nichols College, where he is teaching CT and P/CVE courses in the MSC Counterterrorism Program. Past positions include Research Director and Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and other positions and consultancies with domestic and international organizations. Ardian obtained his Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. in Public Policy and Administration, from Northwestern University, and a B.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. Homeland security, disengagement from terrorism, violent extremist and terrorist group media communication strategy and information security, messaging and counter-messaging, and the legal, regulatory, and policy aspects of response strategies to threats and crisis related to terrorism and violent extremism represent some of the areas of research interest. Ardian has authored and co-authored numerous scientific and professional publications on the subject of violent extremism and terrorism. He has written for, and his work has been quoted by, The Hill, Homeland Security Today, New York Post, Euronews, The Daily Beast, Le Figaro, Washington Examiner, AFP, Daily Caller, Fox News, and others.

 

References

[i] Emma Anderson, At least 4 dead in suspected terror attack near Vienna synagogue, 2 November 2020, Politico, Retrieved from https://www.politico.eu/article/shots-near-vienna-synagogue-in-suspected-terror-attack.
[ii] Samuel Paty : l’assaillant était en contact avec un djihadiste basé en Syrie, Florise Vaubien, AFP, 22 December 2020, RTL INFO, Retrieved from https://www.rtl.fr/actu/justice-faits-divers/samuel-paty-l-assaillant-etait-en-contact-avec-un-djihadiste-base-en-syrie-7800908844
[iii] Tottenham criticizes Erik Lamela, Sergio Reguilon and Giovani Lo Celso after the party breached Covid restrictions, 2 January 2021, W24 News, Retrieved from https://www.w24news.com/news/w24news-en-hollande-criticizes-escalation-and-populism-after-samuel-patys-assassination.
[iv] Assassination of Samuel Paty: the making of a terrorist, Nicolas Chapuis, 27 November 2020, Retrieved from https://www.w24news.com/news-en-assassination-of-samuel-paty-the-making-of-a-terrorist, Ref https://www.franceinter.fr
[v] Foreign Fighters and the Terrorist Threat in Belgium, (10 January 2020), By Rik Coolsaet, Thomas Renard, Retrieved from https://www.egmontinstitute.be/foreign-fighters-and-the-terrorist-threat-in-belgium.
[vi] Security Council Extends Mandate of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central African Republic, SECURITY COUNCIL 8422ND MEETING (PM), SC/13619 13 DECEMBER 2018, Retrieved from https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13619.
[vii] Foreign fighters: ‘One of the most serious dimensions’ in global counter-terrorism struggle,  12 February 2020, Peace and Security, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/02/1057301.
[viii] “Justice repatriation & Gender considerations among travelers to ISIS,” American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI) Security Talks Series, September 28, 2020, https://americanctri.org/security-talks/
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Ibid.
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] Ibid.
[xxiv] Ibid.
[xxv] Ibid.
[xxvi] Ibid.
[xxvii] Ibid.
[xxviii] Ibid.
[xxix] Ibid.
[xxx] Ibid.
[xxxi] Cordesman, A. (2019). Military Developments in the Afghan War (pp. 177-187, Rep.). Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). doi:10.2307/resrep22582.14, available at https://www.worldcat.org/title/military-developments-in-the-afghan-war/oclc/1151934364
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Antoine is a political communication and international affairs, counter-terrorism research fellow and intelligence analyst. Currently, he is the Vice-Chairman of the International Association for Political Science Students – IAPSS’s Research Committee on Conflict, Security and Crime. Formerly, he served as a counter-terrorism intelligence analyst at the Counter-Terrorism Group – CTG within the crime unit. Antoine is a research fellow at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), where he researches crime-terror nexus in the context of both militant Jihadi, terrorist groups and violent extremist in the EU. His research focuses on developing counter-terrorism ingenuity and capability on understanding the inducement of terrorists individual and organizations worldwide. He leads different research and information collection on the role of law enforcement and prosecution strategies in combatting extreme ideologies, specifically, vis-a-vis the Middle East and the European Region.

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