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As ISIS Loses Territory, What Happens To Its Fighters Who Came From Other Countries?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As ISIS expanded its territory over the last few years, people from around the world poured into Iraq and Syria to join the fight. Some experts estimate that more than 40,000 foreign fighters joined the group from more than a hundred countries. Now that Western-backed forces have reclaimed large sections of ISIS territory, what happens to those foreign fighters? Seamus Hughes is with George Washington University's Program on Extremism and is here with us in the studio. Hi there.

SEAMUS HUGHES: Hi.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. military says many of those foreign fighters are now dead. As far as you can tell, how many have survived?

HUGHES: Yeah. So we had a report that came out this week by the Soufan Group that found about 5,600 people had returned back to their home countries.

SHAPIRO: Fifty-six hundred compared to 40,000 does not sound like a large percentage. But 5,600 people can do a lot of damage.

HUGHES: Oh, absolutely. And in Europe, we're talking about 2,000 folks who have returned. Now, when you look at the cases of individuals who committed attacks in Europe, the vast majority are homegrown terrorists, meaning individuals who commit attacks and never leave their home country. But in about 20 percent of the cases, they're returning foreign fighters.

SHAPIRO: The foreign fighters who went to Iraq and Syria wanted to be part of a caliphate. They wanted to help establish a state. Now that Raqqa has fallen in Syria, and Mosul has fallen in Iraq, are these people looking for someplace else to build the state? Are they trying to go continue the fight? Or do they just want to go home?

HUGHES: There's two different dynamics here. I think you're going to see a set of foreign fighters who go to Yemen or Somalia or Libya and want to build what they had in Syria and Iraq. But there's also a level of disillusionment, right? Looking what ISIS tried to do - and it failed by any objectional (ph) measure. And the last thing I think we need to look at is this idea of romanticizing the caliphate. And so we had this perfect thing. But the coalition took it away from us. And so it's incumbent on us to build it again.

SHAPIRO: And what happens when they return, when they show up at the border with a legitimate passport and citizenship? Do they get arrested or welcomed home? What happens?

HUGHES: It's a bit of an ad hoc situation. So I'll give an example. In the U.K., we've had about 800 foreign fighters. And about 400 have returned. Of the 400, only 50 have been prosecuted. So the other 350 are kind of just out in the wind. And intelligence officials are watching them. But they don't have enough to build a case. It's one thing to know if an individual went to Syria. It's another thing to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

SHAPIRO: I know the number of U.S. fighters that have gone to join ISIS is much smaller than the number of fighters from, say, Europe or parts of North Africa or the Middle East. And yet there are some. What is the American approach to this problem?

HUGHES: Yeah, we've had about a hundred people who have successfully gotten to Syria or Iraq to go join jihadist groups. Of that, about a dozen have returned back to the U.S. And the U.S. has taken a very different approach, depending on the individual. In Virginia, we have an individual who's spending 30 years in jail for joining ISIS. In New York, there's an individual who spent four months in ISIS and is now doing interventions for radicalized individuals who are thinking about joining ISIS, you know, knocking on the door and saying, hey, kid, I was you two years ago. Knock it off. That's not a good idea.

SHAPIRO: There are so many different aspects to the terrorism problem. Do you think this question of fighters returning from Iraq and Syria who were trained to kill under ISIS will become one of the dominant threats in the years ahead? Or is this just one more element of a multi-headed hydra?

HUGHES: I think it's, in many ways, one more element. And in some ways, it's the dog that didn't bite yet, right? So we've seen returning foreign fighters but haven't committed attacks yet. My concern is whether these returning foreign fighters take essentially a rock-star status in their communities, right? They're the guys who got to Syria and Iraq. They tried to join the so-called caliphate. And now they're the ones to listen to. And so the concern is whether these individuals play radicalize, in effect, for the next wave of foreign fighters.

SHAPIRO: That's Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Thanks for coming into the studio and talking with us today.

HUGHES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.