When two Viennese girls who had left in 2014 as 14 year-olds to join ISIS in Syria announced they wanted to come home, front page coverage in the Boulevard press was predictable: blue eyed Sabine and Samra smiling into the camera in best teenager selfie pose. The personal tragedy of two young lives is of course only the tip of a legal, constitutional and political iceberg surrounding ISIS returnees.
Does the Republic want to take back Austrians who left to join the ISIS militia? Is there a legal, moral or any other obligation to take them back? And if yes, how? And what happens when they get here?
The numbers of ISIS returnees involved are unclear and shift from report to report. Best estimates are that around 300 Austrians left to fight for ISIS, 100 already came back, over 60 died, and another 65 or so are in Kurdish prison camps. The discrepancy reflects the confused situation: Many have simply disappeared and could be anywhere. A nightmare scenario for the security authorities is that a number have been declared dead in order to let them slip back into the country undetected.
Most terrorism experts warn that even if ISIS has lost the territory the Caliphate once held, the ideological drive behind Jihadism is still a powerful force. Survivors who return are likely Gefährders, dangerously ticking time bombs. So back to the two pretty Chechnian-Austrian girls: What to do?
On one point, the law is clear: Paragraph 27b of the Criminal Code states that anyone actively involved with a recognized terrorist organization can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Britta Tichy-Martin of the Justice Ministry told the Salzburger Nachrichten in mid February that they are seeking international arrest warrants for the 60-100 Austrians thought to be in the war zone.
Who qualifies? One can assume that the men were there to fight. But the women? Their children? Do they regret their fervor for the cause? Or do they just regret being on the losing side?
And what happens to them? President Trump has demanded that European governments take back their foreign fighter nationals and the Kurdish forces are pleading for it. Britain, France and Denmark are refusing and Austria is dithering by withholding the usual consular services. The situation is further complicated by political wrangling between the Justice and the Interior ministries, on opposite sides of the government coalition, center right ÖVP and hard right FPÖ. Kanzler Kurz (ÖVP) waffled piously about the “safety of our citizens … a complex issue … probably a difference between women with children and men who have slaughtered countless people.” His Interior Minister Kickl was characteristically more forthright: “We don’t need the IS fighters or their supporters back here.” He is hoping there will be an EU/UN cooperation to have the captured Jihadis and their women tried where they are, far away from their picture-postcard homeland.
Of course Kurz was right that the situation is complicated. The daily Österreich reported that the parents of Sabina will be suing the Republic for allowing their under age daughter to leave the country in the first place and the Kurier that Vienna’s social-democratic mayor Michael Ludwig is checking whether ISIS fighters’ Austrian citizenship can be revoked. But if Austria refuses to take back its own citizens – almost certainly contrary to international law – then how can our government expect other countries to take back their nationals whom we want to deport after a short but energetic life of crime here? Expect an ongoing story.