PARIS — France is in discussions about repatriating Islamic State fighters and their families, a policy shift prompted by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
The French government confirmed this past week that French jihadists detained in Syrian camps may be returned to France.
“We are exploring all options in order to prevent these potentially dangerous individuals from escaping or dispersing,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, told reporters. “If the forces detaining these French fighters decide to deport them to France, they would be immediately handed over to the judicial authorities.
“These individuals voluntarily joined a terrorist organization that is fighting in the Levant, has committed attacks in France and is continuing to pose a threat to us.”
The French government wouldn’t confirm how many people may be repatriated, but French media reports, citing government sources, have placed the figure between 120 and 130.
Nicole Belloubet, France’s justice minister, told France’s RTL radio that as many as 75 percent of those coming back would likely be younger than age 7.
France had earlier agreed to repatriate the children of Islamic State fighters on a case-by-case basis. But the government had been content to leave the incarceration of French jihadists to local authorities, fearing the political consequences of taking back someone who later commits an attack.
The Islamic State’s territory was a beacon for would-be Islamist militants from around the world who wanted to wage war and live according to ultraconservative Islamic precepts. Thousands of people streamed toward Syria, and there was a particularly strong influx from European countries, where citizens could buy budget tourist flights to Turkey and then sneak across the border.
As many as 1,910 French citizens joined the Islamic State, according to statistics from the Soufan Center, a security research institute.
Deciding how to handle citizens who try to return has been a concern for countries throughout Europe. Multiple attacks in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere in 2015 and 2016 were connected to people suspected of having fought for the Islamic State. In France alone, more than 230 people have been killed in Islamic State-linked attacks since 2015.
Many European countries have been reluctant to take their citizens back.
After Melina Boughedir, a 27-year-old French woman who joined the Islamic State in 2015, was caught by Iraqi forces, she stood trial in Iraq with the full support of Paris.
“Madame Boughedir will be judged where her actions took place,” Le Drian said last year. “This is normal logic.”
The U.S. withdrawal from Syria has started to change the calculation, since it increases the risk that former fighters could escape from detention, or that spouses and children could be killed in renewed fighting or traded to the government of Bashar al-Assad to serve effectively as hostages.
Le Drian suggested this past week that future trials would conceivably continue for those detained in Iraq. What makes Syria different, he explained, is the mounting political instability.
“In Syria, the situation is more complicated: A portion of the territory is still at war, in the northeast, and the announcement of the American withdrawal may result in the dispersion of these terrorists,” he said. “We are therefore preparing for all eventualities in the northeast, including the possibility of an expulsion.”
But security analysts see no other option.
“We’ve experienced that Syrian Kurds were not organized in such a way that they could put our citizens on trial. It’s a very embryonic organization,” Jean-Charles Brisard, the director of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, said in an interview. “They don’t have judicial institutions to formally put these individuals on trial, at least in a proper way.”
The U.S. withdrawal, he added, further complicated matters. “Under these circumstances, we have no other way,” Brisard said. “The decision has been imposed on us on the ground.
“We have no other option [but] to transfer them to France to be sure that they won’t escape. The main risk is that they will disseminate in the region and plot again elsewhere.”
Gilles Kepel, a French scholar of radicalization, underscored the difficulties of repatriation, especially given that French prisons in recent years have often functioned as laboratories of radicalization.
“Today, we already have several hundred jihadists in prison, and we do not really know what to do about it,” he said Friday on France’s Europe 1 radio.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels.