Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Domestic Policy: Applying International Skills to Domestic Issues

Frieden & Sicherheit

Amidst European unease over returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), issues over the reintegration of former combatants are amassing. Although many European countries are acclaimed champions in advising Global South countries on exactly this, examples from Sweden and Switzerland show apparent disjunctions between national and foreign affairs policies and expertise. With increasing returns of FTFs, foreign and national reintegration programs should capitalize on opportunities to synergize, whilst not becoming sidelined by difficult securitized questions of ethical and legal nature.

The political arena is heating up over how to handle ISIS returnees since the Trump administration’s call last month for governments to take back nationals that fought as foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) for ISIS. Alongside national debates on whether those FTFs should even be allowed to return, and how perpetrators of various abuses should be legally tried, various local agencies struggle to reintegrate those people whom have made it back to the European soil. The uncertainty over which responses to take will become even more problematic as more fighters return.

In such testing times, European countries should rely on expertise institutionalized in their foreign affairs departments rather than having to make up new, untested programs. Sweden and Switzerland are two examples in point, boasting long-standing traditions of evidence-based disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) efforts for post-conflict societies around the world – skills that could and should be used in their national contexts as well.

Shortly before Christmas, Swedish regions expressed struggles to reintegrate returning ISIS fighters; Alerts that have since continued throughout the country. Across the board many different, and sometimes untested, ways forward have been proposed. Failing to aid successful approaches, is how politicians sometimes focus on immediate questions, such as who has jurisdiction over the crimes committed by FTFs. The Swiss government has deliberated for months about ways to deal with its nationals. The Swiss Federal Council’s most recent stance on the issue was to not encourage ‘active’ repatriation of its FTFs– a position the Swedish government also has adopted.

These being relevant points, they however only delay responses of how to deal with FTFs upon return to their communities – which might happen already before their trials given that these trials often take years to conclude, and FTFs can still return to Sweden and Switzerland on their own initiative. Unavoidable, is that after trials take place, FTFs will come back to local communities anyway. Thus, the current debates only postpone reassuring populations that understandably feels endangered, and miss out on preparing both communities and returnees for the necessary work ahead.

The national efforts of Switzerland and Sweden have become disjointed from the programs which they advocate for abroad. While domestic agencies struggle with finding sustainable solutions, societal reintegration of armed actors and prevention of violent behavior makes up the everyday for many Swedish and Swiss experts, working with similar issues but abroad.

When, for example, the Swedish Social Services, Police Authority, and Security Service debate how to cooperate to find local solutions, the national expert authority on DDR abroad, the Folke Bernadotte Academy, instructs on just those issues to actors working outside of Swedish borders. The Swiss Development Cooperation’s peace policy in general, and its focus on preventing violent extremism in specific, have emphasized in joint reports that reintegration of former members of extremist groups is a necessary step to prevent future violence. In accordance with the Swiss and Swedish lines proposed abroad, Jonas Trolle at the Swedish Centre against Violent Extremism claims that a key aspect with returnees is to work preventively, by helping people get away from extremist risk-environments and ideologies. “It is rehabilitating work [that is needed] so that they [FTFs] will not be all the more strengthened in their alienation (authors’ own translation)”, he says while stressing that regions have different capacities and knowledge about how to properly deal with reintegration.

The disjunctions between foreign and domestic reintegration responses become even more outstanding as Sweden and Switzerland are strong defenders of the SDGs, advocating internationally about how domestic and international arenas should be harmonized. Despite that these countries have committed themselves to implementing the SDGs across sectors of public administration, they fall short in harmonizing responses to returning FTFs, and therefore fail to accomplish international commitments while simultaneously miss out on opportunities to solve deeply securitized issues.

To put it mildly, opportunities are missed when foreign and domestic policies do not work in synergy. Building on in-house capacity, located in the MFAs and development agencies and their ability to reintegrate ex-gang members, former guerillas, or other decriminalized groups, European countries could materialize their ‘international’ skills in their domestic settings, and relieve regions that have flagged their lack of resources and technical capacities.

This could possibly be formalized through using SDG focal persons, or even by just connecting experts within the MFAs with the local administrations that deal with returnees. As reintegration of violent individuals is a very complex matter, a transfer of knowledge would not have to be unilateral from the MFAs to the domestic ministries, but also use the lessons learned from the latter – be it the judiciary, social services, interior or even economic ministries – to enrich the DDR strategies employed in foreign contexts.

The issues caused by the return of FTFs, which some national policy-makers have been postponing, are in fact issues that Switzerland and Sweden have dealt with for a long time. Both countries are viewed as frontrunners in the work they carry out abroad on DDR. Arguing that these skills cannot be applied in domestic cases would be somewhat flawed, as both countries highlight their context-specific adjustments in their international programs – thus they should be able to devise programs that fit in the context that national policy makers know the best. If such attempts prove unsuccessful at home, then maybe this should also inform conversations over the programs advocated for abroad.

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