This was originally published on 24 October by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading foreign policy think tank.
In counter-terrorism, it sometimes feels like every silver lining has a cloud. While the Mosul offensive is making steady progress into the Islamic State-controlled city, this success risks triggering the movement of IS fighters from Iraq and Syria to Europe and beyond.
Even if an immediate mass exodus of IS fighters to Europe is very unlikely, those that do leave Iraq and Syria over the coming months will pose a serious threat, particularly in Europe where the returning foreign fighter problem has been described as the biggest current security issue.
Beyond the obvious threat posed by individuals with experience fighting for a terrorist organisation, there are three elements that make their return so challenging.
First, foreign fighters may potentially return home undetected; the Paris and Brussels attacks made it clear what consequences this could have. Second, even when their arrival is identified, their motivations for returning are unclear. And finally, even when arrests are made, securing a conviction for terrorist offences might prove difficult, partially due to a lack of admissible evidence and partially because many of the terrorist offences introduced since 2012 remain untested in court.
It is still unclear how many fighters will return home. As Islamic State crumbles, fighters are unlikely to behave as a homogenous group. This splintering of the threat into multiple locations and/or groups might make it even less predictable and more difficult to track.
For national governments, knowing which of their foreign fighter contingent will choose which route will be difficult. Attempting to address this uncertainty by monitoring groups and individuals in multiple locations will require intelligence and security agencies to expend a large amount resources.
Which is why now might be the time for governments to consider a more proactive approach to shaping the foreign fighter outflow – specifically through a foreign fighter ‘amnesty’ or plea bargain scheme.
Its broad aim would be to repatriate those foreign fighters disillusioned with the jihadist cause and keen to return home, but prevented from doing so by fear of a long prison sentence or their inability to leave the Middle East.
From the outset, a scheme would need to be clear and unambiguous. It would not be a ‘get out of jail free’ card. While significant prison time would be non-negotiable, it could offer a reduced sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt against one or a range of terrorist offences. The deal could include further mandated requirements, such as public renunciation of IS and their ideology, participation in CVE and de-radicalisation programmes or cooperation with intelligence agencies.
This is undoubtedly difficult territory for any government to work in. They have rightly warned their populations of the threat posed by returning foreign fighters, and thus any government that encourages their return and offers sentencing leniency is likely to face immediate public backlash. So why should any government consider such a proposal?
Firstly, it would remove the uncertainty around the who, when, how, and why of returnees. The foreign fighters that accepted the deal would be returning at a time and manner of the government’s choosing. And even if their long-term motivations remained unclear, they would have signed up to meaningful prison time.
The plea bargain would also allow a government to reliably convict and imprison those returning foreign fighters. There would be no guarantees of post-release behaviour, but the threat they posed would at least be put on hold. And while in prison, their activities could be more easily monitored to assess future intent. They would be a potential threat, but a known, identifiable and manageable one.
Simultaneously, this would make the unknown foreign fighter threat smaller. By peeling off the less-committed parts of the network, authorities could be more certain those that remained required their full attention.
And from a counter-narrative perspective, dozens of foreign fighters defecting from ISIS (not to their rivals, but to prison in the West) would be a damning and hopefully influential indictment of the ISIS movement.
The scheme would need to tread an extremely fine line; offering sufficient incentives to attract disillusioned fighters, but not making it a viable option for sleeper cells seeking to conduct terrorist attacks in future.
Realistically, a scheme along these lines is unlikely to be overwhelmed by applications from foreign fighters. We don’t know what proportion of the remaining cohort would be amenable to returning home, and any such individuals may decide to take their chances with the existing criminal justice system.
But given the risk and resource implications of the status quo, even the removal of a small number of foreign fighters from the battlefield would be worthwhile. And with Europe and much of the West facing a generation-long struggle against this threat, any scheme that makes countering it easier is surely worth considering.