SEPT. 12, 2014
Nations Trying to Stop Their Citizens From Going to Middle East to Fight for ISIS
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
UNITED NATIONS -- France wants more power to block its citizens from leaving the country, while Britain is weighing whether to stop more of its citizens from coming home. Tunisia is debating measures to make it a criminal offense to help jihadist fighters travel to Syria and Iraq, while Russia has outlawed enlisting in armed groups that are "contradictory to Russian policy."
The rapid surge of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its ability to draw fighters from across the globe, have set off alarm bells in capitals worldwide. Countries that rarely see eye to eye are now trying to blunt its recruitment drive, passing a raft of new rules that they hope will stop their citizens from joining extremist groups abroad.
The United States has seized on the issue, pushing for a legally binding United Nations Security Council resolution that would compel all countries in the world to take steps to "prevent and suppress" the flow of their citizens into the arms of groups considered to be terrorist organizations.
Recruits from 74 countries are among the estimated 12,000 foreign militants in Syria and Iraq, many of them fighting with ISIS, according to Peter Neumann, a professor at King's College London, who has culled the figures  largely from government sources. The largest blocs of these fighters come from nearby Muslim countries, like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, but smaller contingents come from countries as far away and disparate as Belgium, China, Russia and the United States.
American intelligence officials disclosed this week that there were 15,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria from 80 countries, mostly with ISIS.
The Security Council made it illegal to aid terrorist organizations after the Sept. 11 attacks, and recent studies  suggest that only a small share of foreign fighters have committed acts of terrorism once they return home. But the prospect of radicalized youths' becoming hardened on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq has sent a new ripple of anxiety through nations of all stripes, reviving a longstanding tension, especially in democratic countries, over how to balance civil liberties and security in an age of transnational terrorism.
"You now have reopened those very debates," said Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The efforts to stop fighters from rallying to the side of ISIS puts the greatest scrutiny on countries like Turkey, whose long porous border has allowed thousands of militants to cross into the Syrian battlefield and into Iraq. Turkey has openly supported some of the rebels who have sought to unseat Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, but lately it has faced the direct ire of ISIS. Nearly 50 of its citizens have been held hostage by the group in the Iraqi city of Mosul since June, including the Turkish consul general.
Turkey insists that it is now trying to stanch the flow of ISIS gunmen across its 500-mile frontier with Syria, saying it has closed most of its official border crossing points, though it is doubtful that militants would use them anyway. In 2013, Turkey denied entry to 4,000 people who had been on a no-entry list and detained more than 92,000 people on its border.
"It's not a blame game," said Yasar Halit Cevik, the Turkish ambassador to the United Nations. "We're all in the same boat. Turkey feels like it's in the same boat as the moderate international community."
The focus on foreign fighters also shines the spotlight on Qatar, which has had strong ties to several militant groups seeking to topple Mr. Assad in Syria, and on Saudi Arabia, home to powerful religious leaders who have long sanctioned jihad. The Saudi king this year issued a rare decree making it a criminal offense to join a foreign war. It signaled his concerns about the threat that extremist groups could pose to his hold on power, but the degree to which he can rein in radical preachers in his kingdom remains to be seen.
The debate over stemming the flow of foreign fighters has opened up new legal territory and raised the question of when and how countries should prosecute their citizens for fighting in another country's war. Beyond that, standards of proof can be high in many European countries, diplomats said, and proving participation in a known terrorist group has been a challenge.
What is more, governments around the world are under pressure to balance their desire to target individuals who pose a genuine risk at home without engaging in broad crackdowns that could backfire and alienate a wider portion of their populations, particularly Muslim youths.
"It requires very, very rigorous intelligence assessment," said David H. Ucko, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington. "If you let in the wrong person and you have an attack, the political blowback is going to be unbelievable."
Take for instance, the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen suspected of killing four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels this year. A French journalist held hostage for months by extremists in Syria has said that Mr. Nemmouche was one of his captors, the newspaper Le Point reported.
The call for a new global legal apparatus echoes a raft of counterterrorism provisions passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The United Nations Security Council already prohibits aiding organizations that are on its own list of banned groups, including Al Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, though not other groups like Hezbollah, which the United States considers to be a terrorist group.
There are also long no-fly lists in circulation already. Passports can be confiscated. Children can be taken into state custody. And many countries, including some in Europe, have already prosecuted terrorism suspects under existing laws.
Britain, for example, is prosecuting at least 50 of its citizens who have returned from Syria, and the law already allows the authorities to revoke the citizenship of a dual citizen found guilty of joining a terrorist group. The government is now exploring ways to keep Britons from returning home temporarily if they are suspected of having been involved in terrorism abroad, even if they are solely British citizens.
French law currently requires a court order to stop a citizen from leaving the country to go abroad. The government is weighing new rules that would enable the police to make that decision without judicial review.
Germany, which can already revoke passports in certain cases, is considering a provision enabling it to revoke the national identity cards that all Germans are issued, which allow them to travel to many countries, including Turkey.
The Netherlands recently proposed amending its nationality laws to be able to revoke Dutch citizenship if a person has volunteered with a terrorist organization. This would apply only to dual citizens, according to the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Already, various administrative measures are available to the Dutch authorities, and the police recently detained two couples from the small town of Huizen and took their children into state custody. The authorities said they were suspected of going to Syria to join a terrorist group.
In Tunisia, where Parliament is debating a new antiterrorism law, the government estimates that 2,400 Tunisians went to fight in Syria, mainly with ISIS and the Nusra Front. A Tunisian diplomat said his country had prevented an additional 8,000 from traveling to Syria.
The American-sponsored resolution will be voted on at a Security Council meeting led by President Obama on Sept 24. The day before, Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to lead a meeting of counterterrorism officials from around the world to discuss how to deal with foreign fighters more effectively. Counterterrorism officials recommend that countries share data to detect the recruitment of foreign fighters, monitor online communications more aggressively, share airline passenger information in advance, and criminalize travel abroad to fight.
Ms. Hicks, the former Pentagon official, described the American push as a low-cost diplomatic effort to rally support for the fight against ISIS without having to do anything extra, like committing troops. She called it "an easy way for countries to sign up and say they're part of this strategy."
It is virtually impossible to enforce, experts say, and does not authorize military action by any country. In the end, it leaves it to every country to weigh its need to stop the fighters against other political and strategic priorities, Mr. Ucko of the National Defense University said.
"It starts a conversation," he said. "It comes down to what a state wants to do internally."
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq
According to Peter Neumann, a professor at King's College London, at least 12,000 foreign militants are fighting in Syria and Iraq -- many of them with ISIS. Where the fighters originate from:
Sources: Peter Neumann, King's College London; The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence