Written by Mari-Luz Kerkhoven


When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, European governments became increasingly concerned about European citizens leaving for Syria to join the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS) (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, pp. 6-7). These are so-called foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), who travel to another state than their state of nationality or residence “…to plan, prepare, or participate in acts of terrorism” (Widagdo, Indrayanti & Saraswati, 2021, p. 1). This also includes “…individuals who provide or receive terrorist training” (ibid). Although it is difficult to provide exact numbers about how many Europeans left to fight in Syria, it has been estimated that there are around 5,000 European FTFs (RAN, 2017, p. 6). The concerns of European countries mainly relate to the fear that upon returning, FTFs will commit terrorist attacks (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, pp. 6-7). These concerns also extend to the families, mainly women and children, of these FTFs (Houry, 2019, p. 65; Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 682). Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that foreign fighters are not a new phenomenon (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 4; Houry, 2019, p. 59; Ragazzi & Walmsley, 2018, p. 26; Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 682). What has changed,however, is the scale of foreign fighters joining ISIS as well as the high percentage of women and children who undertook the journey (Houry, 2019, p. 59). Furthermore, fears of returning foreign fighters have been further exacerbated by terrorist attacks in European cities carried out by returnees, such as in 2016 in Brussels (Ragab, 2016, p. 91).

Despite these fears and concerns, European countries have not adopted an adequate response to returning foreign terrorist fighters. They have favoured short-term responses in which FTFs are tried in Syria and Iraq, the places where they committed the crimes (Houry, 2019, p. 62; Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 688), and have refused individuals trying to enter their countries (Hoffman & Furlon, 2020, p. 26; Houry, 2019, p. 60; Renard & Coolsaet, 2020, p. 6). This is mainly informed by a securitisation approach in which FTFs are seen as ‘ticking time bombs’ who upon returning to Europe will commit terrorist attacks (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, pp. 6-7). Furthermore, this is also informed by the negative European public opinion regarding the return of these fighters (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 6; Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 14). However, as this article will show, these responses are problematic for both security and humanitarian concerns. Concerning security, it is problematic because inaction may lead to these individuals becoming a security threat in the long term (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 10; Houry, 2019, p. 72). Regarding humanitarian concerns, it is problematic because the situation at the detention centres and camps in Syria and Iraq, where foreign fighters and their families are held, is very dire and necessities, such as food and healthcare, are lacking (Houry, 2019, p. 64; Mehra, 2019).

The first section of this article will focus on the main responses of European governments and explain why these are problematic. It will be emphasised that European governments need to actively repatriate FTFs to decrease the security threat of these fighters as well as to safeguard humanitarian principles. The last part of the article is concerned with some of the challenges regarding active repatriation.

‘Ticking time bombs’

As mentioned in the introduction, European countries favour the refusal of entry of FTFs to their countries, as well as the trying of these individuals in Syria and Iraq, over active repatriation. However, these responses are problematic for numerous reasons.

Firstly, the refusal of foreign terrorist fighters has meant that European countries have refused to provide the necessary travel documentation, stripped foreign fighters of their nationality, and contest the existence of their original citizenship (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 4; Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 690; Widagdo et al, 2021, p. 5).  In some cases, this has even extended to their family members. As many children were born in the so-called ‘IS caliphate’ they do not enjoy official citizenship (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 14) which puts them at risk of statelessness (Houry, 2019, p. 70). European governments have left it to Iraqi and Kurdish authorities in Syria to deal with this problem (Houry, 2019, p. 61). However, in many cases it is challenging to prove the lineage of these children as they are often separated from their parents and there are no mechanisms in place “… to compare DNA test results with those of extended families in home countries” (Houry, 2019, p. 71). This is problematic as children are protected under international law, meaning that they are seen as victims of their parent’s decisions and crimes (Ragazzi & Welmsley, 2018, p. 37; Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 691). Furthermore, international law “… obligates states to fulfil a child’s right to acquire a nationality” (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 4). In addition, stripping foreign fighters of their nationalities is also against international law (Widagdo et al, 2021, p. 5). The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) stipulates that “no one shall be deprived of the right to enter the territory of the state of which he is a national” (Scherrer & Isaksson, 2018, p. 8).

