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Foreign fighter returnees in prison: Meting out justice or building up ISIS cadres?

Elena Pokalova
College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University
The views expressed here are her own.

The Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka caught many unawares. It seemed that Islamic State was in no position to mount terrorist operations while it was fighting for the last stretches of land under its control in Syria. And yet, ISIS proudly took credit for the attacks, promising further surprises against its enemies. Moreover, for the first time in years, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appeared in a video.

Baghdadi extolled the Sri Lanka attacks as a successful revenge operation for the defeat at Baghuz. He cheered his followers and insisted that ISIS will not surrender. Instead, Baghdadi promised more attacks in the future. “There will be more to come after this battle,” he said.

The attacks in Sri Lanka and Baghdadi’s statement left many wondering where ISIS will strike next. Will the group succeed in smuggling its agents across borders to attack against its enemies? Or will ISIS rely on new recruits to carry out terrorist attacks in the West?

However, for many countries, including the U.S. and its Coalition partners, the threat is closer to home than one might expect.

It is just a matter of several years before former ISIS foreign fighters will be released from prison. Some of them are already out. The problem is that Western prisons have long been the scene of jihadist radicalization and recruitment. Given that hundreds of ISIS foreign fighters ended up in prison when they came back home, one can expect that some of them will get out prepared to continue militancy.

In compliance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178 (2014) on foreign terrorist fighters, many Western countries introduced criminal penalties for attempting to travel to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups.

Often, foreign fighters face prosecution and prison time upon their return home. However, the immediate challenge of prosecuting foreign fighter returnees is the lack of evidence from combat zones. In many cases, it is impossible to ascertain the exact nature of activities an individual undertook in Syria and Iraq, and longer sentences for murder or terrorism are thus not available. As a result, many foreign fighters have been sent to prison for just several years.

For example, in the Netherlands, the first foreign fighter returnee received an initial sentence of three years in prison. In Germany, the first sentence for foreign fighting was just short of four years. In France, the first returnee to be prosecuted was jailed for seven years. In the U.S., sentences for ISIS-related convictions averaged 13.2 years.

Not surprisingly, by now, many of the former foreign fighters are getting out of prison. For instance, some estimate that in the United Kingdom, on average, one convicted extremist is released from prison every week. In the U.S., at least 80 imprisoned extremists are expected to be out by 2023. The question remains what one can expect of former foreign fighters who are now leaving prisons.

While not everyone will leave prison a hardened jihadist, unfortunately, we have already seen the tragic consequences of prison radicalization and recruitment.

ISIS has been especially skillful at targeting prisoners. Notoriously, Mehdi Nemmouche was radicalized in prison and was known to the French authorities for his extremist views. However, after his release he was able to travel to Syria only to return to carry out one of the first ISIS-directed terrorist attacks in Europe. In May 2014 Nemmouche opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four people.

Amedy Coulibaly was another person with a criminal record who became a terrorist. Coulibaly was in a French prison when he met Djamel Beghal and Cherif Kouachi. Under the influence of Beghal, Coulibaly assumed more radical views, and together with Kouachi he planned coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris.

In January 2015 Coulibaly uploaded a video with a pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Baghdadi and went on to take hostages at a Paris kosher supermarket, where he killed four people.

Since then, a number of ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in the West have involved individuals who were radicalized or recruited in prison, one of the most recent being the 2018 attack on the Strasbourg Christmas Market.

Given such precedents, and considering that hundreds of former foreign fighters ended up in prison, the mere mathematical probability is high that some of the returnees will come out of prison more radicalized and more prepared to revenge for their experiences.

The Spanish Interior Ministry has already revealed that a number of jihadist militants became even “more radical during their incarceration.” This poses another question: is prison the correct response to all foreign fighter returnees?

While inevitably, some foreign fighters deserve to be in prison, for others, imprisonment will prove to be more traumatizing than rehabilitative.

A number of foreign fighters came back disillusioned, after realizing that the reality on the ground in Syria and Iraq was different from the pictures presented in the ISIS Dabiq or Rumiyah magazines. Such individuals require counseling and assistance. Instead, they go to prison where they meet other disillusioned foreign fighters, or worse, hardened ISIS recruiters.

Instead of renouncing what is left of their desire to defend the Caliphate, such individuals receive reinforcement to their already radical views. When it is time to leave prison, such individuals might not come out with a commitment to disengage from violence.

On the contrary, prison experiences might convince them that violence is the only way ahead. As a result, some former foreign fighters might be leaving prison as reinforcement cadres for ISIS, as agents ready to fulfill Baghdadi’s threats of future attacks.

Prosecution of foreign fighters remains a challenging process. While prison is definitely an appropriate response to some, individual risk assessments can help identify individuals who show promise of reform outside of correctional facilities. Non-custodial sentences should be applied to as many cases as feasible. After all, imprisoning some returning foreign fighters might be more dangerous to the society in the long run than giving them a second chance and helping them return to being regular citizens.


Elena PokalovaDr. Elena Pokalova is an expert on security issues with a focus on terrorism and counterterrorism. Dr. Pokalova has a vast record of publications focused on terrorism, counterterrorism, and ethnic conflict.

Her articles have appeared in such journals as Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Critical Studies on Terrorism, and Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies. Her book “Chechnya’s Terrorist Network: The Evolution of Terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus” has been named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five best on Russia, Chechnya and terrorism.

She has appeared as an expert in a number of media outlets including C-SPAN, Voice of America, and Stratfor. Currently Dr. Pokalova is an Associate Professor at the National Defense University where she teaches graduate courses in security studies.

Read more of her work on Google Scholar.


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