Putting off the decision of what to do with returnees has, so far, been the most conspicuous attitude of the Portuguese government and of national security authorities when questioned about the plan to deal with the repatriation and return of relatives of Portuguese jihadists detained in Syria, in the wake of the collapse of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Lisbon, just like most other European countries, has delayed for much too long the issue of dealing with its citizens who joined the Islamic State group. Arguably, a “cloak of silence” has fallen over the issue since early 2018, when, for the first time, the director of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) aired the possible return of Portuguese women and children living in IS’s territories.
The number of Portuguese jihadists was around 20, but most of them are dead. The striking feature about Portuguese volunteers to jihad is that the overwhelming majority are converts that were radicalised abroad, not at home. Most Portuguese recruits to jihad were brought up as Catholics. A group of them has family roots in former Portuguese African colonies. This group – the so-called Leyton or London group – comprises five men who emigrated to London on different dates, starting from the early 2000s. They are descendants of families of immigrants that settled in the region of Greater Lisbon and subsequently moved to London where they converted to Islam. The second group lived in other European countries, namely France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, for longer than they lived in Portugal. Many also held dual nationalities from other European countries.
In facing the issue of returnees, Portuguese intelligence officials said that a case-by-case assessment would be conducted in order to ascertain the type and level of intervention or support to be adopted, without going any further in detailing the strategy, means, or entities involved. All in all, there are presently two dozen children with Portuguese parents in the various detention camps controlled by Kurdish forces. To which one must add about eight women, some of whom have already publicly asked for help to return to Portugal. There are still at least two Portuguese jihadists detained in Kurdish-controlled prisons. The most dangerous, Nero Saraiva, was a foremost IS fighter, involved in the kidnapping of journalists Jeroen Oerlemans and John Cantlie in July 2012. As for Steve Duarte, he is the son of Portuguese immigrants in Luxembourg. The jihadist's detention could have relevant implications and will confront the Portuguese government with a problem that, until now, did not exist: the possibility of having to deal with a dangerous terrorist, who spent eight years on a stage of conflict. That would be a game-changer.
Authorities reckon that, regardless of the political decision that may be taken on this matter, this will perhaps be the next major collective challenge, requiring close coordination between security forces and services, judicial authorities, and other entities and organisations to protect the most vulnerable elements – particularly children – while ensuring, simultaneously, a clear identification of the profile and serious threat posed by each adult and their prosecution. Portuguese foreign affairs minister, Augusto Santos Silva, says that the government is aware of all the issues involved, but talks about a “very complex” question that “cannot be easily resolved”. He says that, as Portuguese citizens, all those people are entitled to the consular protection of Portugal, but there are other dimensions that need to be taken into account. The main one concerns Portuguese national security and, secondly, Portugal’s obligations as a member of the international anti-IS coalition, and as a member of the EU and of NATO.
Officials have called for “multidisciplinary reintegration programmes,” similar to those put in place in other countries, that go beyond security measures to prevent the risk of new radicalisations. Portuguese authorities acknowledge the need for multidisciplinary programmes that develop a sense of integration, that seek to detect and prevent situations at an early stage, that raise citizens' awareness, that build the resilience of communities, creating and spreading counter-narratives with the participation of the school community, prisons, social networks, civil society organisations, religious leaders and decentralized state entities, such as local authorities. Such measures would combine prevention, counter-terrorism measures, and exit strategies. The Secretary-General of the Intelligence System of the Portuguese Republic (SIRP) argued that the children of Portuguese jihadists who joined IS are a special concern: they deserve an opportunity for reintegration, and a network should be created, involving various actors, to promote their de-radicalisation and reintegration.
Those measures should be part of the Plan for the Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism, foreseen in the National Strategy to Combat Terrorism, approved in 2015. The programme involves several entities, ranging from security forces and services to education, mental health, social security or victim support institutions, and is still being developed by the various bodies involved.
 Maria do Céu Pinto Arena (2018) “The Portuguese foreign fighters phenomenon: a preliminary assessment”, Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, 13:1, 93-114, DOI: 10.1080/18335330.2018.1432881.