With a reflection on the dilemma of returnees, the former deputy Minister Mario Giro begins his collaboration on foreign policy issues with NRW. The first of a series of articles is a story about Western foreign fighters detained in Syria and Iraq who (almost) no one wants back.

In France they call them the revenants, a synonym of zombies. They are the returnees, the returning foreign fighters, their women and their children, the “children of the Jihad”.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them. No one knows for sure how many there are and those who do won’t say. Many come from those areas that were occupied by Isis in Syria and Iraq, from the detention centres (the women), and from maximum security prisons. They are the ones who have been beaten (at least for now), those who were left behind by the nightmare that was Isis: orphans, war widows and former fighters.

Among them, many are Westerners or Europeans and, today, they present a real dilemma to their countries of origin. Those who are detaining them would like to get rid of them, send them back to Europe but their calls to the Old Continent have fallen on deaf ears. No one wants them back, even if this means abandoning them in the Middle East. Weren’t they the ones who tore up their passports in front of the TV cameras?

In reality, everyone is afraid that they may still be radicalised. The controversy rages: if they stay in Syria or Iraq, many of them risk the death penalty, which is forbidden in Europe. Human rights defenders and the families’ lawyers labour this point: we shouldn’t forget about our principles, about civil rights. But fear of these people is so strong that European public opinion is unable to side with them and it is happy to live with that. Yet, that would set a dangerous precedent.

Many believe this to be a critical choice concerning people who cannot be trusted. But even their children are feared: how many among them could still be indoctrinated by this ideology of terror? The only way to save them from either capital punishment, life imprisonment or hard labour, would be to ask for them to be extradited. However, an embarrassed silence surrounds many of these cases, except those in which the families have taken a direct interest. But these cases are rare and often even relatives are reluctant to take these “monsters” back. The Isis stigma, for having been a part of this century’s worse criminal venture, is burdensome.

The British cases

«Get me out of here, I don’t care if I end up in jail» begs Jihadi Jack, the nickname of the British 25 year-old Jack Abraham Letts, born in 1995 in Oxford, who used to be part of Isis and is now held by the Kurds. When he was detained in Qamishli he was interviewed by the BBC and he recorded a video for his family. His parents want him back: they have got the media interested, they have launched a campaign and they have even gone on hunger strike. But the authorities are dragging their feet. They have made it clear that the best thing is for all ex foreign fighters with a British passport (about 850, of whom 150 have been killed and 400 have managed to return alone) to be tried where they are.

There is an ongoing controversy about Shamina Begum, who left the country in 2015 for Raqqa, when she was just 15 years old, with two girlfriends (the photo of the three girls at passport control in Turkey became famous). A journalist from the Times found her in Deir el Zhor at the beginning of 2019. She is unrepentant and she says she is still with her husband (a Dutch jihadist captured in Baghuz), and yet she would like to return to the UK. She is pregnant and she says she has already lost two children from hunger and fatigue. The British media are divided: “forgiveness or iron fist”? Some argue with legitimate resentment that the British government was among the most heated detractors of Assad (it still is) and that it supported the rebels. How could such young girls have known the difference between the horror of Isis and the apparently moderate resistance (they never were) glamourised by the media? It should also be said that many returnees are not waiting for the green light to go back to Europe, but they are doing so using their own means and with the support of secret networks.

The foreign fighters and European governments

In Germany, the case of Linda Wenzel, who was 16 when she left and was arrested in Iraq, is still pending. For now, they have managed to spare her capital punishment but without asking for her to be repatriated. Denmark is the only country with an official reintegration programme called “Hug a Jihadist”, but it deals with very few ex foreign fighters at a lesser risk (maybe).

European governments also have to take their own civil society into account. Some of the parents of the foreign fighters are not giving up and they are scouring Syria and Iraq looking for their loved ones, especially for grandchildren they have never met.

Even if they may have come to terms with their children’s fate, they want to at least take their children’s children back with them: «They are not at fault». The media campaign denouncing the poor conditions in which foreign fighters are kept in Syrian and Iraqi prisons has stoked the flames. They are not looked after, some are left to die and some media have compared their fate to that of the refugees kept in detention centres in Libya.

