The Regretful Jihadists of the Islamic State

The West is terrified of foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. But not all of them are trying to bring jihad with them.


On Sept. 24, as the U.N. Security Council prepared to adopt a resolution aimed at tackling the threat of foreign terrorist fighters around the world, French security services were wrapping up a "jihadist arrest" that seemed worthy of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

On Sept. 24, as the U.N. Security Council prepared to adopt a resolution aimed at tackling the threat of foreign terrorist fighters around the world, French security services were wrapping up a "jihadist arrest" that seemed worthy of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Three Frenchmen suspected of fighting with extremist groups in Syria finally arrived in Paris after briefly walking free due to a series of glaring mishaps that highlight the challenges confronting European authorities as they tackle the next step on the "jihadist tourism trail": the return of battle-hardened, radicalized EU nationals coming home from holy war.

The botched arrest of the three suspected jihadists began in Turkey, where they were initially detained after crossing the border from Syria. Abdelouahab El Baghdadi, Imad Djebali, and Gael Maurize, all French nationals hailing from southern French towns and cities, were supposed to arrive on Sept. 23 at Paris’s Orly Airport, where French security officials, alerted by their Turkish counterparts, were waiting to take them for questioning and start legal proceedings.

Instead, the trio landed hundreds of miles away, in the French port city of Marseille, after the pilot of the Paris-bound commercial flight refused to allow the men aboard because they lacked the necessary documents. French officials blamed their Turkish counterparts for a last-minute decision to put the terror suspects on a Marseille-bound flight without informing them.

But the mishaps to come were exclusively French. As intelligence officials waited at Orly Airport, the three unaccompanied men arrived at Marseille and sailed through passport control since the centralized security software was not working. Undaunted, the French Interior Ministry said the suspects had been arrested at Orly and were being questioned — only to backtrack when it became clear this was not the case.

The next part of the suspects’ return is pure jihadist satire material — a sort of French sequel to the Chris Morris comedy, Four Lions. According to lawyers for the three suspects, their clients were surprised to find no security official waiting for them upon their arrival at Marseille. So the trio rented a car at the airport, headed northeast toward Toulouse, their home city, and then tried to turn themselves in for questioning at a village police station along the way — only to find the police were away on their rounds.

The saga of three known jihadist suspects failing to voluntarily turn themselves in to French authorities continued until they reached the village of Le Caylar, around 150 miles east of Toulouse, where they finally surrendered to police and were then flown to Paris. Baghdadi, Djebali, and Maurize were then placed under formal investigation for criminal association with a terrorist group with the aim of planning terrorist acts. The three men admit to traveling to Syria, but deny having fought there or plotting terrorist attacks in France.

For French authorities, the bungled arrest was particularly embarrassing given the high profiles of the suspects. Baghdadi (no relation to self-declared Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) is the brother-in-law of infamous "Toulouse gunman" Mohamed Merah, who murdered seven people in three 2012 attacks before he was killed in a shootout with the police. The Merah family saga — as told by Abdelghani Merah, one of the brothers, in his book Mon Frère, Ce Terroriste (My Brother, the Terrorist) — is a dismal story of a broken immigrant family in France’s troubled banlieues (suburbs), with a largely absent father dealing drugs before abandoning the family for his native Algeria, leaving a single mother unable to cope with her children’s slide from petty crimes to Islamist extremism.

Djebali, a childhood friend of the Toulouse gunman, appears to hail from a similar background and was arrested in 2009 on terrorism charges. All three men were already under investigation in September 2013 in a case involving the so-called Artigat network of jihadists, named for the village in southern France where they were reportedly based.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, there have been similarly fraught attempts to return from the fighting in Syria and Iraq. Earlier this month, a group of British jihadists contacted a London-based anti-radicalization group to say they regretted joining a militant group in Syria affiliated with Islamic State (IS) and they wanted to come home. But, they said, they feared arrest.

"We came to fight the [Bashar al-Assad] regime and instead we are involved in gang warfare. It’s not what we came for but if we go back [to Britain] we will go to jail," a British national, who claimed to speak for about 30 disillusioned jihadists, told researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), according to the Times of London.

As the trickle of foreign fighters to Syria turned into a flood over the past year, Western and regional governments have fretted over the fallout from thousands of their citizens jumping on the Syria-bound jihadist bandwagon. But even as authorities are struggling to address the issue — releasing estimates of the numbers of their nationals in the region and setting up deradicalization programs — the jihadist tourism train has already started chugging its way home. The flow of fighters heading to and from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq has opened new legal fronts in their home countries, with governments rushing through measures to stem the tide of those heading for holy war on the one hand, and dealing with the returnees on the other. The debate is particularly intense in democratic countries, which have to balance security policies in a new era of terror threats with civil liberties. Western Europe, with its geographic proximity to the Middle East, its large immigrant communities of Arabic- and Turkish-speakers, its open borders, and the sheer numbers of its citizen-jihadists, is at the forefront of this legal tussle raging in many capitals across the world.

Home to Europe’s biggest Muslim community and source of the largest number of Western fighters in the Syria-Iraq conflict zone, France has the unenviable distinction of being ahead of the curve in the latest jihadist tourism trail. According to the French Interior Ministry, nearly 1,000 French nationals had traveled or are planning to travel to the region. In an interview with the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve noted that some jihadists who have returned home boast about their battlefield exploits and vow to go back on a second mission.

