Returning Foreign Fighters: A Global Threat

As ISIS concedes its last remnants of territory, governments around the world must confront the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. These fighters present many issues as they now have combat experience, support networks, and knowledge that can be used to create devastation. To explore the threat that returning fighters pose to nations around the globe, this article will first discuss the fighters’ backgrounds, explaining why some countries will have a higher influx of fighters than others. Next, it will discuss what expertise these fighters bring. Finally, it will discuss the global implications of the fighters’ return.

Image source: The Soufan Center/Statista/Mike Nudelman/Business Insider

Many people around the world believe that the makeup of the Islamic State is predominantly males of Middle-Eastern nationality. This is not an unreasonable assumption, given that the primary theatre of group operations is in Syria and Iraq. However, its’ members nationalities are diverse. Since the group’s inception in 2013, ISIS has attracted those from every corner of the globe, from the United States to Russia. According to a study by the Soufan Center and the Global Strategy Network, thousands of fighters have already returned to Europe and other countries in the Middle East from the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Of the estimated number of foreign fighters that have joined ISIS, around 30 percent have returned to their home countries (EPRS, 2018). Collectively, over 1,000 trained ISIS fighters have returned to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Belgium (Meko, 2018). 900 have returned to their native countries of Turkey, 400 to Russia, and 760 to Saudi Arabia (Meko, 2018). However, these numbers only include fighters that have been confirmed to have arrived- so the actual number of returned fighters is likely much higher.

Foreign women and children are also playing a noticeably larger role. According to a report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, approximately 41,490 foreign citizens became affiliated with ISIS from April of 2013 to June of 2018. Of this number, 13% were women, while 12% were minors. Women and minors accounted for approximately 23% of all British ISIS affiliates (Khomami, 2018). Like the men returning from conflict, each of these women and children may pose a major threat as well.

Fighters who have experience engaging in terrorist activities and operations in Syria, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle Eastern theater pose a serious threat for a number of reasons. First, through training and experience, they have mastered the use of weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), guns, vehicles, etc. They have learned an array of methods to inflict the maximum number of casualties possible. Second, these fighters will likely try to pass on their knowledge to others interested in committing acts of terrorism. Many areas throughout Europe have already become hotbeds of radicalization; for example, the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek has produced many Islamic extremists linked to terrorist incidents around the world, such as the 2015 Paris attacks. As hundreds (or possibly thousands) of foreign fighters return to Europe, they may target and train other radicalized individuals in places such as Molenbeek. There are many implications for European governments, who must take heed, prepare to apprehend these fighters, and prevent the spread of radicalization and training to at-risk populations.

Ultimately, the fall of ISIS in Syria will create an outpouring of foreign fighters. A proactive approach to apprehending these individuals is one of the best methods to prevent fighters from passing on their knowledge to others. Given the proximity of many countries in Europe to one another, it is easy for extremists to create international networks to facilitate attacks. By apprehending foreign fighters immediately upon their return, authorities can prevent them from galvanizing already-established networks in Europe- decreasing the likelihood of an effective, coordinated attack, and potentially saving hundreds or thousands of lives.

What Becomes of Returning ISIS Fighters?

Graphic from the Washington Post[1]

Since the Islamic State’s collapse in Syria and Iraq, returning jihadists pose a problem to countries that don’t know how to handle the risk they present. While most are imprisoned, some are being rehabilitated. The rehabilitation process is costly and long and it raises questions about how to deal with radicalized individuals and avoid additional radicalization and violence[2].

Solutions for de-radicalizing jihadists and their children are hardly one-size-fits-all. Especially when the people in question were not directly involved in attacks or violence, but could still radicalize others. While most countries have addressed the problem of returnees in their respective criminal justice systems, some critics have been vocal about potential negative ramifications.

In an interview with I.R.I.N. (Integrated Regional Information Networks), the father of a radicalized Kosovan fighter states that steep jail sentences will not help returnees, but rather encourage more people to become radicalized[3]. That may be true. By punishing returnees harshly, states run the risk of giving extremist groups more reasons to feel antagonized and persecuted, which they, in turn, could use in their rhetoric when radicalizing others.

The problem is that there are limited options for such people. While de-radicalization programs exist, they are costly and must be tailored to each individual. The programs work if done properly, but with approximately 5,600 fighters returning home, it is difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate so many at-risk people[4].

That said, mass incarceration does not eliminate the problem in the long run. A radicalized person needs to create a new identity and life purpose that does not revolve around violence. Therefore, a fusion of de-radicalization programs and incarceration might be the most efficient, realistic option for most states.

[1] Meko, Tim. Analysis | Islamic State fighters returning home. (Feb 22,2018.). Retrieved March 6, 2018, from
[2] Meko, Tim. Analysis | Islamic State fighters returning home. (Feb 22,2018.). Retrieved March 6, 2018, from
[3]Nianias, Helen. Lessons from Kosovo? How a European hotbed of Islamist extremism deals with returning fighters. (2018, March 2).
[4]  Meko, Tim. Analysis | Islamic State fighters returning home. (Feb 22,2018.). Retrieved March 6, 2018, from