The case of the 2000 French returnees

In France, the controversy about the almost 2000 foreign fighters has filled the press. Up until recently, Macron had allowed the repatriation of the children of jihadist women or those married to jihadists only in some cases, like for example in the case of Mélina Boughedir, 28, captured in Mosul with her four young children. There are other similar cases, like that of Margaux Dubreil, 27, detained by the Syrian Kurds with her three children. According to the French lawyers, there are ongoing talks regarding many of the French foreign fighters who have been captured by anti-Isis forces, as well as for their wives and for the children.

In fact, unaccompanied minors are a special case altogether. In this regard, for the moment, Paris has opted to judge these on a case by case basis, without setting any general guidelines.

Then, there is the well known case of Emilie Konig, who started recruiting youths even before the Jihad. The 33 year old from Bretagne is the daughter of a police officer from Morbilhan and she converted to radical Islam when she was only 17.

Emilie had become famous even before she left for Syria: she had chosen to wear a burqua, she took part in demonstrations, and she had used inflammatory language when interviewed on TV. When she reached Syria in 2012, she was trained as a fighter, which was very rare for a woman in the Jihad. Emilie was added to the French terrorist list in 2015. Her merciless adventure ended in 2017, when she was captured in northern Syria. Detained by the YPG with other French women, she is still trying to get extradite.

The mothers of the Jihad and their children

These cases are related to the trials in France of the so called “mothers of the Jihad”. These are those women who left to go and find their sons and daughters during the Isis reign. In fact, Isis allowed mothers to enter their territories in the hope of recruiting whole families. These trips took place unbeknownst to the authorities, who were opposed. Some of the mothers today, declare that they were trying to take their children back or that they wanted to accompany them to their death. A tragic fate for families that were obliterated by today’s Jihadism.

Initially, Paris had opted for a repatriation programme for minors, as long as their mothers agreed to let them be taken away from them for ever. The idea was to hand over the children to their grandparents or their aunts and uncles on a case by case basis. Then, after some hesitation, in 2019, Paris decided to take its returnees back, especially following the disruption in Eastern Syria caused by the Turkish offensive. French troops had to be redeployed across the territory following the departure of the US forces (as a result of the Washington-Ankara agreement). But these developments don’t change the reality: Paris is trying to secretly negotiate with all sides, sending some returnees to Iraq or negotiating with the Kurds for them to keep them.

In May 2019, the national human rights committee called on the government to repatriate “at least the children”, a sign that things had not been moving along. The authorities were then hugely embarrassed when the Iraqi courts sentenced 11 French ex foreign fighters to death that same month. Shortly after, 12 minors were repatriated to France. It had been the largest operation of that kind until then.
The first trials started in September 2019. For instance, the one against Lofti Souli, who joined Isis with his two sons. He was an early starter: he went to Syria in 2013, before the big influx of foreign fighters in 2014 and later. He took his two sons, who were 15 and 18 at the time, with him. He became a high-ranking operative in Isis in charge of communications, and it seems he was also involved in planning an attack on the Eiffel Tower.

The Iraqi authorities’ two approaches

The Iraqi authorities employ two different approaches to foreign fighters. On the one hand, they try to create minimum embarrassment to foreign governments. On the other, they pressure them with harsh sentences. Two years ago, the Iraqis sentenced a German 17 year old girl to 6 years in prison for joining Isis. Another Turkish woman, tried for the same offence was given the death penalty, and an Azerbaijani and other 10 Middle Eastern women were given life sentences. The influence that foreign governments have on decisions taken by the courts in Baghdad is evident. In February 2018, there were a total of 509 foreign women detained in Iraq, of whom 300 were Turkish, and 813 children.

After a prudent start, Iraq has fast tracked death penalties and executions, also due to the lack of interest from the other side. Just in May 2018, about 40 women (activists or widows) were sentenced to death. It was even worse for men, with over 300 of them sentenced to death.

