September 10, 2019
IntelBrief: The EU Makes Progress in Prosecuting Foreign Fighters, But More Needs to Be Done
One of the most significant challenges facing countries seeking to return foreign fighters to their home countries to prosecute them is the difficulty of obtaining evidence of crimes committed on the battlefield. Thousands of people from the European Union (EU) and around the globe traveled to Iraq and Syria to join and fight alongside the so-called Islamic State. Many of these militants committed horrific crimes, while others provided crucial support functions—all should be brought to justice and sentenced accordingly. To date, many countries, especially those in Europe, have been reluctant to take back their respective citizens (including young children) currently detained in Syria or Iraq. This myopia is due in part to domestic political pressure against repatriation but also the perceived difficulty of prosecuting some of these returnees.
By creating a common database for all 28 members to work with, the EU has taken a meaningful step to address the challenge of prosecuting foreign fighters for their crimes. The database is geared toward leveraging the power of the many disparate investigations into individuals who have either returned or remain in detention in Syria and Iraq. Until now, these investigations were primarily pursued in isolation by each country individually, leading to problems of redundancy, duplicated efforts, and an inability to draw upon a more comprehensive intelligence assessment of existing data. The new database seeks to alleviate these and other related issues. For example, French officials looking into the alleged crimes of one of their citizens should now have access to the intelligence and information reports of the 27 other member nations. Given how the foreign fighters have exploited the ease of travel across the EU without detection, it is fitting that the 28 members now leverage the transfer of crucial counterterrorism information without borders or cumbersome protocols.
Immense challenges still exist in terms of utilizing available evidence to prove the crimes of foreign fighters to the degree that will be acceptable in a court of law. The international community should also not ignore the Iraqis and Syrians who suffered first-hand from the brutality of these foreign fighters. The EU is considering how it can support Iraq with prosecuting terrorism suspects, both Iraqi and foreign. At present, the Iraqi judicial system is overwhelmed, suffering from issues related to due process and transparency. Creating a database and offering assistance to Iraq are both necessary but not sufficient steps to deal with the crisis unfolding in detainee camps in Syria, including al Hol camp. EU countries and others need to move with a greater sense of urgency to repatriate their citizens and place them, when warranted, on trial.
The Islamic State is not defeated, even as the territorial caliphate has collapsed. Its fighters have gone underground in Iraq and Syria, and its affiliates and franchises overseas are proliferating as it expands its reach. The dynamics that helped fuel the emergence of IS are still relevant, and the deplorable conditions in detention camps like al-Hol only exacerbate the issue and contribute to the legitimacy of the IS narrative. While there is no international consensus on how to deal with returning foreign fighters, creating a generation of stateless people is not the answer—it will merely fuel the cycle of terrorism that has been playing out in the Middle East for decades. A common database, while a good start, does not go far enough. Countries should take their citizens back, prosecute them, and develop rehabilitation programs to break the cycle of terrorism, investing more now rather than paying a greater price in future generations.
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