Secondly, favouring foreign terrorist fighters to be tried in Syria and Iraq is also problematic because of the:

“… frequent lack of transparency in judicial proceedings, the use of the death penalty, the extensive practice of torture, limited or non-existent access to defence counsel in courts, and sentencing in lack of proper evidence, as well as the collapse of a properly functioning judiciary system in both Syria and Iraq” (Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 688).

This means that there is a risk that FTFs and their families will receive unfair trials, thereby contesting the fundamental right of due process (ibid.). Furthermore, the Kurdish authorities that are in control of Northern Syria consider FTFs to be a burden and prefer that their home countries take them back (Houry, 2019, p. 62). Here it is also important to keep in mind that the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria “…is not an internationally recognised legal entity, meaning that it has no legal authority to prosecute or try anyone” (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 8).

Although there are differences between European governments and some governments have actively repatriated their citizens, such as Bosnia and Macedonia (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 21), most European governments have only proactively repatriated European citizens in very exceptional circumstances (Renard & Coolsaet, 2020, p. 3). These repatriations almost exclusively apply to orphaned children or children in very dire health conditions (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 3; Mehra, 2019; Renard & Coolsaet, 2020, pp. 4-5). The reason why European governments have been very reluctant to repatriate their citizens has to do with security concerns and public opinion. As mentioned in the introduction, European governments consider FTFs to be ‘ticking time bombs’ who upon returning will commit terrorist acts (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, pp. 6-7). Moreover, the general feeling is that even if returned FTFs do not directly commit terrorist acts, they will radicalise others and inspire them to engage in terrorist activities (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 9). Furthermore, it is considered to be political suicide to have “…the perception of compassion towards those who have betrayed their country” (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 7). This is because generally, European public opinion opposes the return of FTFs (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 14). Similarly, this public opinion is also informed by the fear of FTFs coming back and committing terrorist attacks on European soil (Ragab, 2018, p. 92). Due to this securitisation narrative, as well as the pressure of public opinion, European governments tend to favour inaction and burdening other countries with European FTFs. However, as the next section will show, this kind of thinking may actually lead to security threats in the long-term and does not respect humanitarian principles.

Security and humanitarian concerns

By burdening other countries with European FTFs and refusing these individuals entry to European soil, European governments are actually creating long-term security risks.

There have been instances in which FTFs have escaped from camps and detention centres in Syria and Iraq (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 5; Widagdo et al, 2021, p. 6). In 2019, increased fighting between Turkey’s military and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in north-eastern Syria led to 750 people escaping from the Ain Issa camp, including Europeans (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 5). Ain Issa camp is under the control of the SDF and is where the majority of European fighters are being held (Mehra, 2019). Furthermore, throughout 2020 several riots have occurred in Kurdish detention facilities, which has led experts to say that “the risk of a mass breakout cannot be discounted” (O’Donnell, Akard & Barr, 2020, p. 5). In addition, the prisons are often overcrowded, meaning that foreign terrorist fighters may have the opportunity to radicalise others and network with other IS inmates (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 7). Besides these concerns, foreign terrorist fighters and their families have been held in detention centres and camps in which the situations are very dire (Houry, 2019, p. 64; Mehra, 2019). There is often no access to basic necessities such as healthcare and food (Houry, 2019, p. 64; Mehra, 2019). These dire situations may actually lead to radicalisation or further radicalisation (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 3). As children grow up in brutal conditions and are subject to persistent indoctrination, they are at risk of becoming radicalised and may carry out terrorist attacks on European soil (ibid). What is even more, is that these individuals will pose a security threat despite their location (Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 691). Meaning that even if these foreign terrorist fighters do not commit terrorist attacks on European soil, they might carry these out in other countries (ibid). As mentioned above, children are at risk of becoming stateless which means that many of the children in the camps will “… end up living a life of stigma on the margins of Syrian and Iraqi Society. Those bearing the “IS” label may find such societal stigma to be the fuel for radicalisation” (Foury, 2019, p. 71). Furthermore, there is also a risk of increasing numbers of radicalised women as extremist women try to impose IS-style Sharia law on other female camp residents (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 7; Renard & Coolsaet, 2020, p. 2). Inaction by European governments thus actually creates the ‘ticking time bombs’ that governments and citizens are so afraid of.

