The Returnees of Daesh: Classification, Risks and Integration

Maher Farghaly | 20 Oct 2020

In March 2019, the stronghold of the Islamic State (Daesh, IS) in Syria collapsed, and the last location of its strongholds fell in the Syrian town of Baghuz. As a result of this defeat, many foreign fighters sought to return to their home countries or flee as mobile fighters. The issue became more urgent after US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw his forces from northeastern Syria in October 2019.[1] This enabled Turkey to seize the opportunity to launch military operations in the region, which prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD), which hold thousands of Daesh fighters and their families, to demand that countries receive their terrorist citizens. This forced many states to deal with the challenges raised by the issue of the returning foreign fighters.

Categories of returnees

Everyone who went to the fronts of tension, joined Islamist militant organisations under the banner of the so-called solidarity fighting, and then ended up, either willingly or because of his/her detention, returning to active seclusion or fighting again locally or internationally, is a "returnee".

A study published by the King’s College International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) in London confirms that the number of foreigners in the ranks of Daesh in particular amount to 41,490 people (75 percent of whom are males, 13 percent females, and 12 percent children), that they belong to 80 countries, and that 7,366 people, representing 79 percent of the foreign fighters in the ranks of Daesh, have returned to their countries, of whom 4 percent are women, and 17 percent are children.[2]

In terms of relations and organisational ties, the returning Daesh operatives can be divided as follows:

A. Attrition war groups: these are operatives that fight as clusters supervised by the Organisation’s security apparatus during the era of its new leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi.[3] They are all in Syria and Iraq,[4] and most of them are mobile operatives with the Organisation.[5]

B. Operatives of integration into the external arms: these are the ones who were tasked with returning and fighting with the Organisation's branches in Sinai, Libya, Somalia, etc.[6]

C. The Organisation’s mobile operatives: these are tasked with creating new branches for the Organisation in other countries, such as the Philippines and Central Africa.

D. Operatives of dormancy and active seclusion: these are tasked with returning, pending directives from the Organisation's leadership to carry out new operations.

E. Defecting operatives: these generally fall into several categories, such as those who abandoned Daesh at an early stage, those who were deceived by the slogans and were shocked after a short or long period, or those who disagreed about the strategies or about their role but adopt the same ideas. So, these would be divided into: those who have returned while adopting the ideas of the Organisation but do not communicate with it, that is, those who abandoned the Organisation but have not given up the ideology; and those who have abandoned both the ideology and the Organisation. Within the two categories, there are those who fled with their families and returned to their home countries, or were unable to do so and were subsequently accepted in the camps and detention centres established in northeastern Syria. Some estimates indicate that their total number is nearly one hundred thousand people, of whom more than seventy thousand are women and children.[7]

In light of this, the returning Daesh foreign fighters could be classified as follows:

1. Returnees who believe in most of the Organisation’s extremist ideas, and maintain their organisational, ideological and communication ties with it, and thus represent a great danger.

2. Returnees who hold the Organisation’s extremist ideas but are disgruntled with it for one reason or another. These may return to join their old organisations or groups, or create new organisations and cells. They likewise constitute a serious threat.

3. Returnees who are disgruntled with the Organisation, who turn against it, and who are critical of its extremist ideas.[8]

The classification of returnees in this way reflects a marked difference in intellectual and organisational trends and patterns of related threats. This distinction is important and should be taken into account when embarking on the processes of integration into societies to which those returnees are directed, through different preventive and therapeutic programmes, and also when dismantling active or dormant groups and operatives or through accompanying or subsequent security plans.

Risks of return

1. Security risks

  • The returnees' involvement in acts of violence and terrorism. Considering that some of them were Arab and foreign fighters in the Organisation, they used to represent different entities. In the event of their return, they are likely either to recreate those entities or give them more inspiration and strength. For example, there are statistics of new terrorist groups affiliated with the Organisation that have begun to reproduce, such as the Firqat al-Ghuraba (Strangers’ Division) (France), the two networks of De Basis (the Basis, [the English for Al-Qaeda]) and Sham al-Malahim (Levant of Epics) (Belgium and the Netherlands), the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA, Army of Emigrants and Supporters) in the North Caucasus regions in Russia, the Harakat Sham al-Islam (Islamic Movement of the Levant) in the Arab Maghreb, Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) in Lebanon, and the Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (Imam al-Bukhari Battalion) in Uzbekistan.[9]
  • Coordination between external and local branches of the Organisations because of their connections and ties that were formed at the time of their fight with the mother Daesh organisation in Syria and Iraq.

2. Economic risks

  • Disrupting investments and halting economic activities in many regions of the world are among the goals of Daesh, by launching terrorist operations that directly and indirectly affect both security and the economy.[10]
  • The return of the fighters may also entail an economic burden that states would bear in case they decide to settle the status of those operatives and their families, re-employ them and create job opportunities for them.

3. Social risks

  • There are expected negative social impacts as a result of the return of foreign fighters and their families, due to their takfiri (excommunicative) and extremist ideas, and as a result of the battles, incidents and killings they witnessed in places of tension and the fear that they might transmit their experiences to others. Women returnees also constitute a potential social and security threat at three main levels, namely spreading the Organisation's ideology, attracting other women, and subsequently carrying out terrorist operations.[11]
  • Likewise, children of the Organisation’s members are no less dangerous, especially after the Organisation has built new generations bearing its ideas and concepts in accordance with a strict educational curriculum, in addition to the fact they have been negatively affected by the military and terrorist operations and harsh incidents they witnessed and the destruction of the cities and villages in which they lived. Some of them have the will to revenge for their father or brother who lost their lives at the hands of their opponents. It would be difficult to erase those painful memories. Besides, many of them are currently placed in detention camps in Syria and Iraq and suffer from poor inhuman living conditions. What is more dangerous is that most of them do not possess any identification documents, and some of them are siblings from the mother side and their fathers are of different nationalities, considering that the mother has got married after the death of her husband who was one of the Organisation’s operatives who may be of a different nationality. These are all psychological factors that greatly affect the intellectual formation of children.

Problems of the return of the Daesh fighters

1. The lack of accurate statistics of the numbers and names of potential returnees, especially that many of the operatives who travelled to Turkey and onwards to Syria were not previously directly monitored from the security perspective, families were reluctant to report the disappearance of their children, adequate coordination was lacking between international organisations and intelligence agencies in the countries concerned with this issue, and a country such as Turkey deliberately failed to notify other countries of the names and data of the operatives entering its territory.

2. The difficulty of the legal prosecution of returnees. Many countries have not enacted the necessary laws to punish the returning fighters and also refuse to receive the Daesh members detained in Syria or Iraq, considering that those countries would not be able to put those fighters on trial.

3. The difficulty of intellectual rehabilitation of the returning operatives, in view of the sharp ideological transformations that have occurred in the excommunicative ideology, represented in Daesh by four different currents, namely the Furqan Movement and the Delegated Committee, the Al-Hattab Movement, the Al-Binali Movement and the Research Office,[12] and the Al-Hajjaji Movement. They all differ among themselves regarding the administration of rulings for those who reside in countries of apostasy, the ruling on the excuse due to ignorance and interpretation, the excommunication of the excusers, and the excommunication by sequence and loyalty[13] (see Figure 1). Accordingly, it became difficult to classify Daesh members because they are not a single current, and the Organisation's policy has come to differ according to the leadership and its ideological affiliations.

The currently prevailing Daesh ideology differs from the traditional ideology embraced by the returnees in the past, which allowed for an excuse due to ignorance and prohibited the absolute killing of the violators.[14] Daesh followers now believe in the inevitability and continuity of the confrontation, and the necessity to pledge allegiance to the leader even if his identity and status are unknown to the general public.[15] They also believe in the principle of “istehlal” (considering halal or sanctioned, permitting what is lawfully forbidden) regarding the violators; not distinguishing in takfir (excommunication) between a group and its notables; excommunication by necessities, that is when a forbidden act is committed compulsorily and imperatively; testing the commoners in their beliefs; the apostasy by amity; and the excommunication of implementers of democracy.[16] The Organisation also believes that fighting the renegade is more important than fighting the original infidel. The state declared by Daesh was considered a state that must be pledged allegiance to[17] (See Figure 1).


4. Increased societal pressure. While human rights organisations and some international organisations demand the release of returnees and their integration into the societies of their countries, many community circles reject the idea of ​​ living with those returnees and re-integrating them into their community.

5. Lack of accurate and comprehensive perceptions to deal with them, such as the determinants through which they would be held accountable, especially the female members in terms of determining the extent of their involvement, whether this was of their free will or they forced to it, whether they participated in terrorist operations or not, whether children are victims or terrorists, how to authenticate their identities and identity papers, whether there is a suitable place of detention for them, etc.[18]

Dealing with the returnee dilemma

Some countries have developed some conceptions to solve the problem of returnees. In terms of the applications of their solutions, those countries were divided into two main directions, namely detention and taking legal measures, or reception and integration. Around these two directions, experiences are divided and varied, as is the case with Western and Arab experiences.

1. Detention and intellectual reviews. These have been applied in a number of Arab and Islamic countries, including Egypt in 2001, in what is known as reviews and corrections of concepts, the Munasaha (Advisory Committee) programme in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the reviews of the Fighting Group in Libya. They are now being circulated again, with the same procedures and applications.

2. Trials and referral to the judiciary. Some countries enacted laws for the possibility of seizing travel documents, disrupting movement through various border crossings, drawing up lists of those banned from travelling, arresting suspected operatives, and requiring citizens who have been absent for more than two years to obtain permission from the government to return, as in the laws laid down by Britain in 2014, where the suspect is subject to the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) by placing electronic signs, regularly reporting to the police, staying away from certain and specific places, being prevented from travelling abroad, being prevented from leaving home at night for up to 10 hours, and other procedures. In the Netherlands, the citizenship of dual-national civilian terrorists is revoked, while Germany confiscates travel documents of any operative suspected of posing a threat to security, and so does Australia.

Other countries believe that trial in Syria or Iraq is the successful way to confront the returnees.[19] So far, there is no formula for an agreement with the Kurdish authorities that detain the Daesh fighters. While the Kurdish authorities have announced that they are planning to establish a local court to try the Daesh fighters detained in the region,[20] there are advocates of establishing an international court under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) to screen the detainees based on the existence of major international precedents of special courts (Nuremberg, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq). There is also an idea to create a European Union court to deal with European cases. However, the lack of consensus impedes this proposal.[21]

US officials had raised the possibility of detaining foreign fighters who could not be returned to their countries in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.[22] This was announced by US President Donald Trump when he asked Congress to grant his administration all the powers necessary to detain terrorists in its war against Daesh.

3. Societal integration: some countries carry out an individual assessment of each case of returning foreign fighters to determine the motives behind their travel to conflict areas. Thus, a set of experiences was witnessed, including the experience of "Aarhus" in Denmark, through what is known as the "early prevention programme" and encouraging those who actually joined the ranks of Daesh to return through the so-called "exit programme", which includes providing job opportunities, housing, education and psychological counselling for those operatives without prejudice to the moderate Islamic belief. Germany has adopted a project called Hayat, which has been implemented since 2012 to make an individual assessment of returning foreign fighters based on the importance of distinguishing between types of returnees and integration into society through three tracks (ideological, practical, and emotional).

US researchers have developed the Rehabilitation and Reintegration Intervention Framework (RRIF), which tracks progress in achieving five primary goals, namely promoting individual mental health and well-being, promoting family support, promoting educational success, promoting community support, improving structural conditions, and protecting public safety. However, the programme failed to explain the disengagement from terrorism, and whether it could be achieved or not.[23]


Up to the present moment, there is no accurate count of the Daesh returnees. The problem of those detained remains pending and unresolved, even as the strategy of Daesh has changed during the reign of its new leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi who prioritised the intensification of terrorist operations in different areas of the world and waging the so-called wars of attrition and exhaustion, taking advantage of the presence of Daesh arms in some countries and roaming fugitives in several continents. This makes it all the more important to develop unconventional solutions to the problem of the detained Daesh operatives and their families, most importantly of course increasing regional and international coordination in order to confront risks and develop solutions to related problems, including accurately classifying returnees before embarking on integration measures and preventive and remedial programmes, as well as developing security plans to ensure the dismantling of both active and dormant mobile groups.

