Transparency Needed: The Prosecution, Detention, and Deradicalization of Foreign Fighters
The military defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gave rise to a flurry of speculation regarding the possible threats posed by fighters returning to their countries of origin. Journalists and academics have since uncovered considerable information on the backgrounds of these ISIS fighters and speculated on the ways they could wreak havoc within their home countries. Yet one question remains largely unanswered: What exactly are Arab states doing with fighters who return home?
Conversations with U.S. government officials, academics, and human rights organizations point to an increasing reliance on blanket prosecution and detention under recently expanded counterterrorism laws. This is paired with the neglect of deradicalization programs and an absence of long-term planning for the reentry of ISIS fighters into Arab societies.[i] While the treatment of ISIS fighters might seem low on the list of American foreign policy priorities, correcting this approach is of critical importance to maintaining security and stability in the Middle East. Therefore, it is imperative that the United States presses Arab states to increase transparency surrounding their prosecution, detention, and deradicalization of returned fighters.
Incomplete Analysis and a Lack of Transparency
Ironically, we know the most about fighters who have remained in Syria[ii] and Iraq.[iii] In both countries, ISIS members detained by the government are kept in squalid conditions and subjected to torture, sham trails, and in some cases execution.[iv] Those detained by Kurdish fighters have been afforded much better treatment[v] while the Kurds have appealed for international assistance in prosecuting or rehabilitating them.[vi] We know much less about how other Arab states, including close American partners, have dealt with returned fighters and how they plan to contain future threats from these militants.
That’s because most analysis on the scale of the threat and how Arab countries are processing returned fighters is based on outdated studies and government statements. The best available estimate of the number of returned ISIS fighters is a 2015 Soufan Group study.[vii] However, it is likely that outflows of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq increased between 2016 and 2019, when ISIS was defeated in both Iraq and Syria.[viii] This means analysts are failing to capture remotely accurate numbers for fighters who attempted to return to Arab countries during this period.
More troublingly, existing studies do not account for how the Arab response to returning fighters might have evolved after 2016. Several Arab countries expanded and revised their terrorism laws during the ISIS era to allow more flexibility in how they prosecute and monitor terrorists, including returned fighters.[ix] Further, interest in implementing deradicalization programs has apparently dwindled in Arab countries.[x] Finally, because of ISIS’s brutality and the gravity of the threat, Arab governments and their populations took a harsher view of ISIS than they ever did of Al Qaeda.[xi] Therefore it is reasonable to assume that their governments treated returning ISIS fighters with a heavier hand than the Al Qaeda fighters of the past.
Some attention has been given to this issue, but we still know very little about programs intended to manage the return of foreign fighters. Researchers and government officials widely consider Morocco to be the most successful at dealing with returned fighters in a thoughtful and transparent manner.[xii] More than any other country in the region, Morocco has made an active effort to improve prison conditions for returned fighters and implement deradicalization programs.[xiii] Its neighbor Tunisia, on the other hand, continues to rely only on security measures including the arrest and execution of returned fighters.[xiv] An April 2016 study reported that there are no active deradicalization or reintegration programs in Tunisia, and that the application of justice was highly inconsistent.[xv]
Very little is known about two other Arab countries with high numbers of returning fighters – Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have witnessed the return of several hundred foreign fighters – at least 250 plus to Jordan and 760 plus to Saudi Arabia.[xvi] And both countries have touted the effectiveness of their deradicalization centers and their ability to control security threats from returned fighters.[xvii] The lack of transparency in Saudi Arabia and Jordan’s efforts is doubly problematic considering their close cooperation with the United States and centrality to security issues in the region.
Both governments should be commended for their willingness to tackle the difficult challenges associated with deradicalization. Yet their supposedly robust approach to returning fighters does not hold up well under scrutiny. Jordan periodically releases very basic information on the capture of returned fighters, occasionally including the length of their prison terms.[xviii] In 2015, the Jordanian government publicized the inauguration of the Community Peace Center, an institution established to deradicalize fighters through conversations with religious scholars and other activities. However, the government office responsible for this program has been under resourced, reshuffled across ministries, and led by officials with little expertise in deradicalization.[xix] And no data has been released on the number of persons who completed the program or the success rate. Moreover, Jordan has done a remarkable job of maintaining security within its borders in the past two years, but the government is plagued by numerous economic challenges that have clearly diverted attention and financial resources from deradicalization efforts.
Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a former jihadist and top expert on foreign fighters in Jordan, said there was little political will in Jordan to attempt to deradicalize returned ISIS fighters and that past deradicalization programs were defunct.[xx] He added that there was little information available beyond occasional news of small numbers of fighters returning and being detained and prosecuted by security services.
Even less information is available about Saudi Arabia’s approach to returned ISIS fighters. Saudi Arabia advertises the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Advice, launched in 2006[xxi] as a massive complex housing former jihadists deemed fit for deradicalization and reintegration programs.[xxii] The Saudi government even allowed Western academics and journalists to visit and meet with Al Qaeda fighters who had completed its program.[xxiii] Since then, however, the government has been completely silent about how it has handled returned ISIS fighters. It has not provided updated data for the center in years, nor indicated who is running the country’s counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts after Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s marginalization in the past two years.
This suggests that, like Tunisia, most Arab states have sidelined deradicalization efforts in favor of strict law enforcement measures in order to deal with returned fighters. Saudi Arabia and Jordan expanded their counterterrorism laws and mechanisms for prosecuting terrorists including foreign fighters in 2014.[xxiv] Both also possess extremely competent internal intelligence and security services. Consequently, they have been able to rely on security measures to quietly handle any threats from foreign fighters and domestic terrorist threats. While this may be an effective short-term solution, it does not address the long-term challenges associated with returning foreign fighters.
Mum’s the Word
The one thing U.S. government officials, human rights advocates, and analysts can agree on was that Arab countries are not eager to divulge details on their handling of returned ISIS fighters. One senior American official was skeptical that Arab governments would be willing to provide any information whatsoever on their handling of foreign fighters.[xxv] Another analyst on foreign fighters in Jordan also suggested that this information was difficult to come by without significant “wasta” (clout) – or even bribery.[xxvi]
This secretive information environment reflects a notable shift from the conversation around foreign fighters and jihadists just a few years ago. Before 2016, Arab states touted their deradicalization programs in the media and described their track record, budgets, and approach in detail.[xxvii] They published profiles of former Al Qaeda fighters who had been successfully deradicalized and had even played a role in deradicalizing other fighters. By contrast, today’s sudden reluctance to share could indicate a more heavy-handed approach to returning fighters. It is especially troubling that even newer studies of deradicalization centers in the region still focus on efforts to deradicalize Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. It is astonishing that no information specific to the deradicalization of ISIS fighters has emerged, despite the group posing the largest terrorist threat to the region for the past five years.
U.S. officials offer a mixed assessment of Jordanian and Saudi efforts to deal with returned fighters, but do not offer much on efforts specific to ISIS fighters. A former intelligence official with extensive experience in the Middle East praised Jordan and Saudi for their deradicalization programs and insisted they were still functioning as well as ever.[xxviii] Other American officials were tight lipped but admitted that the issue is a “work in progress.”[xxix] These officials said that the United States was encouraging Arab states to permit ISIS fighters to return but allowing them to handle them “as they see fit.” When pressed, they conceded that Arab governments had sometimes used undesirable methods and problematic legal practices to deal with foreign fighters. The same officials confirmed that Saudi’s Mohammed bin Nayef Center is still operating, but perhaps not at the same scale as in the past. They were not familiar with the current operating status of Jordan’s Community Peace Center or the nature of its programming.
