Despite the many risks of inaction, European governments are reluctant to repatriate ISIS supporters due to fear of the political consequences.
For more than a year, European governments have faced a growing dilemma over what to do with their citizens who joined the Islamic State group (ISIS) and were then taken captive by local forces as its caliphate collapsed. The Kurdish authorities in northern Syria are now holding hundreds of adults and children from Europe in prisons and detention camps, among thousands of other foreigners, and have called for international assistance in handling them. But the political difficulties involved in any European move to repatriate ISIS supporters came into sharp relief in Norway a few days ago: the country’s governing coalition collapsed due to a dispute over its decision repatriate a Norwegian woman who had joined ISIS, along with her two young children.
The Norwegian government brought back the unnamed 29-year-old woman and her children on 18 January, following preparations that reportedly began last October. The prime minister, Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party, said her government had taken the step of bringing the family home because they believed that one of the children was seriously ill. Moreover, the Kurdish authorities do not separate children from their mothers without the latter’s consent. The woman was arrested on arrival in Norway and charged with participation in terrorism. Convictions for this offence in Norway typically result in prison sentences of four to five years, though women have sometimes received more lenient treatment.
Even bringing a single woman with a sick child home proved a step too far for Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party), a populist grouping that has been in a coalition with the Conservatives and two other small parties since 2013. Solberg made clear that there were no plans to bring back the other four Norwegian women held as ISIS supporters in Syria. Nevertheless, the Progress Party announced its withdrawal from the governing coalition – though it says it will continue to support the government. “This woman has turned her back on us … We do not want her kind in Norway,” a Progress spokesman said.
The Progress Party’s move may have been designed to help it regain support among its electoral base, which has declined during its time in government. But the politically toxic nature of any move to repatriate adult ISIS supporters has been evident elsewhere in Europe too. The Finnish government was engulfed in controversy after it emerged last December that the foreign ministry was developing plans to bring home some ISIS women, along with their children. The leader of one of the parties in the Finnish ruling coalition was forced to apologise after posting an Instagram poll that asked her followers whether the government should repatriate women and children or only children. The government later clarified that each case would be individually assessed. So far, the government has announced the return only of unaccompanied children.
These political travails are indicative of a wider dynamic. Across Europe, fear of the political consequences of bringing European ISIS supporters back from Syria has been the most powerful reason why governments have done so little. There are strong arguments in favour of repatriating ISIS supporters: the Syrian Kurds do not have the capacity to prosecute and imprison ISIS fighters and their family members, so they remain in limbo. As northern Syria is politically unstable, ISIS members could escape or fall into the hands of the Syrian regime, which could use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with European countries. Leaving children to languish in refugee camps amid fervent believers in the jihadist cause risks creating a new generation of ISIS supporters, particularly given that these children receive no treatment for trauma they may have suffered. There are some risks involved in repatriating ISIS supporters, but European countries have the resources to manage these risks.
Ministers find it easier to maintain the status quo than to take the unpopular step of repatriation.
Nevertheless, most European governments have brought back only small numbers of people, almost all of them unaccompanied children. Off the record, several European officials explained that ministers find it easier to maintain the status quo than to take the unpopular step of repatriation. As one official said, the risks of current policy are diffuse and long-term, while a government will bear political responsibility for any attacks carried out by an individual it repatriates.
For this reason, the official added, it is convenient for politicians when courts order the repatriation of European citizens, since governments do not have to take political responsibility for the decision. Courts in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands have ruled that governments need to bring back their citizens, though some of these decisions have been overturned on appeal. The combination of legal and humanitarian considerations is likely to mean that some European governments will take back a very small number of adult ISIS supporters, particularly women with children, on a case-by-case basis in the coming months. But any larger European move to address this politically explosive problem seems a long way off.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.