Finally, it is important to emphasise that the success of the societal integration processes for the returning Daesh fighters and their families and women returnees and their children does not depend on the rehabilitation and social and psychological treatment programmes alone since they must also be accompanied by other plans and programmes to settle the living conditions of the returnees in the long run.


[1] Basel Alhaj Jasem, “Foreign fighters in conflict zones a headache for the West and Russia”, independentarabia, 18 September 2020. Available at:

[2] See: Joana Cook and Gina Vale, From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), 2018, p. 4. Available at:

[3] Intelligence reports indicated that he is Amir Mohammad Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla al-Salbi al-Turkmani, alias Haji Abdullah.

[4] Voice remarks by the Daesh spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, entitled "Say unto those who disbelieve: Ye shall be overcome", Al-Furqan Foundation. Available at:

[5] “The attrition epic”, Tamkeen news, the Deash-affiliated Al-Furqan Agency. Available at:

[6] Al-Naba Weekly newspaper, the Deash-affiliated Al-Hayat Media Agency, Issue 255, p. 8.

[7] “The dilemma of the return of foreign fighters to Europe raises a new controversy”, European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies (ECCI), 11 November 2020. Available at:

[8] Maher Farghaly, “Returnees from tension zones: the future and expectations”, the author’s blog, 2019. Available at:

[9] The Secretariat of the World Congress against Extremism and Takfiri Movements, “A statistical study on the Daesh arms”, 21 July 2018. Available at:

[10] Abu al-Yazid al-Hermasi, “How do we conquer Egypt?”, the Secret of Egyptian Puzzles series, al-Hayat Media Center, the Islamic State Organisation, p. 23.

[11] Ali Bakr, “Returnees from Syria: the reality and the future”, Al Siyassa Al Dawliya (International Politics Journal), Issue 208, April 2017, p. 159.

[12] Hossam Jazmati, “A testimony from inside the Daesh house: the struggle between security men and legislators”, Syria TV, 1 April 2019. Available at:

[13] Most of the Daesh ideas on those issues appeared in “Hands off the Pledge of allegiance to Al-Baghdadi” by Abu Mohammad al-Hashemi, “The State's Approach is the Ajwa (compressed dates) Statue” by Abu Issa al-Masri, “The Repentants Massacre” by Abu Issa al-Masri, “My testimony on the Repentants Case” by Abu Jandal al-Haeli, “The Testimony of a Repentant Security Man” by Abu Muslim al-Iraqi, “The Security Men in the Balance” by Abu Issa al-Masri, and “Sultan ‘Barisha’” by Abu Issa al-Masri, the Scientific Heritage Foundation, an online publishing house affiliated with the Organisation.

[14] See: “Insight into the Reality of the March”, a letter by Turki al-Binali. Available at:

[15] Abu Humam al-Athari (Turki al-Binali), “Extending Hands to the Allegiance to Baghdadi”, Daesh publications.

[16] The Daesh-affiliated Dabiq magazine, Issue 6, Rabi al-Awwal 1436 AH, p. 15.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cases have been recorded of women who married more than one fighter or affiliate to jihadist and fundamentalist organisations, and gave birth to children of multiple identities and nationalities, as was the case of the daughter of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, who recently returned with 14 children from 4 husbands of different nationalities. They are a Pakistani, a Somali and two Egyptians.

[19] In January 2019, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stated that Daesh fighters and their wives are enemies of France and must face justice in Syria or Iraq. In March 2019, he issued another statement confirming that French women who joined Daesh "will not be allowed to return".

[20] “Syria's Kurds are mobilise to set up a local court for Daesh prisoners”, Middle East Online, 30 January 2020. Available at:

[21] David Malet, Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 9; quoted from Charles Lister, Returning Foreign Fighters: Criminalization or Reintegration, Policy Briefing, Brookings Doha Center, August 2015. Available at:

[22] “Washington intends to send jihadists of the "Islamic State" to Guantanamo”, Deutsche Welle, 31 August 2018. Available at:; and also: “Trump signs a decision to keep Guantanamo prison open”,, 31 January 2018. Available at:  

[23] See: Stevan Weine [Et al.], "Rapid Review to Inform the Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Child Returnees from the Islamic State", Annals of Global Health 86(1), Jun 2020, available at:


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