In defence of long prison sentences for returning ISIS jihadis

Sir, In his study of the Islamist terrorist Amedy Coulibaly (“The making of a French jihadi”, The Big Read, January 27), Tom Burgis quotes the French terror expert Gilles de Kerchove in the following context: “As a new generation of jihadis return from Syria and Iraq . . . there are fears that tough criminal sentences could make confirmed Islamists of those who come back traumatised or disillusioned. Mr de Kerchove says that those ‘with blood on their hands’ must face criminal justice but he also calls for rehabilitation programmes, warning on the dangers of indiscriminately jailing all those who return from waging jihad.

‘People are scared and say they want to see them all thrown in jail,’ says Mr de Kerchove. ‘But it is not the right approach.’ ”

First, it is hard to imagine how someone who went to Syria or Iraq to participate, and very possibly die, in the conflict there could be more “confirmed” in jihadism by a later prison sentence in western Europe. How would such an excess, on top of prior extremism, be expressed?

Second, those who return from Syria and Iraq and are disillusioned may be exempted from imprisonment or other punishment if they prove their defection by assisting the main anti-jihadist states, in western Europe and the Muslim world, publicly, in opposing and defeating groups such as Isis.

Third, various countries have imposed harsh prison sentences on their subjects who travel to Syria or Iraq to fight, or scheme to do so. These include, aside from some western European lands, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Of these six, five are majority-Muslim states, while Bosnia-Hercegovina has a Muslim plurality.

I believe these national authorities may know something about how to deal with radical Islam. Saudi Arabia, since early last year, imposes sentences of five to 30 years in jail for inciting recruitment for the so-called “Islamic State”, joining them, or providing them with material assistance. Long prison terms would give jihadis a lot of time to ponder their errors.

Stephen Schwartz

Executive Director, Centre for Islamic Pluralism,Washington, DC, US

Letter to the Editor of the Financial Times. (Based in the UK)