Report: The return of ISIS fighters threatens European security

A new study explores how Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia are dealing with hundreds of returnees, and what effect this could have on the European Union

ISIS militants in Sirte, Libya, in February 2015.
ISIS militants in Sirte, Libya, in February 2015.

Over 50,000 Jihadists from more than 100 countries have traveled to Syria, Iraq and Libya in the last five years to join the Islamic State (ISIS). Of these, nearly 7,000 came from countries in North Africa.

Now, the return of survivors to Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt is posing a threat to those countries and also to the European Union, according to a new study by the Egmont Institute for International Relations, a Brussels-based think tank, and the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

Researchers recommend “a good dose of humility”

The report, released on Wednesday, says that “from a European perspective, North African dynamics are of particular interest. First, because instability in the region could have a damaging spillover effect for European security. Second, because a majority of foreign terrorist fighters from Europe were of North African descent, which has strengthened ties between jihadi milieus across the Mediterranean that might have an equally lasting impact for security on both sides.”

Analysts note that North African countries have already been confronted by returning foreign fighters in the past, and they link the Casablanca and Madrid attacks of 2003 and 2004 with groups of Moroccans who traveled to Afghanistan following the Taliban victory in 1996, and to Iraq after the US invasion of 2003. But this time the risk is even greater, because “this jihadi mobilization is possibly larger than any previous ones, including that for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the1980s.”

Now that the so-called Caliphate has been removed from its last stronghold in Syria, many governments are facing the challenge of what to do with returning fighters. There are countries that refuse point-blank to take them back, such as Switzerland or the Netherlands. Others are willing to accept their own nationals, but nobody has magic formula to detect, arrest, process and rehabilitate these individuals, if such a thing is possible.

Three Spanish women at the Al Hol camp in Syria said they want to go home, where they could be prosecuted for having joined ISIS.
Three Spanish women at the Al Hol camp in Syria said they want to go home, where they could be prosecuted for having joined ISIS.Natalia Sancha

The study focuses on the challenges for Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which together have sent out more foreign fighters than the entire EU. Algeria was not included because the number of jihadists from that country was very small, according to the researchers.


While cooperation between the EU and North Africa countries already exists, European authorities are willing to increase it due to the particular risk posed by returnees with dual citizenship.

Of the three countries surveyed in the report, “Morocco is by far the most advanced in dealing with returnees. It has taken legal measures as well as strengthening its security services accordingly. It has also developed de-radicalization programs in prison and is working on other initiatives with former radicals.” By contrast, Tunisia and Egypt are described as “much less transparent and systematic in their approaches.”

Between 2013 and 2017, 1,664 Moroccans traveled to Syria and Iraq, including 285 women and 378 children. Of this number, 596 died in combat or in suicide attacks, and 213 returned to Morocco, including 52 women and 15 children. Nearly all the fighters have been brought to justice and are now serving prison sentences of 10 to 15 years, according to official sources.

In 2014, Morocco reformed its counter-terrorism legislation, introducing five-to-15-year sentences and fines of up to €45,000 for individuals found guilty of joining or attempting to join armed groups inside or outside the country. This law was key in dealing with the current situation. And in 2016 the government rolled out a prison program called Reconciliation (Moussalaha in Arabic) aimed at the de-radicalization and integration of terrorists. But the study notes that there are no specific plans for returning fighters, or for the women and children.

If jihadis of the world can unite, so should we

There are no figures for Egypt, although unofficial estimates talk about between 350 and 600 fighters. There is no appropriate legislation and the report laments the use of “torture and forced confessions” in a system with overcrowded jails that have become hotbeds of radicalization.

As for Tunisia, between 3,000 and 7,000 Tunisians have fought for ISIS, depending on the source. The report says the government there focuses on punishment, keeping returnees in prison for months without trial, while others are released after a brief interrogation. A further 1,000 to 1,500 jihadists came from Libya.

Researchers recommend “a good dose of humility” in order to learn how to deal with the problem of returning foreign fighters. “A more systematic and comprehensive approach is needed to deal with returning fighters and their families. (...) Every country would gain from an open discussion of this challenge and the sharing of good practices. If jihadis of the world can unite, so should we.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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