As Raqqa falls, foreign fighters seek return

Lasting threat: The average age of a foreign IS recruit is 28.

Should foreign jihadis be killed in Syria and Iraq? A British minister has said this is the right option. As Islamic State fails, it is a question many Western countries have to answer.

These are the end times for Islamic State (IS), but not as the IS fighters imagined them. Instead of a victorious final battle in Jerusalem against Western armies, a combination of drone strikes and Kurdish forces is slowly, but inexorably, squeezing IS out of the territory it had grabbed.

Raqqa has fallen. The last IS stand took place in a hospital and a sports stadium before the Kurds captured the city last week. But while IS may be all but dead, the threat from global jihad remains.

According to a new report released today, around 40,000 foreign fighters went to fight for IS. Many came from the West, including Britain, the USA, and France. And yesterday a British foreign office minister, Rory Stewart, who worked in Iraq during the war, said that killing foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq was the only way to deal with them “in almost every case”.

“These are people who have essentially moved away from any kind of allegiance towards the British Government,” Stewart said.

His remarks come after the independent reviewer of UK terror law, Max Hill, said young people who travelled to Syria after being “brainwashed” should be allowed to come home, calling them “naive”.

It is estimated that around a third of those from Europe who went to fight for Islamic State have returned home. A handful of the 100 or so Americans who travelled have also gone back.

For governments, there is a difficult moral dilemma over the question of killing their own citizens abroad.

In 2011 Barack Obama gave the order to target radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike in Yemen. Lawyers for the administration justified it on the grounds of a law passed in 2001, the Authorisation to Use Military Force.

They argued that: “Where government officials have determined that a capture operation is infeasible and that the targeted person is part of a dangerous enemy force and is engaged in activities that pose a continued and imminent threat to US persons or interests”, the US government is authorised to kill a US citizen.

Should other countries follow suit?

Strike one

Some say countries should treat these people like any other enemy combatants. They have renounced all loyalty to their country of origin, so why should that country owe them anything? They are simply traitors. And killing them in the Middle East prevents them returning to plan attacks or warp minds in the West.

Others believe that killing them in Syria would only make things worse in their home country, as it would inspire others to avenge them. Many of those who join Islamic terror groups are still young enough that they can be set back on the right path. The West needs to retain its belief in forgiveness, redemption and justice.

You Decide

  1. Should governments kill their own citizens if they have travelled to fight for the Islamic State?
  2. Are drone strikes ethical?


  1. List three questions you would most like to ask someone who has been to fight for Islamic State.
  2. Write 500 words on the word “treason”, researching its history and answering whether it is a reasonable charge in 2017.

Some People Say...

“It is hypocritical for a country to have the death penalty abroad but not at home.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Fighters from dozens of countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for Islamic State. The majority have come from other Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, but every Western country with a sizeable Muslim population has seen people go. Many have already been killed, including for example the infamous Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi, but thousands have returned to their countries of origin.
What do we not know?
How much danger ex-Islamic State fighters pose when they are back in the West. In May 2014 a man who had fought for Islamists in the Syrian Civil War killed four people at a synagogue in Brussels, while former fighters have been key in planning other major attacks in Europe.

Word Watch

According to Islamic prophecies of the end of the world, a final battle with Muslim forces, led by Jesus, will take place in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city.
The city on the Euphrates River was captured by IS in 2013. Since then it has been its de facto capital. The battle for Raqqa lasted just over four months; Russia accuses the US-led coalition of “wiping the city off the face of the Earth”. It is not known how many IS fighters have been killed. Many are likely to have escaped among civilians. Journalists monitoring the casualties suggest at least 1,800 civilians have been killed, with IS deliberately endangering them; some 1,300 of these were victims of air strikes.
Foreign fighters
According to a report by the Soufan Group.
Anwar al-Awlaki
The New Mexico-born imam was described by Saudi news station Al Arabiya as the “bin Laden of the internet”.
When bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011, many criticised the Obama administration for not capturing him and bringing him to trial in the USA.


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