Western Jihadists…What’s Next?

Expert articles, blogs (this one included), and a flurry of news analysis are trying to make sense of the western jihadist phenomenon.

I live in Paris for the time being. Given the attention France received in August 2014, you’d have thought that Gaza was in Seine St Denis, but much more troublesome than that, the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) published a poll by ICM Research and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion that was echoed by a Russian polling institute, and the results are staggering: 16% (1 one in 6) of the French people poled openly supported ISIL, trumping any other country on the continent and the Gaza Strip.

French media has been loth to cover what is happening behind the scenes. Just last week, two teenage french girls were arrested while planning a suicide bombing to destroy Lyon’s main synagogue. The story was largely covered by a host of Jewish press, for obvious reasons, but was largely ignored by French mainstream media, at the exception of Liberation and Le Parisien.

Unfortunately, that thread opened up a host of other current news that also received very little media attention in the mainstream such as regular if not numerous arrests of French citizens heading for Syria/Iraq.

We could speculate as to why these stories received little media attention, but I suspect that French press is asked to stay mum, unless there are human interest stories on the topic (such as highly educated brothers, or the lone teenage female flying off to marry a jihadist), so as to not exacerbate the slow but certain social divisions that are unfolding in the country, and raise Front National ratings through the roof. I am glad that they do, but it covers a dangerous reality.

The Guardian published an article arguing that removing people’s passports will not stop terrorism, and that is absolutely correct, I wish it were that simple.

Conversely some government officials are arguing that foreigners, or dual citizens should be held accountable the same way as foreign fighters fighting for ISIL, mostly in relation to Israel and the recent Operation Protective Edge.

While I disagree with the general principal of comparing a standing, regular army with an abject entity such as ISIL, I have to admit that a standing army is just as capable of atrocities, and should not be white washed on the basis of being an institution.

However, you can and should distinguish three types of categories when it comes to Foreign Fighters:

Soldiers holding dual citizenship serving in a national army :

That’s one of the pitfalls of dual citizenship, and countries that give that right are aware that it means that their citizens may at times serve in a « foreign » military. Unless you cannot hold dual citizenship (such as South Africa), or your country has special clauses addressing this, or that the army you are fighting for is an enemy of your second state, then it is not illegal.

That said, you should be able to keep track of these soldiers, they should at least inform their second country of what they are engaging in, and agree to be monitored upon their returned to ensure that nothing untoward might result of their fighting abroad. For instance if you fight for the IDF as a dual French-Israeli citizen, given the stigmatization of the conflict as Jews vs Arabs, will it affect coming back to France with the large Muslim/Arab population? Can you distinguish between the two? Have you suffered PTSD that makes you liable to commit reprehensible actions in France? The question is valid for regular French soldiers; it is just as valid for dual citizens fighting abroad.

Of course if said army has committed proven atrocities, you would have to fess up to them if you’ve been directly involved. But this is still a grey area that hopefully recent events will address.

People joining the ranks of rebel groups, militias, and « freedom fighters »:

Do people have the right to pick up arms, and go and shoot at any target they want? That’s what’s being asked here.

That is happening right now. French citizens and others are in Ukraine fighting on the pro-Russian side, and on the Ukrainian side. Similarly there are western citizens fighting for the Free Syrian Army.

This situation is close to the « western jihadist » situation, but with a twist.

I wouldn’t imagine that a mercenary would inform his government before hand, but unless they are fighting for avowed enemies of whichever state they’re from, and are not actively engaged in atrocities and/or war crimes, and their country has specific rules about its citizens fighting as mercenaries abroad then they shouldn’t be considered as criminals.

The issue here is legal. What legal provisions exist to address this specific situation, especially when citizens are fighting in groups their governments support officially, or officiously, such as the Free Syrian Army, remember those guys?

Either way, for the same reasons as the first category, mercenaries should be tracked and monitored for possible connections with groups operating in their home country, arms and drugs trafficking, the « baggage » of mercenary activities. Ideals, even if they lead one to defending Yazidi Kurds from ISIL, don’t mean that foreign citizens should be able to go and fight abroad unmonitored and unsupervised.

You might also want to remember that Pro-Russian supporters, having shot a commercial airline out of the sky, have killed more Western civilians than ISIL.

Just because a paramilitary organization doesn’t oppose your state, or doesn’t represent a direct threat, doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty of war crimes or worse.

People joining international terror networks:

We could argue over what constitutes terrorism till the cows come home, and they won’t.

Removing citizenship is the most basic and immediate measure we could and should take. In the case of ISIL, as opposed to the FSA, citizens fighting for them have joined an « army » that is an enemy of the their states and the whole world practically, who openly commit atrocities, and who have proven to be lethal once back home, Mehdi Nemouch is the most recent, but an article in the London Review of Books claimed that as much as 1 in 9 jihadists (11%) are liable to commit acts of violence when they return.

There is no room for wiggle here, or so little it hardly matters, tough measures need to be implemented immediately. Saudi Arabia (elements of which also fund ISIL) gives prison sentences to its citizens fighting abroad. Should citizens caught on the way be treated the same as those who have fought under a « terrorist » banner? Probably not, but there should be a system in place, these are recurrent issues, the Middle East is likely to remain a powder keg for years, but again it’s not just the Middle East.

Foreign fighters are nothing new, thousand flocked to fight Franco in Spain, but it is dangerous to focus exclusively on the Jihadi perspective without developing legal frameworks for citizens fighting in foreign armed forces, foreign rebel groups, and terrorist/criminal armed groups. As The Guardian article mentions, there are frameworks in place in several countries and unions, Great Britain being one of them, but they need to be applied to all relevant contexts.

Lacking that, reactive actions will only lead to further stigmatization of Muslim/minority populations in a West that really doesn’t need it.

About the Author
Mame Bougouma Diene is a civil servant on permanent vacation even when he works 70 hours a week, who also blogs for the Times of Israel in French. He's French-Senegalese American, loves Israel and the Middle East, would really like to see an end to this intractable mess in his lifetime.