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Germany must deal with IS fighters, families

Austin Davis | Natalia Smolentceva
November 11, 2019

Turkey will deport 10 men, women and children with suspected ties to "Islamic State" back to Germany this week. The move is making several countries address how to repatriate suspected terrorists and their families.

Families of "Islamic State" fighters in Syria
Image: Reuters/I. Abdallah

The repatriation of "Islamic State" (IS) deportees  is bound to spark domestic and international debate: Public opinion in Germany is moving against the repatriation of suspected terrorists, and countries around the world continue to shy away from bringing suspected fighters and their families home.

"Germany and other European countries are in a bad position here. They are now feeling the consequences of their inaction and reluctance to repatriate these individuals," Sofia Koller, an analyst of extremism and radicalization with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told DW. "We are now responding to Turkey's timeline. Instead of acting, Europe is reacting."

Questions abound

A representative from Turkey's interior ministry told reporters Monday that a German citizen suspected to have fought with the IS terrorist group would arrive in Germany later in the day. A Dane and an American had also been processed for deportation.

In total, 10 individuals will be deported to Germany this week, a spokesperson for Germany's foreign ministry confirmed: three men, five women and two children. All are German citizens, but authorities are still investigating their suspected connections to IS, the spokesperson said.

Authorities will now busy themselves with gathering more personal information about the individuals in question, assessing the need for heightened domestic security in preparation of the arrivals, and gaming out whether domestic legal action will follow once the deportees touch down on German soil.

In a government press conference shortly after the news broke on Monday morning, officials from both the foreign and interior ministries insisted Turkey acted within normal diplomatic procedures in announcing the deportations.

The Turkish interior minister, however, did not mince words when discussing the impending deportations with reporters. He insisted that Turkey is not "a hotel" for IS militants and that Ankara would continue to deport foreign nationals who fought alongside terrorists in the coming days and weeks.

Some 1,200 foreign-born adherents of IS are currently being held in Turkish prisons, and 287 former IS members — including women and children — were recaptured following Turkey's military offensive in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria last month, according to the Turkish interior minister.

German intelligence authorities estimate that more than 1,050 so-called "foreign terrorist fighters” have left Germany for Syria and Iraq to-date, of which 350 have returned and 200 have died.

Read more: Coming home after the 'caliphate'

What to do with returnees?

According to German authorities, two questions dictate the state's ability to repatriate suspected IS fighters: whether individuals are indeed German nationals, and whether their return to poses a domestic security threat.

Those who can prove their citizenship have an undeniable right of return, government spokespeople said Monday, but suspected fighters could still face prosecution once back home. Overwhelmingly, German prosecutors have chosen to draft charges before arranging repatriation, according to the International Center for Counterterrorism at The Hague.

Even so, both authorities and the public remain split on whether repatriation is actually the best solution for dealing with foreign terrorist fighters.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has asked Turkey to provide information for legal action against the returnees before the deportation of IS fighters from Germany. Ankara must pass on the information "quickly and in detail," Maas said on Monday in Brussels. The aim is "to have enough evidence that would stand in a court of law to detain someone and bring them to justice."

Last week, a Berlin court ruled that the government must repatriate the wife of an IS fighter and her three children, after authorities were unable to prove that the family was a domestic security risk. But Chancellor Angela Merkel's government adopted a bill in April stripping dual nationals of their German citizenship if they fought abroad for known terror groups. The law does not apply to women and minors and cannot be applied retroactively.

Meanwhile, a recent survey by pollster Civey revealed that only 31.5% of German respondents believed imprisoned IS fighters should stand trial in Germany — down from 54.4% earlier this year, according to another Civey poll.

Kosovo's planned reintegration of IS members

An international issue

Germany isn't the only country being forced to grapple with IS returnees. France, Britain and Australia have also all come under fire for dragging their feet in repatriating nationals suspected of terrorism.

Read moreSyria: Turkish-Kurdish clashes cause mass displacement

Though France and the Netherlands have moved to return "isolated and particularly vulnerable" children, Australia passed legislation in July stopping foreign fighters from returning. The United Kingdom has also moved to strip fighters of citizenship to prevent their return, citing security concerns.

Terror and radicalization analysts, however, contest that nations should be more concerned with the security implications of leaving IS supporters and their families abroad.

Returning fighters and their families to Western countries ensures they can be put under surveillance, prosecuted and reintegrated with more care than would be taken in countries such as Iraq or Syria. Meanwhile, repatriation protects children from illnesses and radicalization efforts rife in refugee camps, according to a recent report on the topic by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But above all else, Western democracies like Germany have "a moral obligation" to bring these individuals to justice at home, instead of distancing themselves from the problem, said DGAP's Koller. 

"We should not forget that these individuals radicalized in Germany. It is thus also Germany’s responsibility to deal with the consequences," she said. "Germany is also expatriating individuals with other nationalities who are considered dangerous. We should not apply double standards."

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