Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa warns of returning ISIS fighters

By Ahmed al-Sharqawi in Cairo

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, delivers a speech during Pope Francis's visit to Cairo on April 28th. Al-Azhar has been conducting awareness programmes to counter violent extremist ideology. [Andreas Solaro/AFP]

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, delivers a speech during Pope Francis's visit to Cairo on April 28th. Al-Azhar has been conducting awareness programmes to counter violent extremist ideology. [Andreas Solaro/AFP]

Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa Fatwa Observatory has warned that foreign fighters who fought in the ranks of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) are returning home from Iraq and Syria or heading for other countries where the group has a foothold.

In a study published November 8th, the observatory cautioned that some are returning to their home countries, while others are fleeing to neighbouring countries or to areas where ISIS remains active.

In light of this situation, the study examines the challenges presented by returning or incoming ISIS fighters and issues a series of recommendations.

These include a suggestion that foreign fighters undergo a rehabilitation programme, so they can be used to warn youth about the dangers of joining terror groups.

The study also seeks to define the challenges countries are facing as a result of the mass flight of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria and the threat they pose upon their return, said Dar al-Iftaa secretary general Ibrahim Najm.

In addition to returning to their home countries, he warned, there is a possibility that fleeing ISIS elements will infiltrate into areas controlled by the group in other countries.

"There are fears among global countries that these fleeing fighters will resort to violence and terrorism within their home countries," he told Al-Mashareq.

It is therefore imperative that "fleeing fighters be contained, and their extremist ideas be corrected", he said.

The UN Office of Counter-Terrorism published a study in August that included interviews with 43 foreign fighters from 12 different countries, he noted.

This revealed that most lack basic knowledge of Islam, he said, adding that ISIS attracted them by exploiting their passion and by promising a "caliphate".

Four types of returnees

According to al-Arabiya Institute for Studies, there are four basic types of returning ISIS elements, each of which presents a different level of threat.

The institute characterises the threat posed by these fighters as non-recurrence, active reclusion, jihadist tourist, and intercontinental jihad.

In the "non-recurrence" category, returnees were driven to fight by intense zeal, until they witnessed the gruesomeness of the battles and the deceptions they were subjected to, and decided to flee, the study said.

This type is not a threat, it added.

Returning fighters in the "active reclusion" category are not only reclusive and remorseful, but try to prevent their Muslim family members from traveling and going through the same experience, it said.

"Jihadist tourist" returnees initially hold idealistic notions about fighting until they collide with reality, it added, but they still try to deceive others by spreading false ideas about their experiences.

But the most dangerous -- and most common -- type of returning foreign fighters fall into the "intercontinental jihad" category, it said.

These returnees are ideologically committed to violence, and do not return to their countries until they have carried out several attacks abroad.

Countering extremist ideology

"Religious scholars are the key to countering ISIS," said Ahmed Ban, an expert on extremist movements. "Without their efforts, extremist ideas will continue to grow and evolve."

"The dissolution of the lie of the caliphate state will not wipe out jihadi ideas, as these ideas may resurface in the form of other groups," he told Al-Mashareq.

"Hence, it was imperative to counter these ideas and educate the returnees, to reintegrate them into society, and this is a role that only moderate religious scholars can play," he said.

Ban said ISIS returnees are "time bombs ready to explode".

"This issue must be addressed with extreme caution, as most of them will return to their countries with a profound sense of failure and depression," he added.

"Most ISIS members were superficially acquainted with Islam, and do not know enough [to understand] that it urges amity and peace," he said. "If we take a simple look at the decrees issued by the higher authorities in ISIS, we find large religious flaws in them."

ISIS’s initial capture of territory in Iraq and Syria dazzled thousands of youth, said military expert and retired Egyptian army officer Maj. Gen. Talaat Moussa.

"The fact that the youth are now fleeing ISIS and returning to their countries is clear evidence that no one still cares about the dream of the caliphate or sticking with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, except for a handful of leaders," he said.

"Al-Azhar's awareness campaigns will succeed in reforming the ideas of the hardliners among the returnees," he told Al-Mashareq, noting that this approach "may bear fruit in destroying the foundations of ISIS’s ideology".

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