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Returning ISIS members, a global headache

Paul Hazelton

Slavery, destruction of World Heritage sites, terrorist attacks, genocide, and the rape of underage girls — this is but a small taste of the crimes ISIS militants have perpetrated. As a result, most of us would like nothing more than to see every single member of this felonious group locked up or killed. But, what happens when these extremists become disillusioned with the Islamic State and wish to return to their native countries?

First, let’s settle the question of whether they should be able to return at all. Countries like Canada are revoking citizenship to people flying to Syria and Iraq in order to join the Islamic State. The worry is that many of the potential returnees would be malcontented Islamic radicals acting as double agents or recruiters. Even if they aren’t, their views about the world are often troubling, terrifying even, to the general public.


On the flipside, it’s well known fact that the ISIS organization routinely kills deserters and does everything in their power to force loyalty to the caliphate. If states bar reentry it means more potential deserters must continue to fight for ISIS. However, if we allow their return, ISIS losses more men. The latter is a strategically superior move; not only would we be robbing the enemy of man power, we’d potentially be gaining invaluable intel on future movements, tactics, and their financial backers.

It is also true that that many of these disenfranchised militants are impressionable young men and women, it would be ethically immoral to allow them to suffer under the ISIS regime because of a juvenile mistake. In some cases these individuals are reportedly made to clean toilets, reclaim fallen soldiers, and are even used as cannon fodder, meaning, many have had little or nothing to do with the actual fighting. Allowing for their return also offers interesting opportunities including employing them as experienced anti-extremist preachers that could dissuade young people from becoming radicalized and even as double agents of our own.

If states allow for return but adopt strict punishments such as life imprisonment or execution it will completely destroy ex-ISIS members’ incentive to return. Additionally, it does nothing to deradicalize these people, fixing only half the problem.

Similarly, if states decide to go easy on these individuals, offering therapy because of psychological trauma, rehabilitation, or even jobs (like Sweden has done), instead of clear-cut punishments, it sends a message of weakness on the government’s part. One could fairly argue that more people would then join ISIS because of the lax consequences.

By themselves these policies would be ineffective and extremely controversial, but if we mash them together something more palatable emerges. A smarter approach to this problem goes as follows.

First, encourage ISIS members to abandon ship and come back to their home countries. Second, have intelligence agencies question them and find out any pertinent information upon their return. Then incarcerate them for a set amount of years plus time for any known crimes they committed during their stint in ISIS, while, offering therapy and deradicalization programs. As a condition of their release require them to apologize to the country and to the victims of ISIS, this would allow the public a chance to forgive them and a chance for them to come to terms with what they’ve done. After that the government could help them find work as to negate the chances of them reenlisting in ISIS for financial reasons. Lastly, states should utilize agencies like the NSA to keep tabs on them, ensuring they don’t recruit others or commit jihad.

In the end, how we fight ISIS and other extremist groups is of vital importance, but how we treat those that are no longer loyal to them is equally important and must be handled with tact. The answer — no matter how tempting it might be — is not to adopt strictly draconian policies: it’s about balancing harshness with compassion. After all, if we can’t do that, how much better are we than our enemies?

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at or on Twitter @hazeltonpaul

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