The challenge of returning foreign fighters affects the whole of Europe. France adopted a clear-cut unofficial policy of outsourcing, asking Iraq to prosecute French fighters to keep them away from Europe. In fact, the issue of returnees cannot be swept under the carpet and needs a proper strategy that combines prosecution and de-radicalization.
France is not only the EU country with the largest number of jihadist terrorist attacks (42) between 2014 and 2018, but also the country with the largest number of suspects arrested for jihadist terrorism in the same interval (1640). The significant amount of detentions is certainly due to the state of emergency declared between 2015 and 2017, following the deadly attacks in Paris, which gave exceptional powers to the Interior Ministry and law enforcement agencies. In 2017, a new counter terrorism law encouraged by President Emmanuel Macron, the no. 1510, replaced the state of emergency and restricted some of the special provisional measures.
Since when the civil war erupted in Syria and the hybrid conflict expanded to Iraq, approximately 5,000 individuals from the EU travelled to that area. France is by far the European country with the largest amount of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) as well, reaching almost two thousand recruits. As data point out, France is deeply concerned by returnees who joined the so-called Islamic State (IS) or other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. A recent study of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism highlights also the role of almost 30 French soldiers who radicalized and joined jihadist organizations, including IS, between 2012 and 2018. From 2016, military intelligence is struggling to monitor and identify potential radicals within the French armed forces, who could provide their knowledge and support to terrorist cells.
At the beginning of 2019, EU citizens still in Syria and Iraq appeared to be less than 2,000, and France had the largest number with around 710 individuals, followed by the United Kingdom. However, according to another study of the Egmont Institute, in October 2019 the adults from EU countries detained in Syria were around 400-500, the children around 700. Within this set, the largest group is French, with 130 adults and 270-320 children.
Based on the findings of the European Parliament Research Service, out of France’s estimated 1,910 departees, 225 had returned by late February 2018, a return rate of 12%. For France, the ratio of women to men is significantly higher among returnees than departees: approximately 17% departees are women (320 of 1910), while figures from February 2018 suggest that around 72 of the 256 returnees are women (28%). Data from other sources suggest similar figures, with 302 fighters who have returned to France in 2018.
So far, the approach of European governments, including the French one, to the issue of their nationals detained in Syria and Iraq was to “outsource” the problem, asking Kurdish and Iraqi authorities to prosecute them. This strategy might be successful in the short term but will prove detrimental to European security in the mid-long term. Indeed, following the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria, several IS detainees already managed to escape from the YPG-held detention camps. In the past, mass jailbreaks of jihadists occurred in Iraq as well.
In October 2019, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian traveled to Baghdad to persuade the local government to take custody and prosecute about 60 French jihadists detained in Syrian camps. Iraqi courts had already sentenced to death 12 French nationals for fighting with IS. Despite attending the trial, the French diplomatic mission did not intervene. None of the 12 has been executed yet. On 9 December 2019, Turkey deported eleven French nationals: four women and seven children. Two of the women are facing an arrest warrant for terrorism charges and the other two are being monitored by counter terrorism police.
Just two days after the visit of Le Drian in Iraq, French counter terrorism judge David De Pas publicly argued that repatriation is the best solution, not because of humanitarian reasons or the risk of death penalty, but rather because the best way to keep the country safe is having the fighters in the French judicial system. However, the lack of evidence might prevent authorities from prosecuting them. In other circumstances, such as the case of French jihadist Adrien Guihal, who was arrested in Syria and allegedly has connections with the 2016 Nice terror attack, Paris should be interested in bringing him back.
Some argued that France was a jihadist target because of its interventionism in the Middle East and Africa. While this was certainly a good ex-post justification for carrying out attacks, it is also logical that IS struck where it had available an operational network and recruits. Between 2014 and 2015, the so-called Islamic State managed to establish a vast structure in France and Belgium, led among others by the Belgian-Moroccan Abdelhamid Abaaoud, mastermind of the November 2015 Paris attacks and of multiple other plots, including the Thalys and Villejuif attack attempts and the plans of the Verviers cell. Part of the operatives who carried out the attacks were foreign fighters recruited by Abaaoud, they travelled back to France undetected via the Balkan route during the refugee crisis.
It is possible that returnees will try to attack French targets again, individually or in group, in particular those from the secret intelligence apparatus of IS called Amniyat, in charge of external operations and infiltrations abroad. The incessant threat of terrorist attacks has created in France a climate of hyper-vigilance, which might escalate in larger violence and confrontation with far-right extremists. Recently, President Macron called Bosnia “a ticking time bomb”, referring to the threat of returning foreign fighters and radical Islamists. His words sparked outrage and were met with indignation in the Bosnian public opinion, which reminded Macron that France has produced far more FTFs than Bosnia and has suffered more attacks compared to the Balkan countries and the rest of Europe.
Besides this, between 2018 and 2019 French prisons have released about 40 radicalized prisoners, who will pose a further security challenge combined with the arrival of returnees. According to some reports, IS detainees have imposed domination over common inmates and even Qaedist jihadists in some French prisons. Domestic intelligence has foiled attacks against prison guards, but in some other cases they were successful. This strategy might escalate with the presence of skilled returnees and veterans, it will require additional prison intelligence.
In conclusion, France should take serious measures to deal with the returning foreign fighters and their families, also considering rehabilitation and reintegration programs for the victims, otherwise social stigma and discrimination will radicalize many more vulnerable individuals.