The return of foreign fighters to Europe: a looming threat

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted man – with a 25$ million price tag on his head – appeared for the first time in five years in a 30 April video where he claimed the Easter attack against the Christian community in Sri Lanka. Sitting cross-legged with a Kalashnikov at his side, he relaunched the idea of a crusade against Christians: “Truthfully, the battle of Islam and its people against the crusaders is a long battle,” he says. “The battle of Baghuz is over. But it did show the savagery, brutality and ill intentions of the Christians towards the Muslim community.”

The message was addressed to all Islamists around the world, including many foreign fighters who, after the final battle of Baghuz in north-eastern Syria where ISIS was territorially defeated, are now trying to get back to their home countries, including many European countries, or are detained in prison by the Syrian Kurds.

According to the United Nations, there are over 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries who may have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups. Research from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London found that 18,852 of them came from the Middle East and North Africa, 7,252 from Eastern Europe, 5,965 from Central Asia, 5,904 from Western Europe, 1,010 from Eastern Asia, 1,063 from South-East Asia, 753 from the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, 447 from Southern Asia and 244 from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of them have been killed in Syria or Iraq and others have been repatriated to their home nations, but 7,366 persons have already returned to their home countries (20%), or appear to be going through the repatriation process, according to data published by King’s College researchers.

They pose a massive threat to Western nations since they have had military training in Syria or Iraq, have learnt how to use weapons properly and have fought a proper war. They could be a source of a new radicalization wave among Muslim communities in their home countries or even in Western prisons if national security authorities have already caught them, according to reports from various European intelligence services.

Cook and Vale, ICSR, 2018. Available at

1,100 foreign fighters are detained in Kurdish prisons in northern Syria and there are around 2,000 of their wives and children, according to Kurdish military officials. More than once, the SDF, the military alliance composed of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian and Syriac Christians, has publicly complained about the lack of cooperation from jihadists’ countries of origin.

US President Donald Trump tweeted on 30 April: “We have 1,800 ISIS Prisoners taken hostage in our final battles to destroy 100% of the Caliphate in Syria. Decisions are now being made as to what to do with these dangerous prisoners. European countries are not helping at all, even though this was very much done for their benefit. They are refusing to take back prisoners from their specific countries. Not good!

They have also called for the institution of an international tribunal to to prosecute terrorists” to ensure that trials are “conducted fairly and in accordance with international law and human rights covenants and charters”, as reported by the BBC. This solution would be the first sign of recognition for the Kurdish-Arab-Assyrian-Syrian autonomous region in the north of Syria and for this reason it is likely to be rejected by the Syrian Arab Republic, Russia and Iran, the three major players that fought against ISIS in the centre and the south of the country.

Meanwhile, Macron’s France signed a deal with Iraq: Baghdad’s authorities will be in charge of taking jihadists of French nationality from Kurdish prison in Syria and of moving them to Iraq, where they can be judged by Iraqi authorities.

Iraq has already tried thousands of its own nationals arrested on home soil for joining IS, including women, and has sentenced hundreds to death, FRANCE24 reported.

The country remains one of the top five “executioner” nations in the world, according to an Amnesty International report. Human Rights organization have raised concerns over any agreement between Western countries and Iraq where the number of death sentences issued by Iraqi courts more than quadrupled from 65 in 2017 to at least 271 in 2018.

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