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What should we do with militants who come back home?

The capture in Syria of two of Britain’s most wanted terrorists, Alexanda Kotey and El-Shafee Elsheikh, the last remaining members of a notorious Daesh cell, and who were dubbed “The Beatles” by their hostages because of their English accents, prompted a public debate about whether they should be tried in the UK.
This controversy rumbled on for some time and was closely related to the reasons young Muslims from the West joined Daesh in the first place. Their arrest was a reminder that around 30,000 foreign fighters, including nearly 6,000 from Western Europe, joined this militant group. As their self-proclaimed caliphate has fallen apart, losing in the process their strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, it reopens two important questions, one more perceptual and the other rather practical. First, what initially induced scores of young people, many born and bred in Europe, to join the ranks of those who are full of hatred for the West and everything it represents? Second, and more immediate, is the question of the threat posed by these extremists to the societies they return to.
The four “Beatles” gained notoriety for their gruesome beheadings and torture of foreign hostages, and for releasing videos of their sadistic acts in order to glorify their crimes. Now that they are behind bars in Syria following their capture by US-backed Kurdish fighters, the question is whether to ask for their extradition to Britain to face trial, or, for instance, to let their future be decided by those who captured them, in which case it is likely that they would end up in Guantanamo Bay if handed over to the US. Those against Kotey and Elsheikh facing trial in the UK support the view that minorities, and especially Muslims, are not to be regarded or treated as equal citizens, but as conditional or probationary citizens. But as heinous as their alleged crimes are, they were British citizens when they committed them, and some of their victims were also British. Stripping them of their UK citizenship, as justified as it might sound, only plays into the hands of the recruiters for extremist views and movements, and enables them to point out that here is another case of anti-Muslim discrimination.
It would be simplistic to claim that a single factor is responsible for the recruitment of many thousands of young people to Daesh. It is usually a wide range and combination of reasons, from the very personal to ideological and global conditions. However, for many Muslims in the West, alienation and disillusionment will be high on the list.
To begin with, youth is an age of exploration and searching for a greater cause, if not always a noble one. Young people traveled long distances, and without the ease and affordability of modern transport, to join revolutionary forces in the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the Spanish Civil War. The hippie movement was a reaction to the Vietnam War and the bourgeois lifestyles of the 1960s in the US and beyond. Bundling all these events together and speaking of them in the same breath as the murderous nature of Daesh might not do them justice, but points to a long-standing tendency of each new generation to pursue a grand cause, and to defy previous generations, in many cases with more zeal than thoughtfulness. This is the beauty of youth, but with it comes great danger.

It would be simplistic to claim that a single factor is responsible for the recruitment of many thousands of young people to Daesh. It is usually a wide range and combination of reasons, from the very personal to ideological and global conditions.

Yossi Mekelberg

It would also be folly to bundle together all those who decided to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq, or those who were inspired by them to commit acts of terrorism elsewhere. Nevertheless, they feel estranged from their own societies, and consequently have been prime targets for the Daesh propagandists, who sell them an idealized version of an Islamic caliphate. By joining such terrorist groups, those alienated and disillusioned young European Muslims regain their sense of worth and their sense of belonging — if only for a short time, and with disastrous results for themselves and their victims. They feel less judged for their beliefs, their customs, their appearance and the music they listen to. When they are faced with racism, low earnings and little prospect of social mobility at home, Daesh offers them false hope and an outlet for their anger.
As many of them return, among them are those who are relieved to have left behind the hell of the wars in Syria and Iraq; those who have been traumatized by the experience; and also those who would like to carry on and take their battle to the cities and streets of their country of origin. This last group is the most dangerous. Our response to their return must take into consideration their state of mind and their condition. It is of course a top priority to prevent terrorist attacks by those with this sole aim. At the same time, it is essential that a path and a space be created for those who would like to re-integrate into their societies, and that less emphasis is placed on punishment and retribution and more on reintegration and rehabilitation.
As for the so-called “Beatles,” their cruel and inhuman behavior puts them more at the sadistic end of the spectrum than the idealist one. No nickname could be more inappropriate than one that links these four to John Lennon, one of the real Fab Four, who wrote in one of the Beatles’ best known songs, Revolution: “We all want to change the world / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.” If only those who joined the ranks of Daesh had heard those lines before they embarked on their spree of violence and brutality.
  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg