Letters from disillusioned French fighters in Syria published by a French newspaper this week have revived a contentious debate in Europe about what to do with radicalized recruits to foreign wars who wish to lay down their arms and return home.
In excerpts published by Le Figaro on Monday, several of the estimated 376 French fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) reveal that they were bored, terrified or otherwise "fed up" with the grueling reality of their jihad in Syria.
Fighters complain of difficult conditions, especially as the winter cold sets in. Their concerns range from the practical, including a couple worried that their child, born in Syria, would not enjoy French citizenship, to the trivial. “I'm sick and tired. My iPod doesn’t work anymore,” one writes. “I have to return.”
Le Figaro reports that the fighters were stationed mostly in Aleppo and Raqqa, ISIL's de facto capital in Syria. ISIL, which has declared a restored Islamic “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq, has drawn thousands of recruits from across the globe thanks in part to a sophisticated propaganda machine touting jihad as an adventure and life under ISIL rule as paradise.
The reality described in many of the letters — days filled with disappointingly menial work — is a far cry from the dramatic violence that featured in ISIL’s YouTube videos. "I've done practically nothing but hand out clothes and food. I also clean weapons and transport dead fighters’ corpses," wrote one. "The winter is here. It's become very difficult."
Another had the opposite complaint: “They want to send me to the front even though I don’t know how to fight."
But while all were ready to return home, they worried about the consequences. “If I return to France, what will happen to me?” wrote one fighter. “Can I avoid prison?"
A group of French lawyers working on behalf of the fighters’ families have reportedly mounted an effort to answer those questions. Seeking guarantees of clemency for the fighters, they have repeatedly sought to make contact with French intelligence and the interior minister, Bernard Cazaneuve, but to no avail. The response to the fighters, the lawyers told Le Figaro, is always the same: "Present yourself at the French consulate in Istanbul or Erbil. Then we will see."
French authorities have so far taken a hard line, incarcerating 76 of the 100 French citizens who have returned from the front lines in Syria and Iraq and imposing travel restrictions on those believed to be considering a trip. That policy reflects, in part, a fear that veterans of the wars in Syria and Iraq may seek to carry out attacks at home.
Earlier this year, a French national who fought in Syria gunned down four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium. But that incident is one of only a few instances of returned fighters attacking in their home countries. Some counterterrorism experts say hawkish officials in the West have exaggerated the domestic threat these fighters pose.
In any case, many support leniency, arguing that the cautionary tales of disaffected fighters are a government's most powerful tool against extremism. “For many radicals, there’s this romantic dimension in jihad, but they may be disappointed,” said Olivier Roy, an expert on extremist violence who has consulted for France’s foreign ministry. He also noted that returned fighters could prove to be valuable wells of intelligence about ISIL tactics.
One proposal cited in Le Figaro calls for governments to grant clemency only to fighters between the ages of 17 and 23, who are thought to be more receptive to de-radicalization efforts. According to Magnus Ranstorp, who heads a European Union task force on returned fighters, community-based deradicalization programs have had some success in identifying and reducing at-risk cases in several European countries.
“If we want to fight jihadism, the best way is not to put people in jail, but to discredit it," Roy adds. "We must show it’s a farce."