Leached of land and leadership, the so-called Islamic State (IS) lies in ruin. But the ill-fated caliphate has a final, overdue reckoning for the West. Thousands of foreign terror recruits, rounded up amid IS’s chaotic collapse, now languish in prison. Most are in Syria, but Turkey – having seized swathes of the nation’s northeast in recent weeks – claims to have thousands under lock and key. Not for much longer. In a sudden move, Ankara has started sending the alleged jihadists home.
At the height of its bloodthirsty allure, IS drew in over 27,000 foreign recruits. A large proportion died on the sun-scorched plains of Syria and Iraq. Others have made their way home, running the gauntlet of domestic security checks. And the rest, stuck in judicial limbo, await their fate in Middle Eastern jail cells.
Turkey has 1,200 in custody, Ankara estimates. A quarter are new additions, swept up as Turkish troops wrestled control of northeastern Syria from the incumbent Kurds. President Erdoğan intends for their stay to be short, putting the world on notice with typical gusto: Turkey will not be a “hotel” for militants, his government said last week.
Western nations – particularly in Europe – have been slow to shoulder the burden of their home-grown militants, at times relinquishing responsibility altogether. France especially has faced criticism for casting aside its suspected jihadists, placing their fate in local prosecutions. These trials tend to fall short of international legal standards, the UN says, culminating more often than not in a death sentence.
Erdoğan is happy to play on these fears, cornering foreign powers into repatriating suspected terrorists or risk falling foul of international law. So far, it seems to be working. Soon after Turkey’s announcement, a suspected Danish jihadist was arrested upon his return to Copenhagen, as was a British national after touching down in London. France, Germany, and Ireland have each acceded to Ankara’s wishes also.
But it can be a logistically fraught process. Last week, an American citizen spent three days trapped in the border buffer zone between Greece and Turkey after a botched deportation attempt. His return to the US has now been green-lighted, but other cases pose greater problems. Keen to wash their hands of alleged terrorists, several states have moved to strip suspects of their citizenship. This is but a technicality says Erdoğan, adamant that Turkey will fly them home unilaterally – but with nations often demanding passenger manifests before opening their airspace, it may be an unworkable policy.
A shift in public opinion against repatriation efforts will likely harden the West’s stance further. In Germany, authorities believe more than a thousand citizens joined IS during its heyday. A fifth likely died in Iraq and Syria, but as many as 350 are thought to have made their way home, fuelling fears of domestic attacks. Though returned to be prosecuted, suspects coming from Turkey could well walk free for lack of evidence, further swelling the numbers of alleged militants at liberty. This prospect has had a marked impact on Germans’ approval of repatriation, says polling company Civey, which now puts public support at 31.5% – down from over 50% earlier in the year.
But in reality, Turkey’s foreign fighter contingent is only the tip of the iceberg. Kurdish authorities in Syria have upwards of 10,000 IS militants in detention, at least a fifth of which originate overseas. Despite Erdoğan’s military incursion drawing attention away from the prisons, nearly all remain under lock and key – but they are a “ticking time-bomb”, the US State Department said last week. Washington wants its European allies to hasten repatriation efforts, lest the detained militants slip their Kurdish captors and flood the continent through well-trodden migrant routes.
This would pose a very real threat to domestic security, with counter-terror forces struggling to keep tabs on returnees. If, however, they’re readmitted via official channels, much of the suspected fighters’ threat can be pacified – even if prosecutions fail. Governments enjoy sweeping counter-terror powers, allowing for rigorous surveillance and compulsory deradicalisation schemes.
This will, in all likelihood, mean little to President Erdoğan. Clearing Turkey’s backlog of foreign fighters is his only wish – and he looks to be getting his way.