Bring Hoda Muthana and other ISIS members home — but for trial

Bring Hoda Muthana and other ISIS members home — but for trial
© ABC News

Hoda Muthana left the United States to join ISIS, burned her passport, contributed to daily life in the so-called caliphate, and lived there until there was no longer any place left to live. Muthana and many others have turned up in refugee camps or surrendered to multinational forces, telling authorities that they “deeply regret” their actions and want to come home. But regrets are irrelevant. Though repatriation often is characterized as forgiveness and compassion, it’s really about justice and security.

Muthana is part of a recent string of high-profile cases. In December, Australia stripped Neil Prakash of his citizenship, refusing him extradition from a Turkish prison to stand trial. In Belgium, a judge ordered the repatriation of sisters-in-law Bouchra Abouallal and Tatiana Wielandt, along with their six children. And Great Britain recently revoked Shamima Begum’s citizenship.  

ADVERTISEMENT

While a few niche security and foreign policymakers have been planning for this eventuality — the U.N. Security Council has passed resolutions on the issue, and several internationally recognized guidelines exist — these recent cases have invited the public to consider the conundrum for the first time.

Difficult questions now swirl around whether countries of origin should allow people who traveled to live and fight with ISIS to return. Stripping citizenship and leaving former members of violent extremist organizations in refugee camps merely ignores the problem today and might prohibit meaningful progress tomorrow.

Refugee camps are not designed to investigate, prosecute, or pass sentences, nor are they intended to rehabilitate or monitor for future threats. And fragile countries, such as Bangladesh and Yemen that ultimately may be forced to accept them, suffer from significant capacity gaps in courts and prisons, increasing potential for further radicalization. ISIS is a genocidal organization that massacred entire ethnicities, terrorized civilians and devastated communities. Many of its adherents participated in and enabled atrocities. The United States should not be satisfied with an outcome where those associated with the group will never face justice.

Western governments have the greatest capacity to mete out fair justice. The United States has a comprehensive legal system and can carry out trials and sentencing for the most heinous war criminals and terrorists, let alone those who likely have provided material support. Claims of “deep regret” aside, the FBI, U.S. intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice are equipped to determine whether someone still poses a violent risk to public safety. These processes are not just theoretical. The United States has repatriated 14 people who have returned from the caliphate and put the vast majority through the justice system.

Holding people who joined ISIS accountable is the only solution that will uphold the dualisms underpinning a justice system — retribution and restoration. Retribution is somewhat straightforward: Do the crime, pay the time. Restoration remains a more vexing concept, especially when it comes to terrorism. After all, who wants to live next door to former members of ISIS?

Here, one of the United States’s biggest strengths is transparent and fair legal processes — they not only provide accountability but include well-tested mechanisms to ensure that a once threatening person can now contribute as a productive member of society. Such mechanisms also generate opportunities for reconciliation that can heal communities that have been terrorized and enable them to build peaceful and resilient futures.

Of course, this kind of restoration takes work. Support for rehabilitation in corrections facilities, working with mental health and community counselors, and engaging with communities to increase trust and understanding throughout a reintegration period is a good practice within the United States and is even part of a few U.S. foreign assistance efforts abroad.

With 40,000 people from over 100 countries who traveled abroad to fight or live with ISIS, over 7,000 who have returned to their home countries or relocated elsewhere, and thousands more who remain in makeshift detention or refugee camps in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, this is not a problem that will solve itself. The public has an interest in getting it right.

Muthana should not expect unconditional forgiveness for crimes committed. Luckily, repatriation and applying a rule of law-based system to hold her and others accountable is not about placation. It is about demonstrating how the system works to hold people responsible and enable reconciliation to prevent future challenges. Because when people disengaged from violent extremist groups can renounce violence and reconcile with communities, everyone benefits — even more so when they can help prevent others from taking the path they chose. After all, terrorist groups can only exist as long as people join them. 

Chris C. Bosley is the senior program officer for countering violent extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Leanne Erdberg is the director for countering violent extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the interim executive director for the RESOLVE Network.