September 27, 2018

IntelBrief: Uncertain Future for Released Terrorists and Returnees

German-Afghan Ahmad Wali Siddiqui gets taken off his foot cuffs at the beginning of his trail at a court in Koblenz, Germany (AP Photo/Michael Probst).
  • While dozens of convicted terrorists in the U.S. will be released over the next several years, the number is even higher in Europe.
  • There are widespread concerns that terrorists now in prison are radicalizing other inmates, which further complicates already pressing security challenges once these individuals are released.
  • Many European countries lack the resources to track, monitor and surveil ex-convicts with terrorism-related offenses after they are released from prison.
  • The issue of whether or not to accept citizens who want to return home after leaving their countries of origin to fight for or otherwise support the Islamic State crisscrosses legal, moral, and ethical seams.


Over the next several years, dozens of U.S. citizens currently incarcerated as a result of terrorism prosecutions are scheduled to be released. In Europe, the numbers of soon-to-be released terrorists are far higher, and their challenges are perhaps more complex than those facing American officials. Due to the large number of people who have been radicalized in prison, special accommodations are now made to separate terrorists from the general inmate population in many places, yet the problem is still widespread and it is difficult to gauge the ‘lag effect’ of radicalized individuals once they are released. Accordingly, an unknowable question is: when these individuals serve their sentences and are released back into society, what kind of threat might they pose?

The capabilities needed to track, monitor and surveil individuals suspected of radicalization are immense and the mission itself seems somewhat unrealistic. European authorities acknowledge that their already finite resources have been stretched thin by the sheer volume of potential suspects that need to be identified and tracked. The U.S.-led coalition to counter the so-called Islamic State (IS) has scrutinized captured computers, documents and cellphones to put together a global profile of IS members and sympathizers, a list with approximately 19,000 names on it that has been shared with Interpol.

There are approximately 3,000 suspected members of IS awaiting trial in Iraq. It is estimated that more than 100 of them are Europeans. Prosecuting terrorist crimes within Syria and Iraq is a contentious issue. There is also the consideration of how courts in states in the West can prosecute terrorist crimes that have been committed by its citizens while they were living inside IS territory. There have already been convictions of this kind in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Norway and Holland, with fighters prosecuted for crimes including attempted travel to Syria, recruitment, planning of an attack, and ‘terroristic murder.’ Further, it is entirely conceivable that in some instances, crimes committed in Syria and Iraq by European nationals could qualify as war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Dealing with the issue of prosecuting cases of terrorism is therefore fraught with challenges. Complex cases can be lengthy and time-consuming, while also depleting finite resources necessary for other criminal justice issues. There are a number of unique circumstances facing courts in Western countries for prosecuting those citizens who have made it back home, as well as for the massive influx of Iraqi and Syrian migrants into Europe, some of whom might be victims, witnesses, or perpetrators of various crimes, to include terrorism. So far, at least, it appears that many Western countries do not want to deal with their citizens who have been apprehended on the battlefield and are now being held in other countries. But if these individuals are left to be prosecuted in Syria or Iraq, there are legitimate concerns that their prosecutions will not meet the standards of the courts in their home countries, and that the trials will be politicized.

The issue of whether or not to accept citizens who want to return home after leaving their countries of origin to help establish the caliphate crisscrosses legal, moral, and ethical seams. The governments of European countries are opposed to the death penalty, so leaving citizens of their country in Iraq and Syria is a dilemma, given concerns about the likelihood of receiving a fair trial. The issue of how to deal with potential returnees has become a political lightning rod in many Western countries. In the meantime, many wives and children of IS fighters remain in limbo, as thousands languish in detainee camps throughout northern Syria while decisions on their fates are postponed indefinitely.


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