Though the Islamic State is vanquished in Syria and Iraq, European governments face a major challenge from the terrorist group’s European elements, who, once back home, are likely to turn their attention to attacks on the continent.
Compared to the United States, far more Islamic State (ISIS) extremists from Europe have returned to their home countries and with far more devastating effect, as cities such as Paris, Nice and Berlin have experienced.
With as many as 1,000 ISIS European passport holders captured by Kurdish militias in eastern Syria in recent months, where they will end up is far from clear.
Several proposals that would see European fighters prosecuted and remain in Syria and Iraq have been tabled. Iraq said it would happily put on trial Europe’s undesirables but wants $2 million per jihadist in return — a sum that could run to billions of dollars and an idea not likely to be seriously considered. Syrian Kurds suggested creating an international tribunal in their territory to prosecute the fighters.
Trying hundreds of Europe’s jihadists in Iraq or Kurdish-controlled Syria is not a feasible option for a host of reasons, in part because it would create a maelstrom of controversy at home among human rights groups and legal authorities fearful of the punishment the extremists — European citizens — may be subjected to.
Europe’s unwillingness to take back its extremists, despite the US government in February pushing it to do exactly that, centres on the fact that its courts would be unable to properly prosecute them since evidence collected from their wrongdoings in Syria and Iraq might be inadmissible in European courts. In that event, trials of suspected terrorists would likely quickly collapse, resulting in farce and fuelling terrorist groups’ morale.
Even if some jihadists were prosecuted in Europe, the problems wouldn’t necessarily stop. As academic Jytte Klausen highlighted in Foreign Affairs in December: “European punishments are lax by American standards: those convicted of terrorism-related offences receive only five years on average and many are released before serving their full prison terms.
“Authorities in France warn that by the end of 2019 French prisons will release 500 terrorists and prisoners known to have been radicalised in prison. In the United Kingdom, half of the nearly 200 terrorist inmates sent to prison since 2009 will be released by 2019. Among jihadists, recidivism is high.”
While the fighters remain imprisoned in north-eastern Syria, the complexities associated with figuring out what to do with them means that they may escape or be released, free to cross into Turkey and onward to Europe.
Interpol Secretary-General Jurgen Stock expressed worry over this, calling this cohort of fighters “ISIS 2.0.” “We could soon be facing a second wave of other Islamic State-linked or radicalised individuals,” he said in December.
Ankara detains dozens of people trying to illegally enter Greece and Bulgaria every week. Many others, some among them jihadists, evade detection and return to Germany, France and elsewhere.
While the focus is on ISIS, it would be a mistake to forget that there are thousands of other European passport-carrying extremists in Syria’s Idlib who are also likely to cross into Turkey when the Syrian Army attacks the province, as is expected in the coming months.
That means dozens, perhaps hundreds, of battle-hardened fighters may make their way back to Europe through covert means.
With no road map for prosecuting European fighters forthcoming, Kurdish groups interning them may soon lose patience and walk away, leaving the jihadists to go free. That would breathe new life into ISIS and present a new threat to Europe.
Though it has been shorn of territory, ISIS lives and breathes on chat forums and file-sharing sites in the dark corners of the internet and in prisons across the continent. Its only remaining purpose — and position of strength — is to strike terror into Europe and countries it deems enemies. ISIS is biding its time and, though it may be down today, it’s certainly not out.
Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).
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