Lisa Smith, an Irish woman who was married to a fighter in Syria, will be allowed home and will be difficult to prosecute, but it is uncertain what returnee policy should be, says Sheelagh Brady.
In January, an Irish citizen, Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev, was captured by Kurdish-led forces in Syria, on suspicion of having fought with Islamic State. Mr Bekmirzaev was originally from Belarus and came to Ireland in the early 2000s.
He reportedly made his way to Syria in 2013. His case, and the arrest in Syria of Lisa Smith, an Irish woman and former member of the Irish Defence Forces, brings the debate to Ireland about how we are going to manage returnee, suspected foreign terrorist fighters and their families, both documented and undocumented.
Other nations face similar situations, with no simple answers. The cases of Mr Bekmirzaev, Ms Smith, and the host of other European citizens wanting to return home, highlight the security, political, and legal difficulties facing governments.
Alex Younger, head of MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, recently said that some of the returnees are “likely to have acquired the skills and connections that make them potentially very dangerous”. However, assessing the potential risk of such individuals is only one element of a complex equation.
So, what other options are there? Can we leave our citizens in limbo, irrespective of what is alleged against them? Is it legally, morally, or ethically acceptable to expect Iraq, Syria, and nations that have refugee camps which contain families of suspected fighters, to deal with all these people?
Revoking citizenship is not easy. According to International law, it cannot be revoked if doing so would make a person stateless. This might provide options for those who are nationalised citizens, as their citizenship can be revoked, under certain conditions.
Nonetheless, this is also not clearcut. Take, for example, someone who obtained citizenship after having had refugee status. The reason for this status might have been that it was not safe for them to go home. If this is still the case, it is unlikely they would be sent back, irrespective of what they are alleged to have done.
Furthermore, where someone has dual citizenship rights, because of their parents, can we truly expect a nation to take a person who has never previously exercised their right as a citizen of that country? We should have a primary duty of care to our own citizens and their security.
Moreover, this approach may present challenges for Ireland. It could possibly motivate or radicalise other dual citizens.
So, withdrawing citizenship is no silver bullet. Furthermore, not all those who may be entitled to return have alternative citizenship. Would we treat these differently? While we may have little choice, it raises questions about equality across citizens. An alternative is to ensure that all returnees are arrested, debriefed, prosecuted, and, if found guilty, imprisoned.
However, even if individuals are allowed back, with the proviso of prosecution, prosecution may be difficult, if impossible, even for suspected fighters, given that the securing of evidence from conflict zones at the standards necessary for our legal system would not be easy. If they cannot be prosecuted, can they be integrated back into society? Will they be willing? Will the public be open to this?
Repatriating such individuals is likely to be met with public anger. How will this be managed? They will require integration into society and thus will need social housing and resources, perhaps given to them ahead of other members of society. Politically, this may be unacceptable.
However, if we don’t, we face greater consequences down the road. Secondly, how can one be certain, beyond a reasonable doubt, who fought with IS and who fought against them. Are we willing to change a core feature of our legal system? Should there be a difference in how we treat those who travelled to conflict zones, irrespective of the side they supported?
Are we content in our notion of ‘right’? Furthermore, are we confident in the knowledge that some citizens have fought against IS and have returned, yet may have the skills and connections to make them potentially very dangerous? Are we even asking the right questions to determine risk? Are our debriefing interviews fit for purpose and are we debriefing the right people?
The Government should not put off developing a policy to manage such returnees, even if that means dealing with individuals on a case-by-case basis, just because the implications of any of the choices referred to above need to be properly considered.
For example, failure to repatriate citizens could leave them in limbo, which is likely to push them further underground. That would make them difficult to monitor. While this may reduce the potential direct impact on Ireland, there may be indirect risks.
For one, this approach is also likely to reinforce possible feelings of disillusionment with the West, for those who want to come home and are unable to do so. Even if citizens are brought home, the government must think through the options available to them, the resource implications, and procedures and policy, because prosecution may not be an option. One must carefully manage reintegration.
For one, if this is not done properly, it may motivate growing right-wing sentiment, as is being witnessed in other places across Europe.
Sheelagh Brady is SAR’s senior analyst. SAR Consultancy (Security Analysis and Research) features experts from international law enforcement and security, the non-governmental sector, academia, public relations, and international logistics and procurement.