The Dilemma of Returning Foreign Fighters

Oct 6, 2019 | Studies & Reports

European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies in Germany and Netherlands.

Belgium is one of the leading European countries in exporting foreign fighters due to its geographical area and population. Its government, like other European governments, fears the return of fighters of Belgian nationality from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq to their country. It considers them time bombs capable of carrying out terror acts upon their return, although Belgium has only witnessed limited attacks. The Belgian authorities renewed its support for an initiative which calls for an international prosecution of ISIS fighters captured in Syria and Iraq, who fought with ISIS. The Belgian intelligence warned from the growing extremism inside Belgium at a time when it was announced that there was activity for 100 extremist organizations that have influence on thousands of Muslims, according to Monte Carlo, on November 30, 2018.

On July 22, 2018, Asharq Al Awsat discussed a survey for the Belgian “Le Soir” and RTBF, the French-speaking radio and television broadcasting organization. According to the survey, more than 70% of Muslims see that people view them as “potential terrorists.” 63% of them said that they are so intimidated by the flow of refugees. They said that they feel targeted because they are Muslims. And 77% of them said they don’t feel at home as they did in the past.

Despite Belgium’s endeavor to establish laws and measures to reduce extremism, it is still on the watch with the return of foreign fighters, which posed security challenges that required more counter-terrorism measures to maintain its security, especially in the wake of the terrorist waves that hit Belgium and European capitals in 2016-2017.

Foreign fighters and their families who are in custody of SDF and Iraq

The Belgian authorities announced in March 2018 that the number of children born in Syria and Iraq to parents who had traveled to fight with ISIS is 70 to 80 children. The number of Belgian children under 12 years old in Syria is 100 children at least. There are 14 Belgians detained in Syria and Iraq; 2 in Iraq, and 12 in Syria: 5 men detained by the SDF, and 7 women with 6 children were distributed in different refugee camps.

Number of Returning Foreign Fighters: Males, Females and Children Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis in Belgium (OCAD/OCAM) said that 442 Belgians left for Syria or Iraq, according to EuroNews on February 20, 2019. 130 of them returned, while 142 were killed. Currently, 6 Belgian men, 17 women, and 32 children, four of them are orphans, are detained in Syria and are facing difficult circumstances, whereas two men are imprisoned in Iraq.

According to RT in November 2018, a report for the Belgian State Security Service revealed that Belgium, compared to its population, was one of the largest fighters-exporting countries

to Syria, with more than 400 fighters since 2012. Third of them returned, whereas most of them were killed. But the report pointed out that about 150 could still be “active.” A report for “Al Azhar Observer” titled “Belgium Caught in the Crossfire of Terrorism,” in November 2018, said that the office of the Belgian Minister of Interior, Jan Jambon, confirmed the existence of 275 Belgian fighters in Iraq and Syria. This figure includes 220 males and 55 females, according to the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis. The Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, announced in May 2018 that 26 women returned to Belgium.

In November 2018, the spokesman for Jan Jambon, the Minister of Interior, announced that all the ISIS Belgian fighters were classified as criminals internationally, and they would be imprisoned in case they returned. A report in February 2018 showed that the number of returnees gradually decreased between 2014 – 2017, pointing that 115 Belgian ISIS fighters had already returned to their country, 44 of them are in prisons, and 80 on probation.

The official spokesman for Brussels government confirmed in a press statement, according to RT on February 21, 2019, that the Belgian National Security Council, in a session headed by the Prime Minister Charles Michel, expressed its support for the idea of achieving “international justice,” in cooperation with other countries, against the captured European ISIS members. Michel has already expressed his hope that the European extremists who are detained in Syria be prosecuted, and he proposed an idea to establish a legal mechanism for that purpose, but without providing additional details.

Belgium’s Position on the Returning Foreign Fighters and their Families

According to Asharq Al Awsat on March 27, 2019, the Belgian government confirmed that it prefers to detain ISIS members in camps inside the conflict zones where they fought, and to send ISIS fighters above 18 years old to justice. According to Al Azhar Observer on March 7, 2018, Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, stressed that his country would not negotiate with any fighter, whether Belgian or of another nationality, who wants to return to Belgium, saying that “there is no place for those people in the Belgian society,” and shutting the door in the face of the possibility of cooperation or sympathy with the ISIS “returnees.”

The Belgian authorities are working hard and making great efforts to repatriate the children of ISIS members, who are currently in camps in the Syrian territories. The government refused to set a date or a schedule for achieving that, and described the file as very critical. The official Belgian position confirms that the authorities want to facilitate the return of the children who are under 10 years old, provided that one of the parents is Belgian. Koen Geens, the Belgian Minister of Justice, called for a “European solution” and “thinking carefully and considering what involves less security threats.” He said: “we have now in North Syria mothers and children, but also some known fighters,” according to The New Arab on February 19, 2019. The returnees face arrest and interrogation, and those who are suspected to be involved in recruitment and brainwashing operations are sent to special units where they are isolated from the rest of prisoners, according to BBC on February 18, 2019.

The Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Didier Reynders, announced in March 2018 that Belgian children under 10 years old, who were born in Syria of Belgian parents who left Belgium to fight for ISIS, would get travel permits to return to Belgium. The situation of children above 10 years old would be examined on a case-

by-case basis, taking into consideration the duration of their stay in Syria, the possibility of them joining training camps, and that the majority of those children were born in Syria and don’t have documents to prove their Belgian nationality, so DNA tests would be used to determine their identities.

For his part, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, stressed in a statement discussed by Al Arabiya on December 28, 2018, that “Anyone posing a threat should not go unnoticed anymore: the interoperability of SIS with our other information systems on security, borders and migration in the near future will make sure that all the dots are properly connected on our radar screens.”

Trials of Belgian Foreign Fighters and their Families

A report in March 2018 explained that some of the fighters who participated in the fighting in Syria, and who are now in prison, would intentionally choose not to paroled and would remain in prison until the end of their sentences that range between 5 to 10 years, in order to avoid any strict conditions related to their probation, because parole, from the point of view of some specialists in Brussels, requires the released person to be on probation in different ways, including putting an electronic tag above his ankle to monitor his movements. Belgium Counter-terrorism

On April 14, 2019, Brussels Court sentenced 3 persons to 5-10 years imprisonment. Those persons were among the first groups of Belgian fighters who had travelled to fight in conflict zones with extremist militant groups. A Belgian court said that Belgium had won an appeal against a court order that compel it to return two Belgian women convicted with joining ISIS and their six children from Syria.

The Belgian government seeks to differentiate between ISIS fighters and their children, as officials say that the children can’t assume the responsibility for what their parents have done. The Appeal Court in Brussels confirmed that the Belgian State is not obliged to do anything to bring “those” home. The Central Criminal Court in Iraq sentenced a Belgian to death by hanging for membership of ISIS, according to RT on March 18, 2019. He is one of dozens of foreigners who face the same sentence in Iraq.

Providing Psychological Support and Rehabilitation

According to Al-Arab Newspaper, Jacob Bundsgaard, a prominent activist in the “Rehabilitation Program,” pointed in August 2018 to the necessity of the relevant authorities opening a dialogue with the returning jihadists to know whether they committed crimes, and of what kind in order to deal with their cases and prosecute them. Failing that, the authorities have to do their best to reintegrate those individuals.

Publishing rights reserved to European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies in Germany and Netherlands.