Should Governments Offer Amnesty to Returning Foreign Fighters?

4 Nov 2016

With the increasing success of local and international military forces closing in on Mosul, the demise of so-called Islamic State (IS) is seen as an inevitable event, one that may happen sooner rather than later. Although wiser commentators are cautioning that it is far too soon to plan IS’ funeral, it is nonetheless accepted that the end of this phase of terrorism will leave us with a new problem: what to do with the thousands of foreign fighters, Western and otherwise, who may survive the current war and return to wreak havoc in their homelands.

According to research by Thomas Hegghammer, in historical conflicts involving mujahideen approximately 1 in 9 fighters survives to plan and execute terrorist acts in their original countries. We have already seen IS veterans from Syria and Iraq take part in terrorist attacks in the West. There is every likelihood that we will see more. European security services are already bracing for the probability of future planned incidents.

Aside from the worries over foreign fighter involvement in terrorism, states are struggling with what to do with other returnees. Some will come back traumatised, some will be wounded, some may want to disown IS and its barbarity and still some may be keen to radicalise others. Governments will have to consider a variety of strategies to deal with the phenomenon, unprecedented in recent history. In addition, the unprecedented number of female members with IS – previous jihads were not so “woman friendly” – will force states to develop programmes that can address issues that may be unique to women.

One idea that has been raised is the possibility of granting amnesty to certain returnees. Former UK and  Australian intelligence analyst David Wells has argued that this option should be considered, although he acknowledges the difficulties in making such a response work. Mr. Wells notes that such a programme would aid in repatriating foreign fighters disillusioned with IS but fearful of returning home to a long prison sentence or unable to leave the Middle East. Those granted amnesty would be asked to denounce IS publicly and perhaps cooperate with intelligence agencies.

The disadvantages and obstacles to an amnesty programme are probably insurmountable and are present on several levels. Three will be briefly discussed here: determining the true intent of returnees, determining what acts they were involved in while in theatre, and dealing with public reaction.

Taking the claims of foreign fighters at face value is not something security intelligence and law enforcement agencies will or should do. In my experience as a terrorism analyst, extremists are not always forthcoming with the truth and will hide their continued ties and dedication to terrorist ideologies. While it is probable that some will sincerely want to put their days with IS behind them, making that determination will be next to impossible to make. In light of the pressure on security and law enforcement agencies to be successful 100 per cent of the time, these will be reluctant to take the chance at recommending amnesty.

It is very hard to judge what foreign fighters were up to in Syria and Iraq. In limited cases, terrorists foolishly post videos and photos of their involvement in war crimes (beheadings, executions, etc.) and should these decide to make their way back home these online testaments could be used in the laying of charges. That evidence aside, it is unlikely that Western governments can or should collaborate with Syrian authorities to gather more information. In my country, Canada, any cooperation with the Syrian regime is a non-starter in light of two inquiries in which CSIS and the RCMP were slammed for sharing intelligence in the cases of the alleged torture of Canadians.

Any government which advocates amnesty would face immediate public criticism. The heinous acts of IS in particular are known to all, largely because the terrorist group has taken pride in showing its work to the world through the internet and social media. Public reaction to these acts has ranged from anger to fear and Western citizens are not going to support any plans to dismiss those who may have taken part in atrocities. Expectations will be placed on those governments to investigate and bring to trial terrorists who chose willingly to join IS.

Other conflicts that saw the involvement of what some would call terrorists eventually led to offers of amnesty. Some were successful: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation would be a good example. Others were less so: Colombians recently narrowly rejected a peace plan that would have brought an end to that country’s 50-year civil war in part because many felt that FARC terrorists would not have been sufficiently punished for their crimes.

The problem of what to do with nationals who survive the war in the Levant and return home after having fought with IS and other terrorist groups will be with us for some time. Not all returnees will present a clear and present danger to their countries but figuring out which ones are of concern will task security intelligence and law enforcement organisations. Societies expect their protectors to stop possible attacks and will not accept failure.

The arguments made in favour of such a strategy – such as getting formers to denounce IS – are not strong enough to offset the need to punish those who joined a barbaric terrorist group and supported a campaign of death and destruction not just in the Levant but across the West. Countries where amnesties have worked took place in divided nations: this is not the case for foreign fighters. There are no “populations” where significant support for IS and IS fighters existed: hence no need for an amnesty to “clear the air” and help societies move on. Amnesty for IS fighters is thus probably a non-starter in the West.