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Explainer: How can the return of Islamic State members to their home countries work?

The government here has said Lisa Smith, who was married to an Islamic State fighter, can come home.

The Irish government has said Lisa Smith has the right to return to Ireland.
The Irish government has said Lisa Smith has the right to return to Ireland.
Image: Tom Conachy

THE IRISH GOVERNMENT has said an Irish woman reportedly detained in Syria on suspicion of Islamic State membership will be allowed to return to Ireland. 

Lisa Smith, who has a two-year-old child, has been detained in Syria by US armed forces.

The Dundalk native previously worked in the Irish Defence Forces but left service in 2011. She went on to convert to Islam and married a Muslim man. It is believed she departed for Syria in 2015 after her marriage broke down. While there, she married a British man. It is understood he was killed two months ago. 

Speaking this week, Leo Varadkar said that while more information is needed about the case, Smith will have the right to return to Ireland. 

“As an Irish citizen, she will have the right to return to Ireland, as will her child who’s an Irish citizen,” the Taoiseach told reporters on Monday.  

“But it’s not just as simple as coming here, and everything proceeding as if nothing had happened. 

But ultimately this is an Irish citizen and we don’t believe that removing an Irish citizen’s citizenship from her or her family, rendering them stateless, would be either the right or compassionate thing to do.

If Smith does return, it will be the first case of Ireland repatriating a member of the Islamic State group. A small number of Irish citizens have returned from Syria and Iraq, but they did so under the radar. 

What are they doing?

Readers will already be familiar with the case of British teenager Shamima Begum, who had lost two children and was pregnant with her third when she expressed a desire to leave a Syrian refugee camp and return home to have her baby in England. She said she wanted to raise her child there.

Begum had left London at 15 to join the Islamic State group. In interviews she gave in the refugee camp, she said she did not regret joining the terror group. After heated debate in the UK, the British Home Office made the decision to revoke her British citizenship.

The now 19-year-old gave birth to a baby boy but he perished of pneumonia in the camp before he turned three weeks old. 

Two other women from the UK who are living in Syrian camps with their children have also been stripped of their citizenship, according to news reports.

The Dutch justice and security minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus recently revealed his government is cooperating with Syrian authorities in relation to the return of female Isis members and their children to the Netherlands. 

However the minister also said, when asked about helping Shamimia Begum’s Dutch husband, that his government does not offer any help to Dutch men in Syria willing to return. 

The French government has confirmed it is preparing for the return of French jihadists, though it said this will be done on a “case-by-case basis”.  

And although US President Donald Trump has pushed for European countries to take back hundreds of fighters captured in Syria, he has shown an unwillingness for his own country to do the same, even with so-called Isis brides.

When a 24-year-old-woman from Alabama said she wanted to come home, Trump instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to allow her back into the country. 

Hoda Muthana left the US to join Islamic State in Syria when she was 20. She has an 18-month-old son and has said she regrets joining the terrorist group. 

She told ABC News: “I wish I could take it completely off the net, completely out of people’s memory… I regret it… I hope America doesn’t think I’m a threat to them and I hope they can accept me and I’m just a normal human being who’s been manipulated once and hopefully never again.”

Who are the returnees and why are they coming back?

The European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (Ran) has a manual for member states on how to respond to the return of terrorist fighters and their families. 

It lists a number of reasons that people return, including;

  • Disillusioned/remorseful;
  • Family pressure and intervention;
  • Poor living conditions/healthcare (injuries, childbirth etc);
  • Sent to carry out an attack or feel they can do more for the case in Europe;
  • Captured and returned home unwillingly.

With female returnees, the manual says that some may be unhappy with their experience of hardship and oppression or that their husbands may have been killed in the fighting. Others come back for medical treatment for their children. In a few instances, families have paid for the women’s freedom, rescuing them from terrorist organisations. 

Ran explains that returning men - in particular – may have been involved in war crimes such as murder, rape and slavery, and may have taken part in terrorist or violent extremist atrocities.

All of them have witnessed extreme violence, and lived in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. It is also important to note that disillusionment with a terrorist group does not necessarily equate to distance from a violent ideology, nor disengagement from the ‘jihadi’ cause, when back in EU.

When it comes to female members of the terrorist group, the network says depicting them as victims can deprive women of their agency and ignore the fact that Western women who join jihadist groups tend to be “very motivated by ideology”. 

For many women, joining Daesh [Islamic State] is driven by utopian ideals, and fulfils a need for excitement and meaning. Daesh propaganda focuses on projecting an idealised image of life in Syria and Iraq. Other factors behind women leaving Europe for Daesh include teenagers falling in love with the image of marrying a ‘warrior’, or discrimination (perceived or experienced).

