For many would-be Islamist glory-seekers who wanted to participate in the restoration and expansion of a caliphate, who sought glory and brotherhood and also were attracted by the idea of violence, rape, and slavery, the Islamic State has lost its luster. Now, many of them seek to return to their homes.
What started as a trickle now seems as if it might become a flood as the Islamic State loses territory and faces a concerted Iraqi, Kurdish, and American counterassault. The question then becomes what then to do with Islamic State returnees? It might be tempting simply to strip their citizenship, but that may not solve the problem if they successfully fly back to their home country. Imprisonment seems reasonable, although it will be hard to prosecute some of the worst crimes and human rights violations simply because of the granularity of evidence to an individual level. Everyone knows rapes, torture, and murder occurred, but they do not know enough to determine to judicial standards the individuals responsible for each specific crime. But, can those who have returned be rehabilitated let alone forgiven? How should states differentiate between those who actually fought on behalf of the Islamic State against those who merely sought to serve the Islamic State?
How should the United States, Europe, Australia, and moderate Arab allies treat those who joined the Islamic State but then may have had second thoughts?
The European Union has suggested a soft approach. From a 2015 Financial Times article:
Throwing thousands of European Muslims into prison as they return from fighting in Syria and Iraq would be a grave mistake and “an invitation to radicalisation”, the EU’s top counter-terrorism official has warned. Gilles de Kerchove, the bloc’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator, said jihadis “with blood on their hands” must face criminal justice. But he called for rehabilitation programmes both inside and outside prison and said authorities should differentiate between hardened fighters and those who had embarked for war only to return traumatised.
Concern about cross-radicalization is real. That fear presumes, however, that those who decided to forsake their countries and pledge allegiance to a would-be power and commit murder in its name would ever be allowed to depart prison.
The danger with forgiveness is this: Not all returnees are sincere. The New York Times addressed this problem last year:
What to do with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such young men in Europe is now among the biggest challenges facing governments and security services…. At the heart of the debate is whether to take pre-emptive legal action against people who have not committed terrorist acts or even been implicated in a plot, but who have simply been to Syria and possibly received training in Islamic State camps. Several urgent factors have propelled the debate: the steeper risks of terrorist attacks, the fact that monitoring the sheer numbers who have returned is overwhelming security services, and the difficulty of building cases against suspects who may have been trained and indoctrinated in distant lands.
Indeed, many of those who have participated in attacks in both Paris and Brussels appear to have visited the Islamic State in Syria.
As usual, Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) have done the best work of any Washington experts on the issue because their work is based on interviews with Islamic State defectors, returnees, and prisoners. They warn—and intelligence reinforces the idea—that some of those who return may simply be seeking to position themselves in greater proximity to potential targets or may return to terrorism should they face alternatives they do not like.
Nor does Europe’s approach make sense given the failures of recidivism rates of almost every program, no matter how creative. Indeed, many countering violent extremism (CVE) programs are little more than snake oil. The best-laid theories seldom translate into reality.
Islamic State returnees are not merely potential bombs; they are primed and ready to explode. Their training and exposure to Islamic State methods make them more lethal than any potential lone wolf of a generation past.
If U.S. law needs to catch up to address the problem of returnees, perhaps with mandatory sentence guidelines if not questions about citizenship for those who swore allegiance to entities that declared war on America, now is the time for Congress to act. The problem is about to get very real, very quickly. Youthful indiscretions or not, some crimes should not be forgiven.