European governments are confronted with the thorny problem of what to do with their citizens who were “foreign fighters” for ISIS. Most of the surviving fighters are being held in Iraqi or Kurdish jails. There is currently growing pressure to bring them back to Europe. (Source of Heathrow border photo: dgmckelvey/Flickr)
Foreign fighters are Muslim extremists who left their countries of residence to join ISIS and fight against Western civilization and values. Most of them are men, but many women joined them to support the Caliphate. Many of these women later became pregnant with the children of ISIS terrorists.
Since the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, most of the surviving fighters are currently being detained in Iraqi or Kurdish jails. Some are also in detention in northern Syria, a territory whose future is uncertain. Most women (and their children) live in refugee camps, often in miserable conditions.
Up to now, Europeans governments have remained reluctant to bring their nationals back, and have merely organized the repatriation of women and children on a case-by-case basis. There is currently, however, growing pressure to bring all of them, jailed or not, back to Europe.
In Belgium, a group of 300 academics launched a petition in late October, asking for the “urgent return of the Belgians from Syria”. In an op-ed published in a major Belgian daily, De Standaard, two senior fellows of Belgium’s Royal Institute for International Relations advocated that the repatriation of Belgian fighters is “the right choice”. The European Council of Foreign Affairs supported a similar idea in its report “Beyond Good and Evil: Why Europe should bring foreign fighters home?” Even Frederic van Leeuw, the Belgian Federal Prosecutor (in charge of fighting terrorism) pleaded for organizing the repatriation of jailed terrorists and holding their trials in Belgium.
Their arguments may vary but are, in substance, that as Iraqi (or Syrian) courts and prisons do not meet international standards, the return of ISIS supporters to Europe would be the best way to ensure they remain under control and that they can go through programs of de-radicalization and become moderate Muslims. Women are often portrayed as innocent victims and children at risk of radicalization if they remain in the region’s camps.
A common pattern of these calls for repatriation is that they never mention the immense suffering imposed on Europe, the Middle East, and the world by the Islamic State.
All those appeals fail to address the main issue. By joining ISIS, these men and women made a choice. They decided to leave behind their European citizenship and join a “state,” the fundamental values of which are totally incompatible with those of Western societies. These men and women decided to join a terrorist group whose objective was mercilessly to murder people of their home countries, as they did in Nice, Berlin, Brussels, Paris and many others places; a group that burned alive in a cage a captured Jordanian fighter pilot and raped hundreds of Yazidi women, to mention just some of their atrocities. At the time they joined ISIS, they knew what they were doing and could not ignore the nature and the acts of this terrorist group. They should be stripped of their Western nationalities because they themselves renounced them by joining a terror organization.
Almost all the persons concerned are first — and more often, second or third — generation immigrants to the West. In most instances, they also retain the nationality of the country their families hailed from: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia or Pakistan. So, by losing their Western nationalities, they would not become stateless.
From a legal point of view, it is a principle of international law that crimes committed in a country should be tried in the country where these crimes were committed. There is no reason to show mercy to people who tried to kill their fellow citizens and destroy their societies. Women and their children born in Iraq or Syria should also not be allowed to return to Europe. Their other countries of citizenship are free to take them back, but there is neither any duty nor responsibility for European governments to do so.
Advocates for repatriation usually raise the “moral argument”. Children born in the Caliphate, they say, are not responsible for the crimes of their parents and should be taken care of. That is certainly true. But why would they deserve better treatment than other children born in Iraq or Syria? What about the children of Yazidi women raped by ISIS fighters? What about the Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi orphans whose parents were murdered by ISIS? Don’t these mothers and children deserve our help and support more than the women who were already living in Europe and, now, pretend to have “made a mistake” by joining ISIS? A bloody mistake, indeed: they are, at the very minimum, accomplices in the crimes and atrocities committed by ISIS. As the British commentator Piers Morgan wrote:
“These are the women who leave their homes, families, friends and countries to go and marry the world’s worst terrorists. They have sex with them, they breed with them, they cook for them, they clean for them, they love them and they worship them. And while they’re doing all this, their husbands are busy raping, torturing, stoning, beheading and murdering people.”
This debate about repatriation is another example of how confused the West has become when trying to apply its moral principles. The real victims here are the people who were murdered, wounded, raped, tortured or displaced by ISIS. Their children, if still alive, will have to live with the consequences of ISIS terror. In Iraq alone, after the fall of the Caliphate, more than 200 ISIS mass graves were discovered. ISIS victims worldwide probably number in the millions.
If European governments have to choose between supporting a Yazidi rape survivor and her unwanted child or a woman who willingly left Europe to spit in the face of Western societies and the values of her country of origin to join ISIS, they should choose the former. Sorry, do-gooders. These deserters should not be allowed back to Europe.
Alain Destexhe is an honorary Senator from Belgium and former President of International Crisis Group.