According to Ran, many women were led to believe that joining Daesh would give them a sense of empowerment.

Although the main role of women in the Islamic State group is that of a wife and child-bearer, some are also enforcers of public virtue. The all-female al-Khaansa unit can dole out punishments and operate roadblocks to search women. Several Western women have joined this unit.

Children who have been born into and grow up in areas of Islamic State battle have often been exposed to extreme levels of violence. Ran said this creates trauma and potentially desensitises children to brualisation and violence. 

Acting out what they see adults do is a major risk. This will traumatise them and lead to psychosocial problems and possibly major security risks for the future. Understanding the extent of indoctrination, the exposure to violence and the living conditions experienced is crucial to assessing these children.

The Irish government’s position

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said Lisa Smith and her child will have the right to return to Ireland as both are Irish citizens. The government does not have the option of revoking her citizenship – not that it has indicated it would want to anyway – because this would leave her stateless, something that is contrary to international human rights law

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has also said every effort will be made to ensure she gets home. He said this is a very complex situation, and that the relevant facts must be ascertained before further steps are taken.

There will be a number of issues for the Irish State to tackle if Smith does return, not least that the government has no experience with this particular situation. Lisa Smith would be a test case.

Rukmini Callimachi, Terrorism Correspondent with the New York Times told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday that allowing Smith – and other Irish citizens in Syria – to return would put it “far ahead of the curve” as other European countries have been slow to take people back.

The big challenge for Western countries is in sanctioning Islamic State fighters and members on their return.

The Taoiseach has said a security assessment will be carried out before Smith is allowed to return, but that “going to live in Syria, in what was called the Islamic State is not in itself an offence or a crime”.

“I know the authorities there want to interrogate her to see if she was involved in any crimes there, but it’s very possible that she was never a combatant, for example. There may need to be a prosecution there and we need to make sure that if she does return to Ireland that she isn’t a threat to anybody.”

Prosecution is “the real puzzle”, according to Callimachi, who pointed out that there is a presumption of innocence in the justice systems of Western liberal democracies.

That presumption of innocence and the legal proof that prosecutors need to bring to be able to charge somebody with terrorism is quite high in many of these countries.
What we believe is happening is that countries like Canada are afraid that if these people are brought back home to Canadian soil or to the UK or to other nations in Europe that they simply will not succeed in being able to prosecute them.
Let’s face it, that is an unpleasant scenario. The thought that these people who we know joined this deadly terrorist organisation, that they could come back to our countries and essentially walk free. That would be a disastrous scenario for any politician, especially if there’s even one attack by one of these people.

She said what is “shocking”, is that Western countries had almost five years to plan for this moment but have left it until “the last little pocket of land is about to fall”.

The European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network is focused on resocialisation and rehabilitation, even if someone has been prosecuted and is in prison. 

It recommends that there is investment in resocialisation while returnees are still in detention to decrease their risk of recidivism to violent extremism.

It also suggests that member states consider complementing criminal justice policies with resocialisation efforts for returnees where prosecution is not an option due to a lack of evidence. 

Acknowledge that the reintegration of mothers who have succeeded in returning with small children is heavily dependent upon their fear of losing their children due to child protection measures. Therefore, consider cooperation with reintegration to be a precondition for custody.

Member states are also advised to consider whether they should provide education, employment and housing to help foster rehabilitation. 

Mental health practitioners should be involved in screening and treatment if needed. And it should be acknowledged that while returnees might be the perpetrators of violence, they may also be victims of rape, beatings and torture. 

‘The practicalities of deradicalisation’

Deradicalisation will be an important part of this process and Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri, chair of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council, told TheJournal.ie he is concerned that Ireland does not have the necessary legislation or systems in place now.  

“It’s important that they contact people like myself who can assist in deradicalisation. Religious leaders need to be part of the solution and the government hasn’t contacted me yet. I don’t think they even have the vision to contact those who can provide a counter narrative to those who are radicalised. 

It is possible because we don’t have the legislation here that she may be ultimately free because of a lack of evidence. The government on the one hand is saying she has a right to come back but they do not mention the practicalities and the importance of deradicalisation. 

Dr Al-Qadri said he twice met with individuals who expressed a desire to join Islamic State at a time when it was starting to gain attention but was “not known for the atrocities we know of now”. 

“I spoke to these individuals about how it was a wrong and extreme narrative that has no place in Islam, and that it was a contradiction.

“It did work and I believe it is possible to deradicalise people like Lisa provided there is regret and an acknowledgement they were wrong. There is a chance.”

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