Returnees: Who are they, why are they (not) coming back and how should we deal with them?

Returnees: Who are they, why are they (not) coming back and how should we deal with them?
Thomas Renard and Rik Coolsaet | Egmont – The Royal Institute for International Relations | 2018

Some 5000 men, women and children have travelled from Europe to Syria and Iraq since 2012. An estimated 1500 of these foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) have returned so far. Some came back disillusioned, or traumatised by their war experiences, but others returned with malicious intentions.

The first successful attack by a returnee in Europe occurred in 2014, with Mehdi Nemmouche’s shooting at Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Several other attacks followed, culminating with the coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016. Since then, no new attack by returnees has occurred but that does not mean the threat is over. Plots continue to be set up, mostly by so-called home-grown terrorist fighters with limited means and skills, but with potentially dramatic results should they succeed. They could pose a serious security challenge.

Studies of past jihadi waves show that veteran fighters can play a crucial role in perpetuating the jihadi movement from one generation to another, often starting from their prison cells, where many returnees from Syria and Iraq now serve their sentences.

The idea for this project goes back almost two years ago, at a time when concerns were increasingly raised about the lack of a comprehensive approach on returning FTF. Practitioners were attempting to cope with this issue within the specific context of their own agencies, but were barely aware of what colleagues were doing in other departments, let alone other countries. Although many measures were being implemented in the aftermath of the Paris and Brussels attacks, national responses were by and large compartmentalised and uncoordinated.

As we started our research in early 2017, we were still hearing many criticisms from various agencies and administrations. One year later, however, things have changed for the better. Not everything is perfect, as outlined in this report, but responses in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have overall become more comprehensive and coordinated.

This report looks into policies on returning foreign fighters in these three countries. It is the very first systematic and in-depth study into national approaches and policies vis-à-vis returnees. Its added value lies in the wealth of data, including data that has not been published before, and, of course, in the comparative angle. The authors hope to offer a reference point for future studies, for both practitioners and researchers.

Each of the three country chapters in this report start with an overview of the scope of the FTF challenge, and a profile of the returnees. We also seek to compare current figures with those from previous jihadi conflicts, which is difficult given the paucity of data. Each chapter then looks at the evolution of the perception of this issue among authorities since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2012, and at the development of more coherent policies. Next comes a sequential description of the policies in place to deal with returnees: how to deal with fighters still in the conflict zone, with those that have come back, those in prison and those who have been released. Finally, the sensitive question of what to do about children in the jihadi war zone or recently returned from there is also assessed in some depth.

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