On March 10th, the British parliament rushed through new anti-terror laws aimed at stopping potential jihadists from traveling abroad. In less than 15 minutes, it banned people subject to a “Terror Prevention and Investigation Measure” from boarding planes and obliged airlines to provide the government with detailed passenger lists. The Parliament further instituted “temporary exclusion orders” to delay the return of a British citizen suspected of involvement in terrorist activities abroad.
This is the latest addition to a rapidly expanding body of new laws aimed at preventing Western states’ citizens from joining Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq. Germany, the UK and the Netherlands have all passed legislation that allows revoking an individual’s citizenship if the state perceives him or her as a security threat. Other measures include travel bans, withdrawing residence permits, suspending welfare benefits and confiscating travel documents. The speed with which nations have approved these packages is alarming many privacy and freedom of movement advocates throughout Europe.
This legislative scramble aims to respond to the unprecedented surge in the numbers of foreign fighters joining rebel groups in Syria and Iraq. Security experts estimate that over 20,000 fighters from around the world are taking part in this civil war, of which 3,400 are from Western nations. Given the scale of the phenomenon – this is more than the total number of foreign fighters in any previous conflict (including for instance Afghanistan, Bosnia and Somalia) – it is not surprising that Western governments have focused on intelligence and law enforcement. Evidence from previous cases, however, points strongly to the limits and potential dangers of employing repressive measures alone. Rather than trying to arrest their way out of the problem, states should place more emphasis on prevention and reintegration.
According to David Malet, an expert in the foreign fighters phenomenon, one of the main causes of foreigners joining civil wars is self-identification with transnational communities – be they communist, Zionist, or Islamist – that feel isolated and threatened within their own societies. Malet argues that recruiters across highly varied conflicts consistently build on these fears by using a frame called “defensive mobilization.” In other words, they convince new recruits that if they do not mobilize, they face an existential threat. But if policymakers in the West continue to pass laws that provide material for recruiters to frame as threat, the situation may very well backfire. Are European policymakers actually making the job of terrorist recruiters easier?
The story of Mr. Mohammed Emwazi, the British citizen known as “Jihadi John” and infamous for beheading several hostages including US journalist John Foley, is a case in point. According to CAGE, an advocacy human rights group who interviewed him before he joined ISIS, Mr. Emwazi was motivated by a sense of disenfranchisement. He felt trapped: “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned and controlled by security service men.”
The Jihadi John affair corroborates prior evidence collected by Malet. In his analysis of various historical cases, he found that only the countries that were able to provide real livable alternatives for returning fighters were able to deal with the problem successfully. Foreign fighters who were denied reentry to their countries and persecuted became more deeply entrenched in terrorist networks. Those who were given an alternative to fighting as a living overwhelmingly took it.
Securitizing policies are not only potentially dangerous, they are also inefficient. Legally, the evidentiary burden is so high that prosecution is nearly impossible. As a result, very few cases have been processed. To make matters worse, the boundaries between organizations listed as terrorist such as ISIS or al-Qaeda and so-called moderate opposition groups backed by Western states are extremely porous. The recent collapse of the White House-backed Syrian militia Harakat al-Hazm into brigades of an Islamist alliance is only one among recent examples. Politically, it is extremely sensitive for states supporting the Free Syrian Army, such as France, to crack down on affiliated fighters. All of this has brought criminal prosecution of foreign fighters into a complicated legal mess that does not seem to do much for the security of Europeans.
This is not to say that all foreign fighters should be pardoned, or that those who have committed crimes should not be held accountable. But it does mean that it is crucial to focus on preemptive and exit programs that support rather than further marginalize vulnerable communities. Families are overwhelmingly opposed to their children travelling to warzones, but often lack the knowledge and skills to stop them. Some best practices exist: France has created a support hotline for worried parents to report concerns of travel abroad. Germany has established Hayat, a national support program that provides families with counseling. In Denmark, exit programs supporting the reintegration of returning foreign fighters take precedence over systematic prosecution. These need to be systematically replicated throughout the EU if leaders are serious about tackling the problem.
Finally, returning foreign fighters represent an important opportunity to strengthen national security that a blanket punitive response misses. The research of Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on jihadism, shows that “less than one in nine foreign fighters returned to perpetrate attacks in the West.” This is a significant risk. But it also means that in nearly 90% of cases, individuals that have fought abroad have no intentions of perpetrating attacks at home. Providing them with alternative support networks is key to their disengagement from extremist groups. These individuals are in a unique position to provide intelligence on transnational jihadi groups. More importantly, they also represent the most compelling counter-narrative to ISIS’ strongest recruitment tool – its propaganda of defensive mobilization.