We shouldn't sensationalise the foreign fighter debate or strip nuance out of it

HA Hellyer on what should be done with those who take up arms for ISIL when they, inevitably, return home

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"So 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." This is what Rory Stewart, a British foreign office minister, declared in relation to British ISIL members in Syria and Iraq. His remarks began a grave controversy, even accusations that the UK was compromising on the rule of law. But what does the controversy actually say, not simply about the UK, but Europe, and indeed, across the world?

After all, it is not only the UK that has witnessed citizens leaving the country to take up arms for ISIL. The group has managed to attract all varieties of nationalities to enlist in their cause and all those countries, as the main territorial strongholds of ISIL unravel in Iraq and Syria, have an issue to consider. What to do with ISIL members that are your own citizens?

There are three major points to consider. The first is what governments ought to do with citizens who fight for ISIL. The second is what they ought to do when those citizens return home. And the third is what relevance does their being citizens have.

When it comes to ISIL members on the battlefield in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere, the notion that their right to life persists, even as enemy combatants, is rather peculiar. ISIL members in this scenario become subject to the normal rules and laws that govern armed conflict. They are neither more deserving of protection, nor less deserving of it. Arrest and capture may or may not be appropriate. That is governed by the laws of armed conflict.


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Where the discussion becomes remarkably distasteful is that this is deemed to be different in some quarters for our own citizens. So, British citizens who have signed up to ISIL should not be targeted in the same way by the British government as non-British citizens; Iraqi citizens should not be targeted by Iraq; Malaysian citizens should not be targeted by Malaysia and so forth. On a moral and ethical level, this seems rather bizarre; if our own citizens deserve to be arrested rather than targeted, then why not people who are not our own citizens? Are we thus saying that fundamental rights exist for one group of nationalities, and not others? This is the necessary corollary of the argument, after all.

Where a genuine query does come up is when enemy combatants bring non-combatants into the fray. In particular, children and spouses who are not combatants and would not be considered as such. Collateral damage is obscene in any conflict and all military endeavours should aim to minimise that kind of death in any operation. But that is a concern that should apply across the board, not simply when our own citizens are likely to be in the fray. To suggest otherwise is to implicitly declare the blood of our own to be more human than that of others. It may not be the argument that we wish to presume is appropriate.

The real argument ought not to come up with the targeting of combatants. Rather, it should be about what we do when those combatants return home. And in that regard, we require consistency. Citizens of many countries participate in armed conflicts beyond their own territories. Any citizen who is suspected of bearing arms in any territory ought to be debriefed upon return. That should be the case irrespective of whom they were fighting for.


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If following that debriefing there is reasonable cause to assume that such a citizen was involved in activity that was illegal (for example, harming non-combatants or combating soldiers of their own country), then charges ought to be raised and an investigation pursued. That, again, should be standard practice across the board, irrespective of the fighting force they were involved in.

But, and here is when it is really tricky, what should be done when no charges are to be raised? What sort of treatment should remain, for example, sympathisers to armed groups, who bore no weapons, committed no crime, and then repented, realising their errors, and returned home?

It is a difficult question to answer. And no one has really come to a final answer. The state ought to have an awareness about such individuals for a limited initial period, and laws should be specific about how and on what basis, but that should be the case irrespective of which group they fought for. Because the trauma of the conflict zone on its own is enough to merit communal concern. Beyond that, nevertheless, it is unclear what the state ought to be doing. After all, if these are citizens, they cannot and must not be blocked from returning to their own countries. The increasing practice of removing citizenship is a particularly controversial, and woefully misguided, one. It cuts to the very basis of the modern state, and without anything in its place. Convicted criminals, even if mass murderers, do not have their citizenship revoked, after all.

The whole issue of foreign fighters has become sensationalised, and all too often the discussion is stripped of consistency. Such is the discussion, it seems, in a post-9/11 world, where a war on terror has stripped so much of our discourse of rational thought. In an age of citizens aiding militant organisations, we need to be consistent. All human life is precious, but the field of combat is the field of combat. When one leaves it, other rules apply and they ought to apply to all, irrespective of which field of combat they were on. If a crime has been committed, then a crime has been committed, and if not, then it has not. Alas, consistency is rare in most political topics and this is only one such example.

Dr H A Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London