Fed-up foreign ISIS fighters ‘likely to struggle’ when returning home

Experts say the brutality of the conflict 'kicks in,' prompting their return

Paul Crompton
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Disillusioned fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other militant groups who wish to return to their home countries are likely to face a difficult task, experts told Al Arabiya News, as Western governments plan measures against returning rebels.

Many rebels “have gone out to fight in wars for what they believed were a clear reasons or laudable purposes, then have seen things in sharp reality,” said Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).


After some time in Iraq or Syria, the reality of the “war economy,” – smuggling, for-profit kidnappings, fighting with other rebel groups, and brutality, kicks in, Doyle explained

“It’s not what they thought were getting into,” he told Al Arabiya News.

Other than the fact that most ISIS recruits are young and likely driven by impulse, the reason why they travelled to Iraq or Syria to join the “jihad” in the first place is due to their “sense of anomie” (a term for a sociological condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals) back home in the West, said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

Wakeup call

“After spending time fighting for Daesh [referring to ISIS’s name in Arabic]in Iraq and Syria, they came to a conclusion that no matter how bad in their opinion their life was in the West, it still remains much better to what they are currently encountering,” said Khashan.

“This is a wakeup call for them, probably, and it might as well open new horizons for them once they get back… Western countries need to treat this phenomenon as a psychological case rather than as a criminal issue,” he said.

Earlier in September, UK PM David Cameron – speaking days after the upping of the UK terror threat level - said that new powers are needed to seize the passports of terrorist suspects and stop British-born extremists from returning, the BBC reported.

However, Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief at UK spy agencies MI5 and MI6, told the London-based Observer newspaper that repentant fighters needed “to know that there is a place for them back at home.”

“These are the people who can expose the true nature of [ISIS] and its leadership. Their stories of brutality and the motives behind it will be far more credible and persuasive than the rhetoric of men in suits,” he added.

Unlikely idea

According to Doyle, seizing the passports of terror suspects is unlikely to sway hardline extremists. “I’m not sure [that] if they are that ideologically motivated that having their passport taken away from is going to work.”

“At one stage the Saudi Arabian authorities took Bin Laden’s passport away from him, but I don’t think that stopped him from his destructive plans,” he added.

Ed Blanche, a Beirut-based insurgency and counter-terrorism analyst, told Al Arabiya News that Western authorities are “exaggerating” the problem of returning radicals.

“I don’t see that the western countries can legislate [measures] that can appeal to the communities in which these guys operate. If they become very restrictive then it’s simply going to alienate these communities and help the radicals,” he said.

While UK authorities debate how to handle the presumed upcoming influx of returning fighters from Syria and Iraq - with reports stating that the number of British nationals embroiled in the conflicts reached 500 – Australia has raised its terror threat level to “high.”

A report from German security services said that the hundreds of Germans who travelled to Syria to join jihadist groups are largely young, male and failed at school and in their careers, English-language German news website TheLocal.de reported on Thursday.


Reports regularly trickle through of ISIS fighters hailing from all over the Western world – including Canada, the United States, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and even Belgium, which reportedly has the highest per-capita number of rebel fighters from the West.

Yet despite reported disillusionment from foreign fighters, ISIS has managed to bolster its ground-based members due to “stronger recruitment” from June, with the current figure standing from between 20,000 to 31,500, a CIA spokesman said on Thursday.

Earlier this month, King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), claimed that they had spoken to a representative for UK-born militants who claimed that the group wanted to come back to Britain but were afraid of being locked up on terror charges.

As many as a fifth of British fighters in the country could be trying to find a way out of their current situation, said a professor from the institute.

“The people we have been talking to... want to quit but feel trapped because all the Government is talking about is locking them up for 30 years,” said ICSR Professor Peter Neumann, the UK-based Times reported.

About 260 Britons are believed to have returned from Syria, with 40 of those awaiting trial, the newspaper said.

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