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The great conundrum of foreign fighters who want to come home

There is widespread debate about what to do with foreign fighters who joined ISIS and other terrorist groups but now want to come back to their homelands in Europe and beyond. The issue gained prominence when Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, 19, who left the UK to join ISIS in Syria when she was 15.

Javid’s contention that he was permitted to do so because Begum was a dual national, and thus had not been rendered stateless, lost some weight when Bangladesh insisted she was not one of their citizens. The case was further complicated by the birth and death in a refugee camp of Begum’s son. Many argued that the UK authorities owed the helpless infant a duty of care as a British citizen, and Javid was widely criticized.

This debate will only intensify. ISIS finally lost the last territorial shred of its “caliphate” on Saturday, but as is usual with terrorist groups it is likely to morph into new forms. The question of what to do with foreign fighters is significant. As many as 400,000 may have joined various groups in Syria and Iraq. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London, estimated last year that nearly 42,000 may want to return to their homelands. Fighters and their families have been streaming into refugee camps from Baghouz, ISIS’s last stronghold.

Governments have to weigh up the legitimate security concerns of their population against the human rights of their wayward nationals. International law is clear. A country can strip people of their citizenship only if they have dual or multiple nationalities. But what if the other countries do not accept the right to citizenship, as was the case with Shamima Begum and Bangladesh?

The UK is not the only country debating this issue. The parliaments of Germany, France, Switzerland and others are doing so. Under Swiss law, the government may revoke the Swiss citizenship of a dual national whose actions harm the country or its reputation. Swiss Interior Minister Karin Keller Suter is a strong advocate of leaving these people where they joined the terrorist organizations, to face trial and punishment there. She argues that her prime responsibility is to guarantee the security of the Swiss people. Other European interior ministers take similar views. Russia is reluctant to take fighters back, especially since they usually come from places such Dagestan or Chechnya, which pose security risks for Moscow.

US President Donald Trump has urged Europeans to take back their fighters and deal with them in their own judicial systems, on the ground that they would be a far greater security risk if they were allowed to remain in Syria or Iraq. He has a point, especially since neither Syria nor Iraq has the legal infrastructure to deal with them. It will become even trickier when US forces leave Syria, where fighting in one form or another is bound to continue for some time. The former head of public prosecutions in England and Wales, Lord Macdonald, argues that stripping people (especially children) of citizenship is not the solution, and that the world will not be a safer place with stateless and radicalized people roaming it.

While governments prioritize security over human rights, Trump and Lord Macdonald have a point: It is better to take these fighters back, put them through the domestic justice system and keep a close eye on them. They would be far more dangerous if they were allowed to travel the world with no passports and bad intentions. This may sound counterintuitive, but taking foreign fighters back probably keeps the rest of us safer than would leaving them where they are and hoping for the best.