Countries Around The World Face A Repatriation Dilemma As ISIS Loses Ground

Feb 19, 2019
Originally published on February 19, 2019 6:07 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As ISIS loses territory, countries around the world are faced with a growing dilemma. What do they do with their citizens who went off to Syria to join ISIS and now want to come home? And what about the women who went over and their children? In the same tweet in which President Trump announced that the caliphate was ready to fall, he urged European countries to take back hundreds of ISIS fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial. I spoke about this dilemma with terrorism expert Peter Neumann of King's College in London. He says European governments are taking different approaches.

PETER NEUMANN: The French have announced two weeks ago that they will take back 130 of their citizens all at once. Other countries have been more cautious. I think the Germans are currently trying to work out a procedure. Norwegians have announced that they will take back people, but they will not proactively bring them back. So they have to somehow make their own way. And once they arrive, they will take them back - so very different procedures. And every European country is currently trying to figure out what exactly to do.

CORNISH: I want to go back to something President Trump suggested, which is that these fighters should be put on trial. How realistic is that? Who's embracing that?

NEUMANN: I actually agree with that. I think they should be put on trial. What's made things complicated in the past is that quite often, there's not a lot of evidence of what they have actually done whilst they were in the so-called Islamic State. So in many cases, it is not currently possible to prosecute them for murders because, for example, there's no evidence.

CORNISH: Do you get the sense, though, that countries actually want to do this?

NEUMANN: So in Britain, for example, we've seen relatively few people that have been put on trial of 400 people that have returned over the past few years. We currently only have maybe 20 or 30 people on trial. I think in many cases, the authorities are happy to cooperate with people quietly. And if they don't have the feeling that they are going to return to terrorism, they are happy to use the information to roll up terrorist networks. I do think, however, if you're talking about greater numbers, I do think it will inevitable that more people will go on trial.

And by the way, this is also going to cause a problem with - a lot more convicted jihadists will populate European prison systems. And we do know that in the past, they have used these prison systems in order to radicalize other people. So it's not only about putting people on trial and creating the facilities for that. It's also about creating the capacities in the prison system to deal with increased numbers of people that are likely to come.

CORNISH: And the children you mentioned, and also their mothers - will they be treated any differently if they try and return home?

NEUMANN: The experience in many European countries is that it's been a lot more difficult to convict women because in most cases, they haven't been fighting. So there's no evidence to be found of them being involved in killings or beheadings or other atrocities. And so I would argue it's very important to work with women and to also create and put emphasis on reintegration programs for those women who are willing to cooperate.

Obviously, in the case of children, we often have a situation where we have children who are maybe 10 or 11 years old who are victims of the situation, who didn't get into send - Iraq out of their own choosing, but who are also - have been indoctrinated by ISIS and could potentially be dangerous. And that's why it's important not only to put the emphasis on prosecutions, but also to invest in social programs, psychological programs to reintegrate some of these highly traumatized children back into European societies.

CORNISH: We are expecting the president to basically declare that ISIS has fallen - right? - completely. Are there security concerns in that for countries who have taken back former ISIS fighters?

NEUMANN: I think it's certainly possible that it causes a response by lone attackers or people who are reading this and - so feeling inspired to make the point that it has not been fully beaten. There are still networks who currently are in a crisis of legitimacy and are perhaps looking for a reason to make a stand.

CORNISH: That's Peter Neumann. He is director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. That's at King's College in London. Thank you for speaking with us.

NEUMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.