1. Exquisite Tweets from @Hegghammer

    PreoccupationsCollected by Preoccupations

    Long thread on foreign fighter repatriation. The question is immensely complicated, and I do not have a clear answer, but I have some thoughts
    1/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    First of all, we must set the case of Shamima Begum aside. It is a terrible idea to develop policy based on anecdote. I understand why the media are pushing the story – it sells – but politicians must look at the bigger picture
    2/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    A second step is to reframe the issue. It’s not a binary choice taking them home or leaving them out forever. There are _three_ options: actively fetching them, receiving them if they make it back on their own, and never letting them back
    3/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    A third step is to parse the question. As I see it, the problem has three key dimensions: security, economic cost, and morality/law
    4/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Regarding security risk, we must be honest and admit that we have no way of judging the future threat from repatriated IS fighters. It could be low, it could be high; we simply cannot know. Let me elaborate
    5/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    For one, there is no precedent for the current situation and hence no data to draw on. Historical data on foreign fighter returnees are irrelevant because the circumstances of return are completely different
    6/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Earlier fighters returned unsupervised, while these people will return “in chains” under close scrutiny. This feature points to lower risk, because the returnees’ ability to engage in terrorist activity will be constrained
    7/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    However, whereas earlier fighters returned by their own volition, these people had their militant careers cut short by external intervention. This points to higher average risk, because a person who is forced to surrender is more likely to keep her beliefs
    8/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    For another, what returnees end up doing in the future depends on a host of factors, including their subjective experience of trial and imprisonment, their reception in society, political developments, their interactions with other Islamists, and constraints like surveillance
    9/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    This is an equation with simply too many unknown variables and interaction effects to make any confident predictions. Even highly repentant returnees can change their minds some years down the line under the right conditions. Conversely with the unrepentant ones
    10/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    It’s safe to assume, though, that the combined security effect of repatriation will be negative. While intelligence services can learn things from debriefing returnees, these benefits are almost certainly outweighed by the risks. We just don’t know by how much
    11/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Some say the alternative to repatriation is worse, but I'm not persuaded. Most of these individuals are known to the security services, and they have many borders to cross. With increasing use of biometrics, it will be very difficult for them to sneak home and plot attacks
    12/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Then there is the economic dimension. Repatriation will be very expensive. In the short term you have the logistics of return, the processing in the legal system, the incarceration, and the social-psychological aftercare 13/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    In the longer term you have the cost of surveillance. Many of these people will need to be watched for years, and the people they interact with will also come under the radar. Take back a hundred people, and you may have 300 new people to watch
    14/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Consider also the social security costs. Many of these individuals are likely to be unemployed for long periods of time, if only because people won’t hire them
    15/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    All of this adds up. There are so many hidden costs that estimation is difficult, but presumably we are looking at sums in the order of a million Euros per individual over a lifetime
    16/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Last but not least is the moral dimension. We cannot reduce this to a question of money or security, especially since children are involved. Our legal order is, to quote Mastercard, priceless. This is why the Q is for politicians to answer, not academics or technocrats
    17/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    I will just say that we probably shouldn't expect a “gratitude effect” from repatriation. While some returnees will be grateful and demobilize, others may grow bitter from the experience. Islamists around them may also spin the story into one of excessive state repression
    18/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Bear in mind also how repatriation may be perceived against the backdrop of other, harsh counterterrorism measures such as citizenship-stripping and deportation. People will ask why we repatriate some and deport others
    19/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    On the children: To me this is mainly a moral question. I don’t see a security argument for not repatriating them. Their trauma and indoctrination may slightly increase their risk of future involvement in militancy, but the risk is manageable; good care will mitigate it
    20/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    Should we take only children? I’m torn. On one hand, child protection agencies regularly take children away from abusive parents. On other hand, separation is traumatizing, and these children may not perceive their parents as abusive. Child psychologists should weigh in here
    21/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    So what should we do? I don't know. I am against permanent exclusion; to me the choice is between fetching people and letting them make it back on their own. I also lean toward keeping families together, but I’m unsure whether we should fetch all or none at this point
    22/x

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    Thomas Hegghammer

    That’s a very long thread for very bland conclusion, I know. But the problem is truly very difficult. I trust our politicians to make a thoughtful decision, though I really don’t envy them.

    Good weekend to all

    23/23

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    Thomas Hegghammer