France felt the first blowback from the Syrian conflict on May 24, when Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national of Algerian origin, allegedly attacked the Brussels Jewish Museum in neighboring Belgium, killing four people. Four former French hostages, who were held by jihadists in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in 2013, have identified Nemmouche as one of their guards — a particularly sadistic one — while in captivity. The 29-year-old French jihadist’s journey back home underscores the difficulties European authorities face tracking terror suspects. A juvenile delinquent turned criminal, Nemmouche was convicted seven times between 2004 and 2009 for petty crimes. Just weeks after his December 2012 release from a French jail, a newly radicalized Nemmouche made his way to Syria, where he stayed for a year before going back to Europe via Turkey, transiting through Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand before landing in Frankfurt, where German officials alerted their French counterparts of his entry, according to the French daily Le Monde. But Nemmouche was not followed by the police and "on leaving the airport, he was able to go wherever he wanted and he had freedom of movement," a French judicial source told the newspaper.

In an attempt to tackle the terror threat, the French Senate on Oct. 16 approved a new anti-terror bill that would impose a six-month travel ban on individuals if "there are serious reasons to believe that someone is planning to travel abroad to take part in terrorist activities, war crimes or crimes against humanity … in conditions likely to jeopardize public security upon their return to French territory." Anyone placed under the order would have her or his passport and French identity card seized. (The suspect would also have the right to legal redress.)

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has outlined plans for a new law that would enable police to temporarily confiscate passports of suspected terrorists and would include measures to block suspected British terrorists from returning home.

The recent U.N. Resolution 2178 puts in place a broad international framework for dealing with foreign terrorist fighters. The resolution calls on member states to "ensure that any measures taken to counter terrorism [must] comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law." But how these principles are implemented is left up to member states. The resolution refers states to the findings of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a multinational initiative launched in 2011 by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which called on governments to "use evidence-based, individual-level risk assessment frameworks for returnees, evaluate their condition and establish appropriate engagement approaches accordingly."

Not all countries are pursuing the same hard line as Britain and France. Denmark is taking "soft-hands approach" to the issue of returning jihadists, with a new rehabilitation program unveiled in the country’s second-largest city, Aarhus, which protects Danish citizens in Syria from prosecution provided they do not carry out terrorist operations back home. The stakes for Denmark are high: With a population of 5.5 million, 4 percent of whom are Muslims, Denmark has Western Europe’s second-largest number of jihadist fighters per person, according to monitoring groups. Under the Danish initiative, the police force in Aarhus coordinates with welfare services to provide returning fighters treatment for battlefield wounds and psychological trauma without the threat of prosecution and without having to change their beliefs in what Dilly Hussain, a prominent British Muslim journalist, calls "core Islamic concepts like the Caliphate, jihad, and Shariah law."

The Danish model may sound great but it’s doubtful it will fully work at reintegrating returning jihadists: Deradicalization programs that have not tackled the underlying issues of Islamic extremism have had poor results. A much-touted Saudi program for veterans from the 2003-2011 anti-U.S. jihad in Iraq, for example, failed. Instead of addressing the reasons young Saudis went to fight in Iraq, such as unemployment or political disenfranchisement, the program featured clerics telling returning fighters that the desire to fight unbelievers wasn’t a problem — going to war without the consent of the Saudi government was. That’s an especially dubious strategy given the unpopularity of the Saudi monarchy among Islamists. 

Even as the press-averse Gulf kingdom was publicizing its deradicalization measures, some of the program’s alumni were plotting to cross the border into neighboring Yemen, where they went on to fill some of the top slots in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Indonesia, too, a deradicalization program after the 2002 Bali bombings instructed recruits on the minutiae of an "Islamically unjustifiable" war against the "near enemy" at home. But a jihad against the "far enemy" (the West) was deemed "Islamically correct."

Clearly, deradicalization programs have not rid the world of jihadist threats, of course. But with thousands of foreign fighters embroiled in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, a purely hard-line approach will not solve the problem either, especially in countries like France, where prisons are hotbeds of radicalization.

One of the few bright spots in the latest wave of the jihadist tourism trail is the growing disenchantment of some fighters in the Syria-Iraq conflict, where they have found themselves thrown into a war that is dirtier than anything they had ever imagined, where the religious authoritarianism is stricter than anything they have experienced, and the violence between jihadist groups is too brutal for comfort. Lawyers for the three suspected French jihadists who were finally arrested in Paris last month say their clients decided to hand themselves over to Turkish police because they feared they IS would kill them over spying allegations. Once in Turkey, they volunteered to turn themselves in to French authorities.

Returnee jihadists can be valuable sources of intelligence, as security officials know well. As former British counterterror chief Richard Barrett has argued, rather than being given lengthy jail terms, disillusioned fighters should be allowed to return so they can deter others from joining the jihad abroad. This would not work, of course, for hardened criminal-jihadists such as Nemmouche. The challenge, for Western governments, is to hammer out a balanced approach. History has shown that purely hard-line approaches to returning jihadist fighters only backfire: Ill-conceived policies imposed by Arab dictators and monarchs in the past set the stage for future security threats. Many of al Qaeda’s leaders found themselves in Egyptian prisons after returning from Afghanistan in the 1990s.

In the end, there are few good solutions. But the worst would be a hard-line response that compromises the principles of justice and human rights that mark a free society. Because if that happens, we will only be providing the likes of IS their dream vision of a continuing, ongoing fight between the global soldiers of their so-called caliphate and a hypocritical, avenging West.

Leela Jacinto is an award-winning international news reporter at France 24 specializing in the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @leelajacinto

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