Learning from the past: How historical conflicts can inform our approach to returning foreign fighters

Learning from the past: How historical conflicts can inform our approach to returning foreign fighters
By Maurice Van Der Velden
Feb 25, 2019
8 Min. Read

Like it or not, foreign fighters and their families are returning to the EU, where governments feel mounting public pressure to seek retribution.

It can be hard to feel sympathy for terrorists and those who take innocent lives for extreme and confounding causes. This can be especially true for citizens who throw their allegiance to foreign terrorist organizations and then return to their own countries — sometimes to wreak havoc. And yet, history has shown us that compassion and fair treatment might be the keys to stopping a vicious cycle of extreme ideology and violence.

In the European Union (EU) during 2017, terrorist attacks led to 68 deaths and over 844 injuries. Towards the close of 2018, unofficial figures suggest 11 deaths and 38 injuries within the EU from similar incidents.

Jihadist terrorism is acknowledged to be the main security concern of EU member states, closely followed by the related issue of EU nationals who travel to conflict zones. In the last seven years, about 5,000 EU nationals have left for Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine to join insurgent terrorist groups. The EU member states are now facing a new threat from these foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) who are returning home.

EU member states have been formulating appropriate policy responses to prevent radicalization, set up information exchanges, and review the legal status of the FTFs. It is a complicated issue requiring careful handling, and the EU is drawing on lessons from past conflicts to formulate a fitting response.

Who are these returning fighters?

Definition of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs):

Individuals who voluntarily decide to join an armed conflict in another country. In the European context, this often refers to European-born men and women who went to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS or other warring factions.

Of the 5,000 or so European citizens who left Europe from 2012 onwards to fight in conflict areas, the majority were men, mostly young males in their 20s and 30s. They joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State (IS) or other terrorist groups. Women also went to fight, while others followed their husbands, got married there, or decided to start a new life under the self-declared caliphate. Some took their children with them from Europe, while others gave birth while living abroad.

Not all of these FTFs come from the EU; we know from approximate figures recorded between 2016 and 2017 that many hail from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey. In August 2016, IS was reported to be operating in about 18 countries in total, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, and Indonesia. The threat for EU member states is perceived to come from about 30% of the 5,000 or so FTFs from Europe who went to fight for IS and other terrorist groups and are now thought to have returned home.

Indicative Numbers for the Nationalities of IS Foreign Fighters

Indicative Numbers for the Nationalities of IS Foreign Fighters

What happens when they return to Europe?

The fate of these FTFs and their families have been mixed, as some have died in conflict while government forces or warring factions have captured others. A steady number decided to return to Europe, having become disillusioned by the harsh reality of life under IS. For another group, the fall of IS provided an opportunity to take their fight back to Europe and become involved in planning terrorist activity once they were home.

Some of these returnees slipped back to the continent unnoticed, but after the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe in 2015 and 2016, many EU member states tightened national security and moved to criminalize unauthorized travel to Syria and Iraq. Some countries have immediately apprehended returning men and women as soon as they have set foot on European soil and put them on trial, and any children have been placed with grandparents, other relatives, or in foster care.

What should the EU’s response be?

EU citizens are understandably concerned about accepting returnees back into their communities, and many regard them as seasoned terrorists who should be tried in EU criminal courts and punished. There is also a real fear that returnees will plan terrorist activity back home and, in reality, some of them have been linked to attacks carried out in the EU over the past few years. EU member states agree that the potential security threat from returnees is of paramount importance.

However, it would be wrong to assume that all those who are returning will share the same outlook from their experiences in war zones. Some dedicated fighters may be disillusioned and others horrified by the realities of war, and a good number may be involved with FTFs only through marriage or as the children of these unions. How these people are viewed, treated, and assimilated within the EU will require skillful and fair handling.

A range of necessary approaches

A range of approaches is needed to suit the complexity of the situation and be appropriate to the needs of very different returnees—innocent children as well as hardened fighters.

