Governments ponder what to do with returning militants

PARIS (AFP) – The imminent fall of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria has left many countries grappling with what to do with militants who want to return.

Several hundred foreign militants are being detained by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main fighters on the ground combating the Islamic State. Added to them are women who have not taken part in the fighting and children.

Their home countries include Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia – as well as France, Britain, Germany and Belgium.

Around 50 French men and women, as well as 80 children, are being detained in Syria by the SDF.

Another 250 men were still at large in Syria in January 2019, along with women and children.

More than 300 French militants are believed to have been killed while fighting for the IS.

A US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter sits inside a tent atop a hill in the desert outside the village of Baghouz. US-backed Syrian forces are clearing two villages in eastern Syria of remaining Islamic State militants. – AP

The French authorities say they want to avoid the militants scattering and have raised the prospect of repatriating the 130 nationals currently in SDF hands.

Details of the operation are unclear.

Out of more than 400 Belgians who went to fight with the militants since 2012, around 150 were still active in Syria and Iraq in late 2018.

Added to them are some 160 children and adolescents born to at least one Belgian parent.

Belgium says it will help the repatriation of children younger than 10, as long as the link with one Belgian parent is proven. “For the others it is case by case,” the government said.

A third of the more than 1,050 militants who made the journey from Germany to Syria or Iraq have returned.

“All German citizens, including those suspected of having fought for the IS, have the right to return to Germany,” according to the foreign ministry.

By June 2018 almost 400 of the nearly 900 British militants who went to Iraq and Syria had returned, mainly women and children.

Forty have been prosecuted. Britain has also set up programmemes aimed at deradicalising the militants.

In January 2019, London estimated at 200 the number of British militants still in Iraq and Syria.

A top anti-terrorism official recently qualified their return as a “big national security threat”.

Nearly 4,500 Russian citizens went abroad to fight alongside “the terrorists”, the Russian security services said in early 2018. Some took their families with them.

Moscow has not announced plans to repatriate militants but since last year around 100 women and children have returned under a programmeme championed by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

In November 2018, however, Chechen activist Kheda Saratova accused Russia’s FSB security service of blocking attempts to bring back the remaining widows and children of Russian IS fighters.

“According to our organisation, there are over 2,000 of them left in Syria and Iraq,” Saratova, who is on Kadyrov’s human rights council, said at the time.

Out of the 300 militants from Kosovo who went to Iraq and Syria, 145, half of them women and children, are still there.

Under a new law, the militants face between five and 15 years prison on their return. Some 20 imams have been selected to carry out deradicalisation programmemes in prison.

In neighbouring Albania, 145 people, including women and children, went to militant zones between 2012 and 2014. The death of 23 of them has been confirmed and 45 have returned.

The Tirana authorities have carried out deradicalisation projects, including economic aid for returnees. Those recruiting militants face up to 18 years in prison.

In 2015, the number of Moroccans fighting alongside groups in Iraq and Syria was estimated at more than 1,600.

On their return they are systematically arrested, put on trial and jailed. Sentences range from 10-15 years.

More than 200 returnees had been prosecuted by mid-2018.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 Tunisian citizens are estimated to have gone to fight in militant organisations in Syria, Iraq and Libya.