Unsurprisingly, human rights organizations are among those most concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding this issue. Philippe Nassif at Amnesty International told me his researchers had been unable to gather any information about returned fighters or the conditions of their detention in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.[xxx] He has concluded that most fighters are being quietly arrested and imprisoned, or perhaps even executed. He could only speculate on the conditions of imprisoned fighters but pointed out that both Saudi Arabia and Jordan are known for torturing detainees and having poor prison conditions. Nassif did distinguish the two countries, however, by stating that Jordanian security services are somewhat more transparent and “less vicious”, and that prison conditions in Jordan are generally better than other Arab countries.
The former U.S. intelligence official interviewed for this piece credited a lack of interest among western analysts as a possible reason Arab deradicalization centers have received less attention over the past three years. This seems unlikely given the enormous buzz generated by the foreign fighter issue. He also suggested that Arab officials simply might not feel the need to share this information, as they believe it is a sensitive matter that should be dealt with by security officials. This is a plausible argument for why security officials might be loath to divulge details on returned foreign fighters but does not explain the silence from officials involved in countering violent extremism and deradicalization programs.
The most convincing argument is that Arab governments have not shared because they have not faced significant pressure to do so. The Trump administration has not made human rights in the Middle East, let alone due process and fair treatment for ISIS fighters, a priority. Abu Haniyeh also pointed out that the numbers of fighters returning to Arab countries after 2015 were much smaller than past waves, such as Al Qaeda and Nusra fighters in 2012. Therefore, courts and deradicalization centers are likely dealing with smaller numbers of fighters and a reduced threat. This makes it easier to keep the issue under the radar; it would be much more difficult to control information about returning fighters if there were thousands of them. Arab security services have clearly taken advantage of this reality.
What’s at Stake
One might ask why we should be concerned with the fates of returned ISIS fighters after the heinous crimes they have committed against Arab populations. The answer is simple. We know from past waves of foreign fighters that these same fighters often retain their radical views and later fuel insurgencies at home and abroad.[xxxi] Both Saudi Arabia and Jordan have had to contend with dozens of attempted terrorist attacks over the past few years. While their security services have successfully foiled the majority, some attacks have succeeded and caused profound damage to the general public’s sense of security. Further, terrorist recruitment and radicalization remains a major threat in both countries. Considering the Islamic State’s sophisticated organizational structure and ideological dedication, ISIS fighters could even prove more dangerous and adept at reorganizing and recruiting than past terrorist groups. As such, carefully prosecuting, deradicalizing, and monitoring foreign fighters is critical to preventing the resurgence of groups such as ISIS.
Additionally, there is important information to be gained from returned fighters. Nassif said there are still numerous missing persons and unmarked mass graves that local organizations and human rights activists are working to identify. It will be impossible for NGOs to gain this information without information sharing and cooperation with Arab governments – which is apparently not happening right now. NGOs and academics also play an important role in studying extremism and continuing to improve deradicalization approaches. Their role is significantly damaged by a lack of access to information on the government handling of fighters.
There is also the issue of the message sent by the possible detention, torture, and execution of fighters in an operating environment with zero oversight. An overly harsh approach may fuel grievances among the fighters’ family members and other members of terrorist groups. This is especially true in countries like Saudi and Jordan, where fighters often come from areas where radicalization is rampant.[xxxii] It also sets a poor precedent for how countries should deal with terrorists and other criminals. This often extends to accusing political enemies or garden variety activists of participating in terrorist activities simply to silence them.[xxxiii]
Most troublingly, the little information available indicates that most imprisoned fighters are detained for anywhere between a few months to 15 years.[xxxiv] The ones given the shortest sentences generally claim they were not combatants, but this is difficult to verify. That means ISIS members-combatants or not-will be released either very quickly and without attempts to deradicalize them, or after significant time in prison in the presence of other radicalized fighters and under extremely brutal conditions. Releasing these former ISIS fighters back into Arab societies, especially without a plan for monitoring them, could be a recipe for disaster.