The EU recognizes the need for a variety of methods to suit the complexity of the situation and appropriately address very different returnees—innocent children as well as hardened fighters. While some may deserve subjection to law enforcement, this will not apply to all, and so there is a crucial role to be played by mental health professionals, social care services, and child protection boards.

After years in war zones, many returnees will have suffered trauma, having endured long-term conflict and witnessed atrocities. They are likely to face a tricky transition back within the wider community while also being vulnerable to impaired mental health.

Why should we be concerned about the traumas of returnees?

The vulnerability of returnees and the risks to them need to be identified, recognized, and understood—and not just because we live in a compassionate European society where the welfare of individuals matters. It is also essential that we safeguard the broader community from traumatized and possibly disaffected individuals who might put themselves and others at risk.

Studies have shown that, among other factors, trauma exposure increases the risk of delinquency. For children, the effects of trauma can be highly significant and can include difficulty in finding a place in society, which can be compounded further if they have come to view violence as the norm.

Lessons from past examples of conflict and terrorism

European history over the past forty years has provided relevant insights into the violent extremism of recent years.

For example, research into the conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century (i.e., the Troubles) has shown that more people died from suicide or another indirect link afterward than were killed during the battle. As a consequence of the Troubles, an estimated 14% of the adult population faces serious mental health problems affecting their well-being and ability to function in society.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder caused by distressing or frightening events, is common among FTF returnees. We can draw on experiences from the war in the former Yugoslavia to inform our understanding of how FTFs might react. In Croatia alone, around 35,000 former combatants have been diagnosed with PTSD, and since the end of the conflict, some 3,000 of these have committed suicide.

The effects of exposure to war and conflict are not simply a response following a traumatic event, i.e., the “post” in PTSD. The experience of stress is not merely static or just reflecting terrible memories from the past; instead, it entails an ongoing traumatic stress response (OTSR) which relates to the future.

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A trauma can reappear when the window of tolerance to sustain adversity is small, leading to difficulty in maintaining a calm state of mind and a greater appetite for aggression.

Commonplace stress factors, such as during a divorce or as the result of losing a job, could trigger a renewed traumatic response even after years of relative calmness. This is true for returnees and, in particular, children and their mothers, who experience traumatic separation from each other upon their return to Europe if the mother is imprisoned and put on trial.

The experiences from the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland show that specialist support is required in the short term for those returnees newly arrived in the EU. However, the lessons from these conflicts have also shown that mental health support, trauma care, and other forms of social support are required for years, if not decades, for anyone returning from war zones or other conflict areas.

In preparation for returning FTFs and their families, some EU member states have set up specialist health and well-being services, with different professionals making behavioral, psychosocial, and psychiatric assessments as well as reviewing family support (involving grandparents and other relatives). The EU is making headway with these preparations, but there are still critical challenges that lie ahead, as identified by the EU’s High-Level Commission Expert Group on Radicalisation (HLCEG-R). These include:

  • how to improve cooperation and collaboration between the different stakeholders and, in particular, member states;
  • the further development of EU prevention policies, including measures to prevent and counter-radicalization at both the EU and national level; and
  • how to implement more structured cooperation mechanisms at the EU level.

Delicate next steps

There is still a great deal for governments and professionals to plan and implement concerning returnees. The public is currently pressuring authorities to make examples of those who went to Syria and Iraq to fight or support the cause of IS. As a result, immediate prosecution is likely for adult returnees as retribution.

This approach will need to be weighed against the best means of avoiding further terrorist activity due to the alienation of IS sympathizers and represents a complicated and delicate balance of priorities and needs. While this might seem to be an entirely new and daunting task, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience among practitioners—including the findings from previous conflicts—that can be used to facilitate progress.

For more information on ICF's work in Justice and Home Affairs, contact Maurice van der Velden.

Meet the author
  1. Maurice Van Der Velden, Lead Managing Consultant, Public Policy

    Maurice is a seasoned professional and manager working in the areas of home affairs and justice. View bio