US President Donald Trump’s demand that European countries take back their citizens fighting in Syria is receiving a mixed reaction as nations ponder how to bring home-grown members of the Islamic State (IS) group to trial.
The question of such foreign fighters has been a conundrum for the Europeans for several years. IS group prisoners could be exposed to torture or the death penalty if they remain in jail in Syria or Iraq, and the EU opposes the death penalty.
But few European countries have embassies in Damascus or Baghdad, let alone extradition treaties to get their citizens back. Proving who is who and gathering solid evidence against suspects that would stand up in European courts is virtually impossible. Then there is the question of what to do with the wives and children of European jihadists.
“It is certainly not as easy as they think in America,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters Monday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers. “German citizens have the right to return, but we have little ability in Syria at present to check whether German citizens are actually affected.”
Maas said authorities would have to “check to what extent they were involved in fighting for IS, which would result in criminal proceedings having to be opened against them”.
“These people can come to Germany only if it is ensured that they can immediately be taken into custody,” he said.
French jihadists made up the largest contingent of European recruits. French officials are concerned because in 2015 and 2016, an IS group cell of French and Belgian fighters crossed from Syria into Turkey, eventually launching deadly attacks on Paris and Brussels.
“The last territorial bastions of Daesh are falling, which doesn’t mean that the action of Daesh is finished. On the contrary,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, calling the IS group by an Arabic term often used in France.
“For the time being we are not changing our policy,” added Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet in an interview with France 2 television. “At this stage France is not responding to [Trump’s] demands.”
Britain refuses to take back citizens who joined the IS group and has stripped them of their citizenship. Belgium has said previously that it would not make any great effort to secure the release of 12 citizens imprisoned in Syria and two in Iraq.
Other European countries have remained largely silent about the fate of men and women whom many see as a security threat.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the issue is “one of the greatest challenges ahead of us for the upcoming months”.
“Our major endeavour now should be not to allow them to come back to Europe,” said Szijjarto, whose staunchly anti-migrant government has linked extremist attacks to migration.
But Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, also part of an anti-migrant government, said, “I would certainly be in favour” of Europe taking foreign fighters back.
“There is clearly a need to define … the European position on this issue,” Lajcak told reporters.
“Whether we like or dislike the US position, they make no secret of it. It’s very clear,” he said. “This is the key partnership for the European Union. But the rules of this partnership have changed and we need to be able to react to it.”
Kurdish-led authorities warn jihadists could escape
Trump said jihadists would be freed unless Europe takes them back, but Kurdish-led authorities in north Syria said on Monday they would not free foreign Islamic State group detainees. Still, the Kurdish authorities urged European countries to take responsibility.
Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the Kurdish-led region, said around 800 foreign fighters were being held in prisons, along with around 700 wives and 1,500 children in camps for the displaced. Dozens more detainees and relatives were arriving by the day.
He described the detainees as a “time bomb”, saying fighters could escape if the Kurdish-led autonomous area were attacked.