The Role of the International Community
The greatest hurdle to addressing this challenge is the West’s similarly problematic approach to returning ISIS fighters. For all the attention paid to the dilemmas posed by returning foreign fighters, there is little consensus on how any country should handle them. European countries are refusing to take back citizens who joined ISIS,[xxxv] making it difficult to put influence the decisions of Arab states and how they prosecute their citizens. This approach is unsustainable and dangerous for all actors involved.
At the very least, both the United States and Europe should push for more transparency in how Arab states are handling ISIS fighters. The United States should also actively encourage both European and Arab states to come up with a plan to handle returning fighters – without disregarding their legitimate concerns about the legal and ethical dilemmas caught up in this challenge. Most importantly, the United States remind Arab countries that the way they handle returned fighters has long-term implications for security and legal norms in the region.
Specifically, the international community should play a greater role in monitoring and shaping actions taken by Arab countries in this area. Rather than allowing Arab countries to handle the issue “as they see fit,” the United States and others should encourage Arab states to bring their relevant laws and prison conditions in line with international norms. They should also pressure Arab countries to allow greater access to journalists, human rights organizations, and researchers to verify and evaluate the prosecution and/or deradicalization of ISIS fighters. This would not only shine a light on any problematic security practices, but also make it harder to for Arab governments abuse terrorism laws to prosecute political activists.
The international community should also cooperate closely with Arab states as they continue experimenting with deradicalization programs. Deradicalization is still a relatively nascent and experimental field, and no one really knows how to gauge the success of deradicalization efforts. To illustrate this challenge, there have been rumors of fighters returning to Arab deradicalization centers or prisons after successfully completing rehabilitation programs.[xxxvi] As frustrating as these cases may be, the United States should encourage Arab states to use these situations as learning experiences to inform and improve future deradicalization programs. The United States can also work with Arab states to weigh the benefits of prosecution versus deradicalization, and help them implement existing protocols for assessing candidates for deradicalization programs.[xxxvii]
Finally, is critical that the international community and Arab countries start planning for the eventual release or escape of ISIS fighters from prisons across the Middle East. International stakeholders should work with individual at-risk countries directly and convene countries with a major foreign fighter issue to discuss a consistent approach to the threat. This could include establishing databases with more meaningful information on the number of fighters being prosecuted, their sentences, the percentage of fighters that complete deradicalization programs, and success rates. It could also include a mechanism for sharing information with human rights organizations and other NGOs working to find missing persons and help communities heal post-ISIS.
[i] Multiple author interviews, academics and U.S. government officials, Washington, DC, 2018-19. Names omitted at request of interviewees.
[ii] Anne Barnard, "Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar Al-Assad Crushed Dissent," The New York Times, May 11, 2019.
[iii] "Iraq: Thousands Detained, Including Children, in Degrading Conditions," Human Rights Watch, July 4, 2019.
[iv] Author interview with Philippe Nassif, Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, corroborates these claims.
[v] Jane Arraf, "ISIS Fighters on Trial in Kurdish Territory," NPR, May 25, 2019.
[vi] Liz Sly, "Captured ISIS Fighters Get Short Sentences and Art Therapy in Syria," Washington Post, August 14, 2019.
[vii] "Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq," The Soufan Group, December 16, 2015.
[viii] Though no data exists to confirm this, it is a reasonable assumption considering past trends. There were also reports that thousands of ISIS fighters escaped American detention facilities in Syria and fled to Turkey and elsewhere in this timeframe. See Eric Schmitt, "Thousands of ISIS Fighters Flee in Syria, Many to Fight another Day," The New York Times, February 4, 2018
[ix] "Jordan: Terrorism Amendments Threaten Rights," Human Rights Watch, May 17, 2014.
[x] Multiple author interviews, academics and U.S. government officials, Washington, DC, 2018-19. Names omitted at request of interviewees.
[xi] Multiple author interviews and off the record meetings, academics and U.S. and Arab government officials, Washington, DC, 2016-19.