It is not known how many among them could have benefited from milder sentences because the trials were quick and shrouded in secrecy. Up until he was in power, the former Iraqi Head of State Adil Abdul Mahdi, has treated France better than the others, as he lived there in exile for 40 years and his wife still lives there.

Mahdi has allowed French returnees held captive by the Syrian Kurds to be imprisoned in Iraq, avoiding their dispersion and offering the French authorities an alternative to repatriating them. In exchange, the French media claim, he has obtained weapons and promises of support. In fact, Iraq has long requested the Europeans and Americans for at least 1.8 billion USD to cover the cost of managing the controversial issue of Western foreign fighters and their families. The matter has now turned into a business.

The issue of jurisdiction

The fate of those held captive by the Syrian Kurds is most ambiguous. It is not just about the control of the camps: as the Turks have pushed the YPG South, Assad May want to take back control of previously Kurdish-held territories. There is also an issue regarding the legal jurisdiction of any potential trials. At the start of the Turkish offensive, the YPG threatened to set all the Isis captives free. Now the situation has been de-escalated but that risk still exists and the fate of the Syrian Kurds themselves also remains uncertain.

In Belgium, out of 500 who joined the Jihad, so far about 30 cases have been brought to justice. The most famous trial was that of Tariq Jadaoun, who was sentenced to be hanged in Iraq. Jadaoun was a recruiter for Isis but he is now trying to prove he has been de-radicalised. And so is doing another Belgian, Bilal Abdul-Aziz al-Marshouhi, who was born in Antwerp 26 years ago, and who obtained a degree in engineering before being radicalised.
There are about 1000 German foreign fighters of whom 145 have been killed, and another 200 who have made it back to Germany on their own. Sweden has estimated that 300 had left and 150 have returned but they have been very cautious regarding the matter of imprisonments. Even in Italy this debate has been aired in the media.

The Chechen paradox

The circumstances in Chechnya have been somewhat paradoxical. No fewer than 3000 Chechens have fought against Assad, earning a reputation for being ruthless fighters. Yet, the fighters and their wives have managed to return to Chechnya without any problems. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who is an ally of Putin, was an Islamic fighter himself before making an agreement with Moscow. Now he is trying to convince the returnees of following his example. Kadyrov does not fear them. In fact, he wants them back and he is doing his best to find as many of them as possible among the rubble of the fallen ‘Caliphate’.

In particular, he is after the women and the orphaned children. There could be thousands. Some estimate there could be 700 women, mostly widows. His strategy has two aims: consolidate his “Islamic” credentials while reassuring the Russians by taking care of this matter personally. But Putin has tired of this game and he has asked for the programme to be stopped. When dealing with Islamist terrorists, one can never be too careful, even if close allies are involved.

A universe of absurd violence

The nuances of this sad matter must be sought in the words and the lived experience of its protagonists, following the journeys and life projects that led some of them to choose deathly adventures and others to become the victims of these.
It is an absurdly violent universe that leaves scars for generations. Like in the case of Jennifer W., born in a quiet family in Lower Saxony and who was radicalised when she was 21. Today, Jennifer has gone back and she is on trial. Her story is especially hard: she is accused of having left a little girl, the daughter of a Yazidi slave her Jihadi husband had bought, to die. Today, the Yazidi woman, who has survived, will testify against Jennifer, who is accused of “crimes against humanity”.

Samantha Sally’s story has a very different ending. She is an American from Indiana who converted to Islam and married Moussa, an American jihadist of Moroccan origins. They had two children in the US and then two more were born during their time in Raqqa. Samantha’s husband also bought a Yazidi sex slave – Badria – at the market in the capital city of the Isis Caliphate.

The victim, however, was unexpectedly protected from the man by Samantha who tried to stop him from harming her, she comforted and helped her. After the war, the two women were separated. Samantha ended up in prison separated from her children. But an Italian journalist, Marta Bellingreri, who came to know about the story, managed to put the two women in touch. At the trial, Badria will testify in Samantha’s favour: “She’s like my mother,” she says today.

A spark of goodwill and friendship born out of the darkness of horror.

Translated by Costanza de Toma 

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