In my previous post, I discussed the military defeat of ISIS and questioned what comes next. While I contend they’ll continue to transition to insurgent-style tactics in failed or fragile states, a related security challenge is the return of militant Islamist foreign fighters to their country of origin. It is likely that the next phase - and possibly the next few years - of conflict against ISIS will see law enforcement and intelligence agencies facing an increased domestic security operational tempo.
The challenge is, as the Lowy Institute’s Khalil and Shanahan note, foreign fighters return with paramilitary training, combat experience, a network of like-minded individuals and possibly the desire to undertake acts of violence against society. The threats foreign fighters represent are well-established and well-researched. My intention is not to revisit the debate, but to highlight the importance of fair and transparent legal processes when dealing with foreign fighters. Failure to uphold these standards contributes to ISIS' narratives of such processes as prejudiced and corrupt. After all, the foundation of the Islamic State is sovereignty, and Baghdadi’s imagined ‘caliphate’ requires instability and injustice elsewhere to establish its legitimacy.
Coalition-sponsored Iraqi security forces have been filmed undertaking extrajudicial killing of ISIS prisoners. Kurdish forces have been accused of torturing boys (as young as 11) they believed to be members of ISIS. Western political leaders, from the UK to France and Australia, have become increasingly vocal about their preference for foreign fighters to be killed in action, rather than return home. On social media, Twitter pundits have weighed in, most recently advocating for the bombing of a convoy of buses in Syria containing ISIS combatants, women, and children.
Such attitudes are understandable given the atrocities ISIS has committed. However, they are problematic. They don’t necessarily provide a deterrent for foreign fighters who either have, or will, return home. Collectively, they align with broader ISIS storylines alleging a clear ‘us and them’ dichotomy is prevalent in government and society - it can’t be trusted.
Formally recognized Coalition military partners are perceived by the public as Coalition extensions. They are therefore expected to uphold the same Rules of Engagement and Law of Armed Conflict - even though those Rules may differ as each member uses its owns methods to contribute to the agreed endstate. When rape, torture and human rights violations occur, it erodes the credibility of the Coalition in the court of public opinion. Publicly elected officials in democratic societies have a responsibility to uphold the Rule of Law and to ensure it’s applied equitably to their constituents. When they advocate openly for the death of their citizens, they inadvertently support Baghdadi’s claim that western governments seek only the death, imprisonment, or homelessness of his followers. This is a wicked problem.
To date, Governments have focussed on stemming the flow to the so-called Caliphate. Highlighting that death is a near certainty fits within this deterrence narrative. The collapse of ISIS’ area of physical control, however, poses a different problem for governments. Deterring impressionable or misguided individuals from travelling to Iraq and Syria is no longer the issue. What they do next is the key concern. If ISIS taught us nothing else in the past few years, it’s that they are prolific exploiters of social media. Twitter ire and clever hashtags take less than a minute to generate, but provide long-term recruitment propaganda: they remind returned foreign fighters that they will never fit within society and should therefore strike it at its heart.
The reality is legal systems and processes evolve slowly. Numerous laws were put in place after the Spanish Civil War - renowned for its foreign fighters - and many States have either introduced, or revised, legislation to cover dual-citizenship, passport cancellation, and travel restrictions in an effort to stem the flow and risk of returned foreign fighters. However, these systems require testing and adjusting. At some stage, a foreign fighter, such as Australian Neil Prakash who is currently being held in Turkey, needs to be returned to his country of origin to face a very fair and very public trial. A clear demonstration of western legal capability from arrest to trial, conviction, rehabilitation and reintegration, will likely debase the aforementioned ISIS narratives. Without combatting their narrative assertions about the legitimacy of western legal systems and processes, much of our military success could be nullified.