[xii] Thomas Renard, "Returnees in the Maghreb: Comparing Policies on Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia," Egmont Institute, April 24, 2019. This view was also expressed by several American officials and researchers interviewed for this piece
[xvi] "Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into
Syria and Iraq," The Soufan Group, December 16, 2015.
[xvii] Off the record meetings with Jordanian and Saudi Arabian officials, Washington, DC, Riyadh, and Amman, 2017-18.
[xviii] Examples available via the Jordan Times. See "Two Convicted of Terror Charges, Sentenced to Three Years in Prison," Jordan Times, December 23, 2014 and "Court Upholds Jail Term for Man Convicted of Terror Charges," Jordan Times, January 22, 2017.
[xix] Based on interviews with Jordanian officials including the office mentioned and data from the Jordanian Ministry of Interior’s website, in addition to this account by a former Jordanian official. See Saud Al-Sharafat, "Assessing Jordan’s National Strategy to Combat Violent Extremism," Fikra Forum, August 10, 2018.
[xx] Other public sources confirm that the Jordanian government views returning fighters as a matter to be handled by security services. See Saud Al-Sharafat, "How Jordan can Deal with Jordanian ISIS Fighters Still in Syria," Fikra Forum, August 9, 2019.
[xxi] "Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Naif," Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
[xxii] Christopher Boucek, "The Saudi Process of Repatriating and Reintegrating Guantanamo Returnees." CTC Sentinel 1:1 (December, 2007).
[xxiii] "Jihad Rehab Camp - Photo Essays," TIME.com and Anuj Chopra, "Jihadists Go to Rehab at ‘5-Star’ Saudi Center," Times of Israel, November 29, 2017.
[xxiv] "Jordan: Terrorism Amendments Threaten Rights," Human Rights Watch, May 17, 2014.
[xxv] Interview, Washington DC, July 2019
[xxvi] Interview with Amman-based academic via Skype, August 2019
[xxvii] Tony C. Parker, "Establishing a Deradicalization/Disengagement Model for America's Correctional Facilities: Recommendations for Countering Prison Radicalization,” Naval Postgraduate School, 2013.
[xxviii] Interview, Washington DC, July 2019
[xxix] Interviews, Washington DC, July 2019
[xxx] Interview, Washington DC, July 2019
[xxxi] One study found that nearly 10 percent of 3,577 ISIS fighters in a data set had previous experience fighting in Afghanistan or Libya. See David Sterman, "The Islamic State’s Veterans: Contrasting the Cohorts with Jihadi Experience in Libya and Afghanistan." CTC Sentinel 11:6 (June/July, 2018). Experienced Chechen fighters were also reportedly some of the most talented and dedicated members of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. See Mike Eckel, "Battle-Tested Chechens Drive Islamic State Gains," Voice of America, September 26, 2014.
[xxxii]Salim Abbadi, "Jordan in the Shadow of ISIS." Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 7:2 (March, 2015): 8-12 and ICSR Team, "Saudi Foreign Fighters: Analysis of Leaked Islamic State Entry Documents," ICSR, February 5, 2019.
[xxxiii] Eric Eikenberry, David Andrew Weinberg, and James Suzano, "The Problem with Saudi Arabia’s ‘Terrorist’ Re-Education," Foreign Policy, February 16, 2016.
[xxxiv] "Country Reports on Terrorism 2017," Department of State, September 19, 2018 and "Saudi Arabia to Jail Citizens Who Fight Abroad," Reuters, February 3, 2014.
[xxxv] Michael Birnaum, "Months After the Fall of ISIS, Europe has done Little to Take Back its Fighters," Washington Post, June 20, 2019.
[xxxvi] Author interview, foreign fighter expert, Washington DC, July 2019. Name omitted at interviewee’s request.
[xxxvii] One of the best frameworks and set of recommendations in this area is set out in the "The Hague – Marrakech Memorandum on Good Practices for a More Effective Response to the FTF Phenomenon," Global Counterterrorism Forum, 2014.