Beside security concerns, the bad conditions in the camps and detention centres are also of humanitarian concern. In the al-Hol camp, controlled by the SDF and where the majority of women and children reside, there are a lot of cases of sexual abuse and violence (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 4). As already mentioned above, there is often a lack of food and insufficient access to healthcare, as well as a lack of decent sanitation, adequate housing, and education (Mehra, 2019; Renard & Coolsaet, 2020, p. 3). The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 4; Renard & Coolsaet, 2020, p. 3). These situations are detrimental to children’s physical, emotional, and educational development (Mehra, 2019). Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which 196 countries have ratified, state parties “… have to ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child” (ibid). However, at the moment, European governments are not living up to this responsibility.

Thus, although the rationalisation behind inaction on part of European governments is informed by FTFs being a security risk, European governments are actually creating the conditions in which FTFs can become a threat. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that these individuals and their families are European citizens meaning that European FTFs remain the responsibility of their home countries (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 5). Moreover, the United Nations (UN) developed a document regarding FTFs which includes that member states have the primary responsibility for their respective nationals (Widagdo et al, 2020, p. 3). Due to both the security and humanitarian concerns expressed above, European governments are not living up to this responsibility.

In light of both security and humanitarian concerns, active repatriation is the best option as it allows states  “… to monitor and control the threat posed by foreign fighters, whereas leaving them in war zones would leave the threat open-ended (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 10). Besides, it would also allow states to respect human rights and to take responsibility for their citizens (Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 694; Widagdo et al, 2020, p. 7). Nevertheless, this does not mean that this will be an easy task and the next section will outline some of the challenges identified with active repatriation.


Although active repatriation is the best course of action in light of security and humanitarian concerns, there are some challenges concerning this task.

Firstly, there might be legal challenges to prosecuting foreign terrorist fighters in their home countries as gathering evidence is more difficult (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 11). It may be difficult to travel to Syria and Iraq to gather evidence due to current violent conflicts and the lack of a judicial cooperation agreement (ibid). Furthermore, not every country has the necessary legislation to prosecute foreign fighters, meaning that not every country can prosecute those who joined ISIS (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 12). To overcome these challenges, some countries have favoured the creation of an international tribunal, such as Sweden and the Netherlands (Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p. 689). However, this is not a feasible solution as an international tribunal needs a UN Security Council resolution and it is expected that Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council, will veto such a resolution due to their strong ties with the Assad regime in Syria (ibid.). Furthermore, prisons must not become hubs of radicalisation (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 13). It is also important to keep in mind that deradicalisation is very complex and it is very difficult to assess the authenticity of the renouncement of Jihad (Acheson & Paul, 2020, p. 9). Furthermore, prison sentences alone will not achieve deradicalisation, meaning that besides more punitive measures, states need to take resocialisation, reintegration, and rehabilitation measures and even then it is difficult to assess whether these individuals will not become a threat (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, pp. 15-16).

Secondly, policy-makers will have to deal with negative public opinion regarding foreign terrorist fighters (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 14). In regard to this issue, it might be better if European countries inform their citizens as to why controlled repatriation benefits national security (Mehra, 2019). As was shown above, many citizens are fearful that upon returning, foreign terrorist fighters will commit terrorist attacks. Furthermore, European governments should provide transparency on what happens when foreign terrorist fighters are repatriated and how they can and will be brought to justice (ibid.).

On top of these challenges, FTFs might pose security risks. Although it is better to actively repatriate these individuals and their families, it is impossible to guarantee security (Widagdo et al, 2021, pp. 6-7). However, it is important to keep in mind that not every returnee is motivated to plan and/or execute terrorist attacks (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 7). Some return heavily traumatised while others become disillusioned by fighting or with ISIS (ibid). Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that some foreign fighters have been killed in combat and not everyone returns to their home country (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 7; Ragab, 2018, p. 87).


