Their home countries don’t want them back. Hundreds of foreign fighters who enlisted with Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq are being stripped of their citizenship and blocked from returning by Western governments.
Returning fighters are seen as a grim threat, the deadly legacy of a murderous movement being defeated and rolled back on the battlefield. Western intelligence officials say they are already over-stretched trying to monitor tens of thousands of suspected extremists who never left their home countries.
British officials say they have stripped more than 100 British fighters and brides of their citizenship, preventing them re-entering the country legally, according to British news reports. All those who have lost British citizenship are dual nationals. Under international law, governments can’t revoke someone’s citizenship if it would render them stateless.
According to Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, 152 IS recruits have been stripped of British citizenship since 2016, 30 since March.
Of the estimated 850 Britons who joined IS or al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria, 15 percent are thought to have been killed. A handful of returnees have been jailed, but officials say many cannot be prosecuted for lack of evidence. Some are thought to have become disillusioned with jihadism, but many are thought to pose a significant terror risk.
Britain isn’t alone in fearing the havoc returnees could wreak or the added burden they place on intelligence services already struggling to maintain surveillance on thousands of suspects who never left to fight. In June, following terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, British authorities admitted 23,000 radical Islamists had been considered a “person of interest” to the security services at any one time, more than six times the previous figures made public by the government.
Of those, 3,000 are considered serious threats, including about 400 people who have returned to Britain after fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq.
Other countries fearful
Since 2015, several Western governments have moved to amend their laws to make it easier to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals involved in terrorism. Even so, European governments have faced mounting criticism that they have little in the way of comprehensive plans ready for returnees, either in keeping tabs on them or requiring them to enter rehabilitation and de-radicalization programs.
There is fierce debate also over the effectiveness of de-radicalization programs on fighters who have not already become disillusioned.
Critics include Alex Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who has complained about the British government’s inconsistency and has called for the reintroduction of tough "control orders" that were banned in 2012 over human right fears. The control orders allowed the authorities to restrict suspects’ movement and their use of phones and computers.
He said in a television interview last month it was a “grave mistake” to abolish the orders which “may have saved dozens of lives” between 2005 and 2011.
In February, the Australian government revoked the citizenship of Khaled Sharrouf, who slipped out of Australia in 2013 after serving a four-year jail term on terrorism-related charges.
He became internationally infamous after posting on the internet in August 2014 a photograph of his seven-year-old son holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier. In April a new video surfaced showing Sharrouf’s youngest son wearing a suicide vest being prompted by his father to issue threats to murder Australians.
At least 110 Australians are estimated to have joined terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. Seventy are thought to be dead, three were captured in Lebanon and are in jail there. Australian officials are considering revoking their citizenship.
It has been rare for Western fighters to be captured. In an interview last week with VOA, Gen. Andrew Croft, who oversees the coalition air campaign against IS in Iraq, said foreign fighters are certainly among the IS forces.
“One of the dynamics you see is that foreign fighters can't just blend in with civilians and go to an IDP camp. So the foreign fighters often move around in groups, and they will often fight to the death,” he said.
A move by then-president Francois Hollande to pass legislation to make it easier to revoke French citizenship of terrorist suspects holding dual nationality failed last year. Opinion polls suggested the legislation had public backing, but political critics and rights groups argued the measure would do little to prevent terror attacks and risked worsening race relations by stigmatizing sections of the population, notably Muslims of North African descent.