Preventing the next spiral: Repatriating ISIS affiliates

By Louise Tiessen, PhD International Conflict Analysis

Twitter: @ltiessen516              PDFPreventing_the_next_spiral_LTiessen__

Shamima Begum’s situation has been debated through various lenses across the political spectrum: security, citizenship, human rights, and women’s rights. Everyone has had an opinion. Begum is now a stateless person – in the middle of a refugee camp, unable to personally stand trial in the UK to fight against the revocation of her British citizenship. She is not alone in this situation. Refugee camps, like al-Roj and al-Hawl, are filled with former and active Islamic State members. Al-Hawl has been referred to as a ‘mini Caliphate’: violence and radicalization are everyday occurrences. With each day passing, unrest is stirring in al-Roj as well.[1]

Governments across the world have been in a dilemma that has lasted since the fall of the Islamic State’s last holding in Baghouz – even before that. What should one do with citizens who joined a terrorist organization? Pressure on nation-states is increasing steadily. What does responsibility over one’s citizens mean if they join a terrorist organization like the Islamic State? Bangladesh refused to take responsibility over Begum – the country of her parents but whose citizenship she did not have.

The ‘battle’ to strip citizenship first has led to debates in Canada with Jack Letts (a.k.a. ‘Jihadi Jack’, who previously held British and Canadian citizenships) and in New Zealand with Suhayra Aden – who was formerly a New Zealand-Australian dual citizen until Australia stripped her of her citizenship.[2] Consequently, there is increased anger at the denationalizing state by the other state who is left to deal with the individual. This has been most recently highlighted with Suhayra Aden’s case:

’New Zealand has not taken this step lightly,’ New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of Aden, who had been detained in Turkey. ‘They are not Turkey’s responsibility, and with Australia refusing to accept the family, that makes them ours.’[3]

It is thus often the ‘non-home’ state – where the individual did not grow up or was born – that is left with the responsibility to deradicalize, rehabilitate, and reintegrate.

However, not every Islamic State affiliate can be stripped of their citizenship, especially if that leads to them becoming stateless – as is prohibited by international law and conventions.[4] While states still predominantly refuse to repatriate (former) IS-members, there have been a steady flow of women and children returning to their home countries: 8 women and 23 children were recently repatriated by Germany.[5] This is the point: it is still often women and children that are being taken back by their governments. But what is happening with the men? Prisons in Syria and Iraq are full of Islamic State members from different parts of the world, including Russia, Asia, Arab states and the West .[6]

What may potentially explain this is the argument that it is safer to first repatriate those that are deemed a lesser threat, and then with time and preparation can those who are a more serious threat be flown home as well. Yet, the debates on citizenship stripping have shown an increase in seeing women as a national security threat. This is also portrayed in the charges and sentencing of female former ISIS affiliates. In Germany, women are increasingly being charged with child neglect and having joined a terrorist organization.[7] Jennifer Wenisch has received a 10 year sentence for her role in the death of a 5-year-old Yazidi girl.[8]

As Peter Neumann has recently highlighted[9], it is vital to repatriate in order to prevent the same thing that happened post-Afghanistan: Foreign war volunteers connected to al-Qaeda were often not allowed to return home. They went elsewhere, seeking other battlefields; making new connections; creating new and enduring networks. Consequently, the way states deal with ISIS affiliated returnees varies a lot, as has been recently highlighted by Ayesha Ray.[10] The debate is heavily focused on the repatriation of Western citizens, and even here there is a deep dividing line between countries’ approaches (i.e. France is avoiding repatriation, while Germany is very active in comparison).

Germany has shown that male members can be prosecuted for their role in the Yazidi genocide: Taha al-Jumailly, an Iraqi citizen, was recently found guilty on charges of genocide and human rights violations. Al-Jumailly received a life sentence.[11] This is the first prosecuted case in the world to sentence someone for their role in the genocide. Thus, although there is still an on-going debate regarding an international tribunal for ISIS members, this case has clearly shown that nation states around the world have the tools to deal with ISIS affiliates, whether they are their citizens or not.

Allowing people to return home does not mean that they will not be a future threat. It does, however, allow the government and other institutions to monitor them, work with them, and potentially rehabilitate and reintegrate them. Not every returnee will turn out to be a terrorist; nor will every individual be able to reintegrate. In addition, as terms such as deradicalization, disengagementrehabilitation, and reintegration are ones that are loaded – politically, as well as socially – these are issues that need to be further reflected upon.

Finding solutions for these individuals is a great task, but history has shown that non-repatriation can lead to greater problems. Time is ticking to prevent the spiral.



[1] Alistair Bunkall, “Shamima Begum: IS bride insists she ‘didn’t hate Britain’ when she fled to Syria – and now wants to face trial in UK”, Sky News, November 22, 2021, (November 22, 2021).

[2] Amy Cheng, “After long legal battle with ‘ISIS bride,’ U.K. pushes for power to cancel citizenship without notice”, The Washington Post, November 19, 2021, (November 22, 2021).

[3] Cheng, “After long legal battle with ‘ISIS bride”.

[4] Laura van Waas, “Citizenship stripping, expulsion and statelessness: counter terrorism measures have gone too far”, Open Democracy, July 9, 2020, (December 3, 2021).

[5] Volkmar Kabisch, “Deutschland holt IS-Anhängerinnen zurück“, tagesschau, October 6, 2021, (November 22, 2021).

[6] Ayesha Ray, “Prosecuting Western and Non-Western Islamic State Fighters”, War on the Rocks, September 22, 2021, (December 2, 2021).

[7] Der Tagesspiegel, “Witwe von IS-Terrorist und Berliner Rapper Cuspert verurteilt“, July 22, 2021, (December 3, 2021); Karin Hendrich, „ISIS-Rückkehrerin in Berlin zu mehr als drei Jahren Haft verurteilt“, BZ Berlin, July 16, 2021, (December 3, 2021).

[8] Louis Westendarp, „Germany jails ISIS woman over death of Yazidi girl”, Politico, October 25, 2021, (December 3, 2021).

[9] Peter Neumann, „Umgang mit Rückkehrer*innen – Politik und Pressegespräch“, (BAGRelEx. November 17, 2021).

[10] Cf Ray, “Prosecuting Western and Non-Western Islamic State Fighters”.

[11] BBC, “Yazidi genocide: IS member found guilty in German landmark trial”, November 30, 2021, (December 2, 2021); Tagesschau, “Lebenslange Haft im Prozess um tote Jesidin”, November 30, 2021, (December 2, 2021).