Although European governments have already been concerned with the return of ISIS FTFs since 2011, they have not developed an adequate response. European governments have favoured short-term responses due to a securitisation narrative and pressure of negative public opinion regarding these returnees. European governments and citizens fear that upon returning, FTFs or their family members will commit terrorist attacks or radicalise others (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, pp. 6-7; 9). However, as this article has shown, the responses of denying citizens entry to European soil as well as favouring local trials creates long-term security risks for Europe and other countries.

Although there are many challenges regarding active repatriation and it is not possible to fully eliminate the risk of FTFs committing violent acts, it is the best response as it allows governments to monitor and control FTFs as well as take responsibility for citizens that have become FTFs (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020, p. 10; Rigotti & Barboza, 2021, p.694; Widagdo et al, 2020, p. 7). However, European governments have instead favoured the easy way out and turned a blind eye toward FTFs and their families, thereby creating the very ’ticking time bombs’ that they are so afraid of.


Acheson, I. & Paul, A. (2020). Marching home? Why repatriating foreign terrorist fighters is a pan-European priority. European Policy Centre, 3-11. Retrieved from  https://www.epc.eu/content/PDF/2020/Foreign_Fighters_DP_v5.pdf

Hoffman, A. & Furlan, M. (2020). Challenges Posed by Returning Foreign Fighters. GW Program on Extremism, 1-27. Retrieved from https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/Challenges%20Posed%20by%20Returning%20Foreign%20Fighters.pdf

Houry, N. (2019). The “Unreturned”: Dealing with the Foreign Fighters and their Families who remain in Syria and Iraq. In S. Pektas & Leman, J. (Eds.), Militant Jihadism: Today and Tomorrow. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Mehra, T. (2019, 7 November). European countries are being challenged in court to repatriate their foreign fighters and families [article]. Retrieved from https://icct.nl/publication/european-countries-are-being-challenged-in-court-to-repatriate-their-foreign-fighters-and-families/

O’Donnell, S.W., Akard, S. & Barr, A.C. (2020). Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress. Retrieved from https://www.dodig.mil/Reports/Lead-Inspector-General-Reports/Article/2298912/lead-inspector-general-for-operation-inherent-resolve-quarterly-report-to-the-u/

Ragab, E. (2018). Returning Foreign Terrorists: What Type of Security Challenges Are They Posing. IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook, 87-93. Retrieved from https://www.iemed.org/publication/returning-foreign-terrorists-what-type-of-security-challenges-are-they-posing/

Ragazzi, F. & Walmsley, J. (2018). Part II. Member States’ approach (External study). The return of foreign fighters to EU soil: Ex-post evaluation, 23-68. Retrieved from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/621811/EPRS_STU(2018)621811_EN.pdf

RAN. (2017). Ran Manual: Responses to returnees: Foreign terrorist fighters and their families. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/system/files_en?file=2020-09/ran_br_a4_m10_en.pdf

Renard, T. & Coolsaet, R. (2020). From bad to worse: The fate of European foreign fighters and families detained in Syria, one year after the Turkish offensive. EGMONT Royal Institute for International Relations,130, 1-12. Retrieved from https://www.egmontinstitute.be/from-bad-to-worse-the-fate-of-european-foreign-fighters-and-families-detained-in-syria/

Rigotti, C. & Barboza, J.Z. (2021). Unfolding the case of returnees: How the European Union and its member States are addressing the return of foreign fighters and their families. International Review of the Red Cross, 103, 681-703. doi:10.1017/S1816383121000217

Scherrer, A. & Isaksson, C. (2018). Part I. The issue of foreign fighters: the EU framework (EPRS opening analysis). The return of foreign fighters to EU soil: Ex-post evaluation, 5-22. Retrieved from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/621811/EPRS_STU(2018)621811_EN.pdf

Widagdo, S., Indrayanti, K.W. & Saraswati, A.A.A.N. (2021). Repatriation as a Human Rights Approach to State Options in Dealing with Returning ISIS Foreign Terrorist Fighter. SAGE open, 1-12. doi:10.1177/21582440211032679

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like