What to do when fighters return?

Foreign combatants in Iraq and Syria need a way back into society if they return alive

One dilemma posed by foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups is what should be done if and when they return to their countries of origin. Is the safety of society most likely to be achieved by jailing those who have fought with terror groups or should rehabitiation take precedence over punishment?

This issue has been put in focus by the eight-year jail term imposed this week on Ishaq Ahmed. The 24-year-old Norwegian man’s claim that he was involved in humanitarian work was rejected by a court in Norway, which found “beyond any reasonable doubt that he was an armed and active participant in armed forces belonging to both ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra while he was in Syria”. He is the fourth Norwegian to be jailed this year after returning from Syria and Iraq.

Even if many of those who return will have had their idealistic motivations about joining extremist groups destroyed by the messy and brutal reality of life as a foreign fighter, few would believe that combatants ought to be able to resume life in their home countries without any form of surveillance or oversight. The reality is that some returning fighters will bring back extremist views and battle skills with the intention of wreaking havoc at home – these people deserve no leniency.

But many will not be in that category, and ultimately there must be a path back into society available for them. Driving returners underground, as the heavy jail terms being imposed by Norwegian, German and British courts have a tendency to do, is unlikely to make society safer in the long term. Saudi Arabia has claimed its rehabilitative approach has a 90 per cent success rate.

Returning combatants could have useful intelligence about the militant groups’ operations. Some who return deeply disillusioned ought to be given the opportunity to talk about their experiences and possibly deter others from becoming jihadis, just as George Orwell returning from the Spanish civil war in the 1930s provided similarly salutary lessons for an earlier generation.