Launch Event for the Initiative on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of Foreign Terrorist Fighters

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Representatives from the United States and the Netherlands co-chairing a session during the Initiative on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of Foreign Terrorist Fighters launch event. (Photo courtesy of Nida Gelazis Johansson)
Representatives from the United States and the Netherlands co-chairing a session during the Initiative on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of Foreign Terrorist Fighters launch event. (Photo courtesy of Nida Gelazis Johansson)

Launch Event for the Initiative on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of Foreign Terrorist Fighters

Since 2014, an estimated 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 120 countries have streamed into Iraq and Syria. As a result of increased information sharing, improved legal frameworks, enhanced investigations, and tightened border and aviation security, countries are better able to identify, interdict, and prosecute suspected foreign terrorist fighters. These efforts, coupled with the work of the U.S.-led Defeat-ISIS Coalition, are causing the false caliphate to crumble. ISIS has lost more than 90 percent of the territory it once held across Iraq and Syria.  Just two weeks ago, ISIS’ purported “capital” of Raqqa fell to Coalition forces.

While these civilian and military gains are significant, a number of challenges remain. Notably, we must address the problems posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters who have family members with them. This is not a monolithic group. Some of them may have engaged in terrorism while in the conflict zone or may pose a threat to the community, in which case a law enforcement response may be appropriate.  Others may themselves be victims of ISIS, however, particularly young children, who will have witnessed unspeakable violence, been indoctrinated, or otherwise become desensitized to ISIS’s brutality.

To address this complex dynamic, the United States and the Netherlands, under the auspices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s (GCTF) Foreign Terrorist Fighters Working Group, are co-leading the Initiative on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of Foreign Terrorist Fighters.  This yearlong initiative will bring together national and local governments, international organizations, medical and psychological assistance communities, and family support organizations to develop a set of internationally recognized non-binding good practices for dealing with the women and children who come home from the conflict zone.

On November 1, the United States and the Netherlands co-chaired the launch of the Initiative in London.  Participants discussed how countries are preparing for returnees by conducting risk and needs assessments, considering prosecution strategies, offering social services, and developing rehabilitation and reintegration programs specifically for women and children. 

The group reviewed how to balance national security concerns with assisting vulnerable women and children as they overcome the trauma of living under ISIS control and try to reintegrate into society. To illustrate this point, a Dutch Ministry of Interior official presented a Dutch program that provides a tailor-made response to the individual and uses tools ranging from prosecution to psychological care and counseling. 

The conversation does not end here. Over the next few months, the Initiative on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of Foreign Terrorist Fighters will convene three region-specific workshops in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. These workshops will raise awareness, identify needs, highlight programs, and leverage experiences to better understand the tools needed to deal effectively with family members returning from the conflict zone. 

We need to hold people accountable for their crimes, and we also need to help people who are victims of crime. To do this, countries need to have the legal frameworks and resources available to develop and implement tailored responses that can account for the unique and individual circumstances that each returning child and spouse will present. This Initiative is the first step to help nations develop the tools to address the return of family members of foreign terrorist fighters from the war zone in Iraq and Syria.

About the Author: Nathan A. Sales is Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.