With imminent ISIL defeat, Europe urged to handle its jihadists
Updated 15:45, 17-Mar-2019
Katrin Büchenbacher

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are close to capturing ISIL's final enclave in Baghouz in eastern Syria, beating back their two counter-attacks on Wednesday, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds captured around 800 jihadists of foreign nationalities and their supporters. Their number is expected to increase further as Baghouz is being taken, urging all countries involved to deal with ISIL's aftermath.

The foreign fighters' unclear status poses a new security threat to the region and a political and legal conundrum for their home countries. Syria, Iraq and the U.S. want to see them face trial in their home countries.

However, Europe is reluctant to take the Islamist radicals back, with the Swiss government making the pioneer decision against repatriation of ISIL members of Swiss nationality on March 8.

Smoke from mortars rises in the frontline Syrian village of Baghouz, as U.S.-backed forces close in on the last position of the ISIL, February 17, 2019. /VCG Photo

Smoke from mortars rises in the frontline Syrian village of Baghouz, as U.S.-backed forces close in on the last position of the ISIL, February 17, 2019. /VCG Photo

Who are the European ISIL militants?

From the around 4,000-6,000 EU citizens who joined ISIL since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, approximately 30 percent have already returned to their home countries, and 14 percent are confirmed dead, according to studies by the UN and the International Center for Counter-Terrorism. The latter further identified that a majority of around 2,800 fighters come from Belgium, France, Germany, and the UK, with many of them deriving from the same urban neighborhoods, 17 percent of them being female.

Most ISIL recruits are in their 20s or early 30s, with the youngest being teenagers. 

The SDF told Reuters on February 18 that authorities there were holding some 800 foreign fighters, with around 700 of the fighter's wives and 1,500 of their children also being held in camps near the Iraqi border, with new people arriving every day.

Why did young Europeans join ISIL?

ISIL used online propaganda targeted at Muslims around the world to migrate to their new "caliphate," the significant pull-factor being Islamist extremist ideology to which militants radicalized quickly. Researchers count difficulties in integrating into European society among the push factors. A 2016 study showed a correlation between the employment gap between immigrants and natives, with the number of ISIL fighters from several EU countries. 

A fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Baghouz, on the frontline of fighting to expel the ISIL group from the area, March 12, 2019. /VCG Photo 

A fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Baghouz, on the frontline of fighting to expel the ISIL group from the area, March 12, 2019. /VCG Photo 

Which factors push Europe to act now?

Kurdish militia in Syria asked European governments months ago to take their ISIL fighters back, with U.S. President Donald Trump exerting additional pressure on Twitter in February.  "We will be forced to release them," he threatened.

In an interview with Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten,  co-chair of foreign relations in the region held by the SDF Abdulkarim Omar said the foreign fighters would not be released. However, he also stressed the instability in the region and the threat of an attack by Turkey, in the case the Syrian Kurds would be "unable to guarantee" the detention of ISIL militants.

In addition to international pressure, the family members of the foreign ISIL militants and NGOs such as the Human Rights Watch keep pushing European governments to reconsider repatriation, especially of the children of imprisoned ISIL fighters.

What happens to captives and their families?

As of present, most European countries tend to decide against repatriation of ISIL fighters.

On Friday, the Swiss government decided not to seek repatriation of Swiss jihadists. For those below the age of 18, Switzerland would examine it on a case-by-case basis, while considering the child's welfare. The Swiss government said on Friday that it would "support" local authorities in ensuring ISIL fighters underwent trial according to international standards and justified its decision against repatriation by citing the need to prioritize the safety of its population.

The UK debated expatriation in some cases, arguing that by joining ISIL, the fighters have renounced their citizenship.

A camp where detained ISIL families are held is seen in Ain Issa in the Syrian northern Kurdish region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), February 15, 2018. /VCG Photo

A camp where detained ISIL families are held is seen in Ain Issa in the Syrian northern Kurdish region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), February 15, 2018. /VCG Photo

However, some countries show more willingness to repatriate. Euronews reported that Macedonia took back seven fighters in August 2018. France considers repatriation on a "case-by-case" basis of 130 men and women, it said in January. Germany is said to be in talks with France, the UK and U.S. on the matter, DW reported. Belgium, who has the most fighters, is in talks with Syrian Kurds about repatriation.

For those facing trial in Iraq and Syria, they are likely to face a death or life sentence. Most European countries have worked out a plan to repatriate the children of ISIL fighters, while for the women, it is more difficult to prove that they have not been involved with group.

What are Europe's concerns?

From a legal dimension, collecting evidence for the militants' trial might be difficult once the foreign fighters have left former ISIL-held territory. From a security angle, European governments fear that the jihadists might radicalize other inmates or even plan terrorist attacks. The Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015 and 2016 have been linked to ISIL.

 "European governments refusing‍ to take the ISIL fighters back is not a solution."

Another concern of European authorities is that allowing ISIL fighters back would stir up public anger.

"These extremists, young people from Western countries, have caused enormous damage to the Iraqi and Syrian people, while they have also caused fear in the West," Gu Zhenglong, a researcher at the World Studies Center of Xinhua specialized in the Middle East, told CGTN. "But European governments refusing to take them back or even debating whether to retract their citizenship is not a solution."

 A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard on top of a building in the frontline Syrian village of Baghouz, February 17, 2019. /VCG Photo

 A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard on top of a building in the frontline Syrian village of Baghouz, February 17, 2019. /VCG Photo

Gu argued that the responsibility of handling the foreign fighters should not be pushed on Syria and Iraq alone, as it would only make the situation in the region more dangerous. The international community has yet to take concrete steps in the establishment of an international court dealing with the matter of foreign ISIL jihadists.

"Therefore, it is the responsibility of each country to prosecute their respective jihadists or possibly provide rehabilitation and reintegration programs," Gu said.

(Top image: A man suspected of being an ISIL fighter is searched by a member of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after leaving the ISIL's last holdout of Baghouz, February 27, 2019. /VCG Photo)