Blanket prosecution of foreign fighters coming back from Iraq and Syria to Europe would be counterproductive, a senior EU security official has said. In his view some of them should be rehabilitated and even used to counter Islamic State propaganda.

EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove criticized his home country Belgium for having no options to deal with its citizens, who joined radical groups such as Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and went to fight in the Middle East, but then returned to Europe.

“If there is no evidence that they are an active jihadi – for instance, they crossed the border and spent a week with the organization but were really just washing dishes, a fourth-rank foot soldier, then saw people beheaded and rushed to leave, saying, ‘I made a big mistake’ – is it really worth putting them on the trail that leads to prison?” he told the Guardian.

Disillusioned IS fighters may be re-radicalized if sent to prison de Kerchove argued, saying that a rehabilitation program could be viable alternative.

“Prisons are major incubators of radicalization. Therefore, if you can avoid prison for those who do not have blood on their hands and are genuinely ready to engage in a rehabilitation program, why don’t we try alternatives?” he said.

The official added that former fighters might be useful for countering the recruiting effort of the terrorists.

“Some returnees who don’t have ‘blood on their hands’ are a strong credible voice for counter-narrative purposes,” he said. “They can explain what they have experienced, that they thought they were joining a nice idea of the caliphate, but encountered people sexually abusing others, or being violent.”

Around 4,000 foreign fighters have gone to Iraq and Syria from EU member states to join militant groups, a study released earlier this month by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague estimated. The majority of them came from Belgium, Britain, France and Germany. About one third of them have returned home.


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