Islamic State returners: Are they victims or criminals?

Amira Abasel who left the UK at age 15 to join Islamic State.

The vast dystopian caliphate created by Islamic State is over, but among the moral challenges it leaves for Western governments is the quandary of what, if anything, to do with those of its citizens who travelled to Syria and Iraq as jihadi brides and so-called IS fighters — so-called because these young men were not fighters in the normal military sense of the word; they were terrorists, participating zealously in a regime of unrestrained cruelty.

Some of them, such as the British woman found by The Times, are stranded in refugee camps in Syria and currently beyond the reach of consular officials, while others are being held by the Kurdish forces that have contributed so much to the destruction of the caliphate. 

The Kurds, want to see the back of them. A terse message — “Take your trash home” — reportedly sent to Western capitals appears heartless, but is explicable given the blood and treasure that has been lost in the campaign to bring down IS.

It has been said of the woman who wants to be brought back to the UK that she was a mere 15-year-old schoolgirl when she, along with others in North America and Western Europe, fell for the poisonous promise of an Islamic utopia. 

It was just one of those silly mistakes teenagers make. 

Her explanation might in time be that she was the innocent, naïve victim of those who groomed her. 

If, however, she sticks with the account she has provided so far, she can expect to see few if any “Welcome Back” banners on her return. 

She doesn’t regret joining IS, membership of which is a serious criminal act under UK law. 

The first sight of a severed head did not “faze” her. Life in Raqqa was “mostly normal”. 

All she wants to do now, carrying her third child, is go back to her home country and “live quietly”. 

It’s almost as if she believes she’s been on little more than an extended holiday on Ibiza.

As tragic as this story is for her family, the fact remains that actions have consequences, and the actions of those

who rushed to the caliphate’s black flag have to be examined by security agencies and prosecutors. 

To what extent did they aid, abet and condone IS crimes — not only in Iraq and Syria but also in Europe and North America? 

Should they return to their home countries, what level of threat might they pose to public safety?

On a more positive note, can returners be persuaded to provide information that could be invaluable to intelligence services, which are aware that IS as a creed and a missionary death cult might survive the loss of its blood-drenched caliphate?

This is the moral dilemma facing authorities in Western capitals. 

Governments have a responsibility to citizens in trouble overseas, but does that obligation loosen when the person asking for help has been seen — as would-be IS returners have done — to not only willingly place

themselves in danger but also to join an organisation whose purpose was the destruction of their own societies? 

Many would say, with justification, that it does, and that a government’s principal obligation is to the safety of its loyal and law-abiding population.

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