The beginning of the Syrian armed conflict marked the start of an unprecedented outflow of foreign fighters from the Western Balkans to the Middle East. As of the end of 2019, about 1,070 nationals of Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, and Montenegro had traveled to Syria and Iraq. Although arguably motivated by a variety of reasons, most of them ended up joining jihadist militias and designated terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra.
In mid-November 2019 Turkey deported two women suspected of having supported the Islamic State (IS) in Syria to their country of origin: Germany. One of them, 21 year old Nasim A. was arrested immediately after her arrival at Frankfurt airport. According to media reports, she had left Germany in 2014 to join the terrorist organization. She reportedly married one of its fighters. In early 2019 she had been arrested by Kurdish security forces and had spent time in the now notorious prison camp al-Hawl.
That so-called foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) from Switzerland joined Jihadi insurgent groups abroad is a relatively new phenomenon as only a handful of individuals participated in conflicts such as in Afghanistan or Iraq prior to the outbreak of the Syrian War.
For some years following the unleash of internal wars in Mali and Syria, particularly between 2013 and 2016, a considerable amount of the jihadists residing in Spain were more inclined to go and become foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) in a conflict zone, or settle there with no operational aims, than to stay inside the country and engage in terrorism-related activities domestically. This remarkable inclination was neither yet evidenced on 2012 nor observed any longer on 2017.
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.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have attracted over 40,000 foreign fighters, who have travelled to these countries to join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other armed groups.
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.
“Would you like some nice ISIS fighters?”, US president Donald Trump asked French president Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the NATO leaders meeting in London this month. “I can give them to you”. Macron didn´t think it was funny. “Come on, let’s be serious”, he replied. The awkward exchange between the two leaders was emblematic of the wider question at hand; should countries take back their foreign terrorist fighters? And if so, what would that mean for their national security?
For a few years, the return of experienced jihadi fighters from the Levant was perceived as the main threat to Belgium. With hindsight, the 2016 Brussels attacks were the last operation prepared and staged by the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Europe, involving returnees. With the disintegration of IS’s caliphate, the threat posed by the group has evolved significantly. Returnees are no longer the sole – or even main – concern of security services.