A terrorism expert says a growing number of countries across Europe are rushing to introduce new terror laws as they accept the inevitability of ISIS fighters returning.
Tanya Mehra, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, says the repatriation of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) is the “only way forward”.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are holding around 2,000 FTFs in prisons in Syria and a further 23,000 women and children in camps.
European countries are under pressure to find a solution to the issue of ISIS fighters after the withdrawal of US troops a year ago.
Increased military operations by Turkey saw it begin a repatriation programme and announce it was “not a hotel” for ISIS detainees.
More than 70 women and children have been returned to their counties of origin so far.
Speaking in a webinar hosted by the Counter Extremism Project, Ms Mehra said many European politicians are against the repatriation of their citizens, fearing they will commit atrocities.
But she argued doing nothing will lead to more escapes and the unmonitored return of fighters to Europe.
“Countries like Austria, Belgium and the UK have stripped some citizens of their nationalities,” she said.
“In the Netherlands 11 people have been deprived of their nationalities since 2017.
“But there is a shift taking place in Europe, and several countries, Sweden, Germany, France and the Netherlands, have been looking at how their crimes can be prosecuted as international crimes which could provide longer sentences.
“A few FTFs have been prosecuted for pillaging, recruitment of their own children and for war crimes, or for posing next to dead fighters, slavery and human trafficking.
“The tool kit for prosecuting is much larger than just prosecution for terrorism offences and is helped by the increasing use of battlefield evidence.
“There is much more guidance now on how battlefield evidence can be used.
“If FTFs are left there is a chance they will further radicalise or escape and return to European soil years later. We owe it to the victims to bring the perpetrators to justice and we cannot dump the problem on to others.”
Ms Mehra said a major issue facing nations is the repatriation of children of ISIS fighters but she urged states to put trust in their own institutions to safeguard them.
“In the Netherlands 90 per cent of the children of ISIS fighters are aged under 9,” she said.
“We need to stop dehumanising them and treat them as citizens, like what has happened in Bosnia and Kazakhstan. We can look at these nations and see what has worked and what has not and we should have faith in our legal institutions.
“We should invest in more research for rehabilitation programmes to see what does and does not work. Social services and intelligence agencies in many EU countries are ready and have been ready for a long time to repatriate. Management is safer than leaving them all out there, repatriation is the way forward.
“Only then can we help to undermine abandonment and radicalisation and bring terrorists to justice and bring care and assistance to the children that need it.”
Last year, Kazakhstan carried out a number of operations to repatriate more than 600 of its citizens from Syria.