Female Foreign Terrorist Fighters: Challenges in Repatriation, Prosecution, and Rehabilitation

Female Foreign Terrorist Fighters
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Following the 2019 fall of ISIS’s so-called “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the repatriation of female foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) has led to a series of challenges. The way in which Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and some European countries—particularly Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden—handle the repatriation and prosecution of female foreign terrorist fighters has evolved over the years. Originally, women who traveled to Syria were generally considered “jihadi brides” and were charged and prosecuted leniently in comparison to their male counterparts. However, subsequently, evidence has shown that a number of women who have traveled to Syria have had a more active role in the extremist enterprise and have been charged accordingly.Joana Cook and Gina Vale, “From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, July 2018, https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ICSR-Report-From-Daesh-to-%E2%80%98Diaspora%E2%80%99-Tracing-the-Women-and-Minors-of-Islamic-State.pdf.

The challenge of bringing female FTFs to justice is also impeded by the reluctance of many countries to repatriate foreign fighters due to the presumed risks posed by terrorist convicts. The general concern across governments has been that returnees will potentially reengage in terrorism following their release from prison. However, data suggests that terrorist convicts are less likely than other criminals to reoffend following release.Thomas Renard, “Overblown: Exploring the Gap Between the Fear of Terrorist Recidivism and the Evidence,” Combating Terrorism Center, April 2020, https://ctc.usma.edu/overblown-exploring-the-gap-between-the-fear-of-terrorist-recidivism-and-the-evidence/. Nonetheless, it should be stated that those released terrorist convicts who do reengage with terrorism have the potential to make terrorist attacks far more deadly given the experience and skills acquired within terrorist groups.Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review, February 2013, https://pdf4pro.com/fullscreen/should-i-stay-or-should-i-go-thomas-hegghammer-4be34f.html. Given the lethal potential of reengagement, governments need to establish solid rehabilitation and reintegration programs to adequately respond to returnees.

Repatriation is an important aspect of countering extremism and can only be a possibility when governments have the necessary security services to monitor and regulate individuals who they believe pose a risk to national and global security.Eric Oehlerich, Mick Mulroy, and Liam McHugh “Jannah Or Jahannam Options For Dealing With Isis Detainees,” Middle East Institute, October 2020, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2020-10/Jannah%20or%20Jahannam%20-%20Options%20for%20Dealing%20with%20ISIS%20Detainees.pdf. To ensure the successful reintegration of these returnees after repatriation to their home countries, governments will also need to provide the necessary rehabilitation support to mitigate or eradicate any potential future risk as part of the criminal justice process. Rehabilitation and reentry programs in prisons and post-release are necessary elements to counterterrorism strategy as those services can significantly reduce the chance of terrorist recidivism.Jesse Morton, “When Terrorists Come Home: The Need for Rehabilitating and Reintegrating America’s Convicted Jihadists,” Counter Extremism Project, December 2018, https://www.counterextremism.com/sites/default/files/CEP%20Report_When%20Terrorists%20Come%20Home_120618.pdf.

If governments delay the repatriation of foreign fighters, their rehabilitation and reentry programs may struggle to reverse the extremist beliefs and disillusionment that prompted many of these foreign fighters to travel to conflict zones in the first place. Another challenge governments will have to contend with would be reconciling the risks of repatriating foreign fighters, and the concrete steps needed in assuring safe rehabilitation and reintegration of these individuals. Each individual presents varying risks depending on the severity of their radicalization and would require tailored approaches from security officials to mitigate potential threats to domestic and international security. While case-by-case reintegration strategies require more time and extensive resources, the careful execution of rehabilitation programs is part and parcel of offsetting extremist reengagement in the long run. The successful reentry of these individuals will serve as a long-term solution to deradicalization and further discredit extremist movements as well as provide a more stable environment for overall global security.

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