Lorne L. Dawson, professor at the University of Waterloo, is director at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society.
From 2012-2016, a wave of mainly young men and women from around the world left to fight for Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and a host of other less known jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Ever since then, there has been a discussion about what to do with "returnees." How should we deal with those who return from this conflict?
On the BBC in October, Rory Stewart, International Development Minister in the U.K., surprised many by quite candidly saying "… I'm afraid we have to be serious about the fact these people are a serious danger to us, and unfortunately the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them." Many will certainly sympathize with this comment, but most countries in the world recognize that it is an unrealistic approach to a complex issue.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has made it clear that Canada will not be supporting "death squads" in Syria and Iraq. Rather, in agreement with most members of the G20, Canada recognizes that the returnee issue is best addressed using the programs for "countering violent extremism" (CVE) that are being developed by many of our allies. This is not a popular answer in some circles and, rightly enough, there is much misunderstanding about what it entails. But one thing that is certain, as is often said by security experts, "we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem."
Attempts to prosecute returnees can be notoriously difficult. It is nearly impossible to acquire the kind of evidence needed from the zones of conflict where it is assumed crimes have occurred. The Crown will be reluctant to proceed on weak cases for fear that losing will damage their chances of proceeding successfully with other, perhaps more significant, cases in the future. Maintaining 24-hour surveillance of returnees is not very feasible either – at least in most jurisdictions. The costs – in terms of labour and expenses – is simply exorbitant.
In the U.K., for example, security officials are dealing with more than 350 returnees while pursuing thousands of other terrorism-related investigations. In Canada, the number of returnees is proportionately smaller – perhaps a dozen serious cases – yet the costs of surveillance and prosecution are still prohibitively high. Any known returnees are going to be subject to extensive debriefing and some monitoring, and prosecution will happen when warranted and feasible. But in most cases, we need an alternative.
Research on European, North American and other Western jihadist returnees from previous conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and elsewhere indicates that about a third never return because they are killed, a third settle elsewhere (e.g., in other Muslim-majority countries), and about a third come home.
Most of those who come home are traumatized or disillusioned with the promises of the caliphate Islamic State created, and only a very few go on to commit further terrorist offences. Many of the returnees may never be fully deradicalized, but they become disengaged. They no longer think violence is justified in addressing their grievances. This is the known fate of returnees who largely received little or no attention from authorities and certainly did not participate in any formal programs of rehabilitation.
The struggle in Syria and Iraq has been much more lethal and extensive. Actions undertaken by Islamic State have been more radical and reprehensible. But there is little reason to think the basic parameters of the situation have changed – other than that it is likely that even fewer fighters, proportionately, will survive to return. Plus, even more are likely to flee to other sites of jihad in the Middle East, Africa, and East and Southeast Asia.
Those who do return are aware of the high risk of spending much of the rest of their lives in jail. Consequently, it seems likely that most of those who will make their way home will be disillusioned and willing to participate in programs of disengagement and de-radicalization. If successful, such programs can be in our long-term best interests. Their existence will entice others to abandon their extremist commitments and surrender to authorities, and some of their graduates can become the kind of credible mentors most likely to succeed in dissuading other young men and women from radicalizing in the first place.
To many this may sound far-fetched, but it is in truth what has been happening with radicalized youth for more than a decade in the U.K., Denmark, and elsewhere in Europe (e.g., Berlin). But there, they have the infrastructure in place to receive and process the fighters when they return. Regrettably, we do not.
The previous Conservative government chose to ignore these developments, favouring a single-minded focus on more coercive counter-terrorism measures. So now the Liberal government is playing catch-up, instituting research and nascent programming through the new Centre for Community Engagement and the Prevention of Violence. After experiencing clusters of youth leaving to fight in Syria – or trying to do so – Montreal, Calgary and Toronto initiated their own different programs to counter and prevent radicalization, but all these and other efforts in Canada are still relatively new and fragmented. The need is much more immediate. The geo-political conditions that spawned Islamic State are not fundamentally changing, and the factors leading youth to radicalize locally persist. We should now plan better for the future and invest nationally in developing preventive and rehabilitative programming.