As Fighters Return To Home Countries After ISIS Defeat, West Faces A New Dilemma
Muna Habib in this article discusses the dilemma that Western countries face today as ISIS fighters gradually start returning home. She draws parallels between these ISIS recruits with Bryant Neal Vinas, a former Al-Qaeda fighter who was arrested in Peshawar in December 2008 and handed over to the US authorities.
Last month a U.S. judge rejected a request from the family of a Muslim woman, Hoda Muthanan who is being held in refugee camp in northern Syria, to expedite her case, saying there was insufficient evidence she would be irreparably harmed.
Muthana left Alabama, US, in 2014 to marry an Islamic State fighter in Syria.
Her lawyer Charles Swift argued that she was in a precarious position, faced immediate harm, and her safety and ability to leave the country were threatened; he also stressed she had had to move to another camp due to ISIS threats after media interviews.
Swift also argued that the US withdrawal of troops from Syria puts her status at risk, but in his ruling Judge Reggie Walton suggested that risk was speculative. He added, because of uncertainty around the terms of the withdrawal, he didn’t know when the troops would pull out, or whether any would remain and whether their departure would make Muthana’s situation perilous.
The Trump administration has argued that Muthana is not a US citizen and thus barred from entering the US.
The refusal by western governments to repatriate ISIS fighters who left the country to join ISIS, has gained international attention, along with the case of, Shamima Begum, 20, who despite being heavily pregnant, had her British citizen revoked when she tried to return to the UK last month. She left the UK aged 14, in 2014, to join ISIS.
Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic continue to grapple with the dilemma that is set to increase, given the weakening of the caliphate as ISIS strongholds collapse and some former ISIS members try to return to Western countries, and, especially, Trump’s announcement to pull US forces out of Syria.
Bryant Neal Vinas, an early harbinger of the number of western terrorists attracted to various extremist groups, who grew up in Long Island, US and fled to Pakistan to join the Al-Qaeda in 2007, believes western governments should be “giving them that opportunity… and give an example for our allies and for vulnerable people across the world.” He said after speaking at the New America Foundation in Washington DC.
Vinas argues that former ‘fighters’ can provide insight on how the terrorist groups operate and the location of its members; they can also help law enforcement agencies to develop strategies to prevent the radicalisation of other western recruits.
He believes the repatriates can also “help to educate others on the realities and dangers of joining terrorist groups.” He said, “the reality of fighting for ISIS is different than how it’s presented on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.”
Vinas had a short spell in the US army before he was discharged. Born a Catholic, the Hispanic American later converted to Islam.
He said he became “incensed by US foreign policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East and was convinced he should fight for the cause. Thus, he left the US in 2007 to join Sunni Muslim militants. Aged 24-years with the help of three friends of Pakistani descent living in New York, he travelled from JFK airport in New York to Abu Dhabi and then to Lahore in Pakistan.
The friends were unaware of his plans. One friend arranged his flights, the other arranged for him to be met by relatives on arrival in Lahore then taken to a hotel, and another introduced him to an Afghan family in Lahore, whose connections led him to the commander of the terrorist group in Afghanistan. “My plan was not to fly directly into Peshawar or Islamabad where I might be more likely to arouse suspicion.” “My cover story to my friends was that I was going to study,” he said. He used a travel agent suggested by friends to arrange his visa, “and bought a round trip to hide my plans”.
On arrival, he first joined an organisation known as Shah Shab group, which he alleges has deep connections with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the Taliban. “I hoped I would eventually find a madrassa, and eventually befriend a local Pashtun, with the hope that eventually he would connect me with militants to go into Afghanistan”, he said.
But just two weeks into his mission with Shah Shab in Peshawar, Vinas was frustrated with the lack of action. He said he found participating in missions brought him relief from the terrible boredom he experienced.”
Living in the mountain took its toll on Vinas’s health which led to him thinking “I would rather die in a suicide operation”, thus making him a martyr for his extremist group. However, on offering his life for the cause, he was told, “He lacked religious knowledge” to have the role and instead was sent to a madrassa.
After some months he made his way into Afghanistan and joined Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda provided a series of training courses to teach him about explosives and weapons. “But you had to pay for the more intense classes like assassinations and kidnapping,” he said, “it was only the affluent Arabs who were able to take those courses.”
On the whole, life with Al- Qaeda was disappointing and not what he envisaged. “We lived in mudbrick houses, and the food was awful – mainly rice, potato stew or okra stew.” His wealthy contemporaries were able to afford goats, sheep and chickens. In addition, he was bored with the inactivity. “There are some days when you do absolutely nothing”, he said.
Vinas stayed at the frontier until October 2008, when he decided to return to Peshawar to find a wife, but was arrested by the Pakistani police who turned him over to US law enforcement officers. “At this point, I knew I was in trouble and decided to cooperate with the US”.
After pleading guilty in January 2009, to multiple terrorism charges, Vinas served about 8 and a half years in prison – he could have faced life imprisonment but agreed to help the US authorities with the information he had. On his release in 2017, Vinas’s defence lawyers welcomed the move, saying that he should have been released because of his “exceptional cooperation’ with the US government since his arrest in Pakistan.
Vinas has worked as a valuable intelligence source for the United States since his capture, conducting hundreds of interviews, participating in over 30 investigations and reviewing photographs. His testimonies have led to terrorist convictions and thwarted terrorist attacks.