In January 2014, two French teenage boys ran away from their homes in Toulouse in search of adventure. Like a few hundred other young Frenchmen and over 2,000 Europeans, they looked for that adventure in Syria. It wasn’t hard to find—social media told them where to go and whom to see.
Their parents were frantic and reached out to the French authorities to help them, but the government could do little as the boys had already left France. But the boys soon discovered on their own that war is both more horrifying and more boring than Call of Duty—and you don’t get a chance to play again when you are killed. After just three weeks, they returned home.
They were not welcomed back. The authorities knew where they had been and arrested them, putting them on trial for joining a terrorist group—much to the consternation of their parents.
French policy is to systematically prosecute jihadist returnees from Syria or Iraq on charges of terrorism. According to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, the formula is straightforward: “I’m often asked what happens to people who leave to wage jihad in Syria when they return to France. It’s simple: They’re connected with a terrorist enterprise, [so they’re] arrested and handed over to justice.”
This policy has the merit of both moral clarity and political expediency. Fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is wrong and a criminal act in almost every country, as affirmed unanimously by the UN Security Council in a September session chaired by President Obama. Even by the lowest possible standard—that of terrorist groups—ISIS is brutal and evil, and Western governments should try to weaken this group whenever possible. More pointedly, a terrorist who carried out an attack after security services had passed on a chance to arrest him would embarrass the security services and enrage the public. This is how intelligence chiefs lose their jobs.
But there’s a problem: the policy doesn’t actually prevent terrorism and may even hinder that effort. Research shows that the vast majority of jihadist returnees have no interest in committing terrorist attacks at home. Prosecuting all returnees, even those whose time on the battlefield was brief and inconsequential, offers a false sense of finality. Jail time is often short, so the ISIS volunteer does not simply rot his life away. He may soon pose an even greater threat, particularly because in prison, he is often exposed to hardened jihadists and radical religious leaders, giving him access to broader networks.
Worse, when an individual on the fence knows he will face imprisonment upon return, he may feel he has less to lose by moving toward terrorism at home, and his family will fear that working with authorities will lead to punishment rather than leniency. As Shiraz Maher, a King’s College researcher on foreign fighters, puts it, “this makes the decision for you.” When jihadist networks see their members systematically targeted, some may decide to focus their energies on their home governments rather than the struggle in Syria and Iraq.
Such coercive measures can also create “suspect communities” where radicalization is more likely and where community members are less likely to work with the police and government in general. Parents who fear that their children will be arrested will be less likely to seek out the help of the police. In the past, family and community members have at times been successful in convincing returned fighters toward a different path, even getting them to inform on their former comrades—but only if they trust the government. Some officials fear that being more coercive might anger Muslims in Europe and thereby exacerbate the social conditions that can lead some individuals to go abroad to participate in jihad.
There are other options. Western security services report that they usually know when individuals return. In some countries, such as Denmark, identified returnees are evaluated for risk: those who are considered traumatized are given treatment, and in general there is an attempt to get them into school or a job and to otherwise remove them from a dangerous milieu. Some deserve careful monitoring, and a few are beyond redemption and must be arrested.
Efforts to promote a counternarrative are also valuable, particularly if they involve parents, preachers, and community leaders. Community programs in the past have struggled to counter radicalization effectively, but the likely size of the coming wave of jihadist returnees means that such programs deserve new emphasis. The goal should be to move potential terrorists towards nonviolence; since many are in that category already, hounding them with the threat of arrest or otherwise creating a sense of alienation can backfire. The counternarrative should also be pushed in prisons in order to make them a less fertile ground for recruitment and radicalization.
It is easier to take harsh steps, as it appeals to people’s sense of justice and horror at the crimes of ISIS. And the idea of spending scarce tax dollars to care for people whom many consider terrorists is obviously not appealing to politicians. But failing to do so may lead to violence that could have been prevented.
Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Jeremy Shapiro is a fellow in the Brookings foreign policy program. This piece draws on their work on foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq that appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.