As with many of the issues surrounding terror, what to do with those returning home from IS divides opinion. Some declare that nobody associated with IS should be allowed back into Britain; others say these individuals are victims in need of support and forgiveness; others still declare that investment into intelligence and surveillance can allow them to return home with diminished risk. The “right” answer is not clear, and its nuance cannot be appreciated by such absolute statements.
Outright refusal to allow their return is one option. It fails, however, to recognise that every IS fighter is human. Some of the strongest voices against welcoming those who desert IS home would crumble when faced with a 14 year old who, forced into a marriage, raped and stripped of her rights, decided to return home. A 15 year old boy sent to fight, sleeping and waking to the sounds of gunfire and approaching explosions seems far less threatening than the extremist fighters we see displayed on television.
It is too easy to forget the human we are talking about, too easy to forget that these are the people we went to school with, played with as children, took our own children to nursery with. Indoctrination and vulnerability do not make them less human.
That is not to say that they do not have a responsibility to bear. Our society demands that those who break the rules by which we live together answer for their actions. Joining IS to fight, partaking in terror, is illegal, and must be recognised as such. However, our greater aim should not be forfeited in favour of stringently imposed laws. If the Government rejects an individual’s request to return the effects go further than that person. The propaganda of IS and its supporters will perpetuate the idea of an Islamophobic Britain, where Muslims cannot and should not feel welcome. It is this ideology that we must fight, as we aim to unite everyone against the tyranny of IS.
Surveillance and psychiatric support as part of a rehabilitation plan seem to be, in some ways, the best solution. They offer the opportunity to rehabilitate, to protect and to observe those who have returned. But the cost is undoubtedly prohibitive, and there is no guarantee that they will not pose further threat to innocent individuals through radicalisation.
International cooperation has been pushed to the forefront of fighting terror, but where the question is rehabilitating returning IS fighters, it seems to become a game of pass the parcel. While there is no easy answer, one thing is clear.
We must remember that these individuals are just that: individual people, with thoughts and emotions and fears and vulnerabilities as prominent as our own. We must remember that keeping us safe is about more than keeping them out, it is about creating a place where acceptance, strength, and solidarity are at the fore.
They are the victims of IS. We must protect us and we must protect them.