PARIS, France (AFP) — France’s attitude to the killing of its citizens in Syria fighting for the Islamic State group has rarely been as frankly stated as it was in the lead up to the fall of Raqqa.
“We are committed along with our allies to the destruction of Daesh (Islamic State) and we’re doing everything to that end,” Defense Minister Florence Parly told reporters at the weekend.
“What we want is to go to the end of this combat and of course if jihadists die in the fighting, then I’d say it’s for the best,” she added.
French citizens are among the biggest contingent of overseas fighters who have joined IS, with around 1,000 nationals estimated by counter-terror officials to have traveled to Iraq and Syria.
Their return home to a country that has faced the worst of the IS-inspired violence in Europe since 2015 — which has claimed 241 lives — has long worried government and intelligence officials in Paris.
Aside from the obvious moral issues, a dead jihadist poses far fewer problems for French and European authorities than a captured one.
First, there are the legal problems associated with a prisoner taken on the battlefield in Iraq or Syria.
Under what jurisdiction should he or she be tried? And for what crimes? In Iraq, for example, they could face the death penalty, which the European Union and member states officially oppose.
Should they be extradited for trial in their home countries then — which requires an extradition treaty? What evidence, collected by whom, would be used in a domestic court?
Furthermore, judges and anti-terror prosecutors are already struggling to cope with the ever-increasing caseload related to extremism across Europe and would be swamped by potentially hundreds of new trials.
Once convicted, the jihadists become a security risk in jail because of the danger that they will radicalise other inmates — already a problem in prisons across Europe.
“There will be negotiations with the countries concerned,” French European lawmaker Arnaud Danjean, the lead author of a recent French strategic military review, told France Inter radio on Wednesday.
“There’s not only France that is concerned, there’s Belgium, the United States,” he added.
‘War brings risks’
A US military official said Tuesday that about 400 Islamic State members including foreign fighters had surrendered in Raqqa as US-backed forces closed in on the city notorious for its atrocities under the rule of the Sunni extremists.
Resistance around a city hospital and stadium was ultimately less than expected as IS forces either gave up or withdrew to the small strip of territory still under the group’s control in neighboring Deir Ezzor province.
In May, the Wall Street Journal published an investigation that claimed that French special forces had provided a hitlist to Iraqi forces of around 30 men who were “identified as high value targets.”
Asked afterwards to comment, a spokesman for the new government of centrist President Emmanuel Macron did not deny France carried out killings — a policy that was confirmed by previous president Francois Hollande.
“I say to all fighters who join the Islamic State group and then go abroad to wage war that waging war brings risks, and they must accept those risks,” Christophe Castaner told reporters.
Speaking to journalists for a book published last year, Hollande confirmed that he had personally authorised at least four killings of “high value targets” by special forces in what are known as “homocide” operations in France.
Another estimate by the journalist Vincent Nouzille, who wrote a book on the subject, said French forces had killed around 40 nationals during his five-year term.
‘Our aim is to kill them’
As IS jihadists flee Raqqa and face imminent defeat elsewhere in their shrinking “caliphate,” the question for French and other Western governments will be how to deal with the holdouts.
In June, French magazine Paris Match also published a report quoting Iraqi officials around the city of Mosul before it was recaptured by US and French-backed forces.
Abdelghani al-Assadi, a top commander in the Counter-Terrorism Service, said the Iraqis had an understanding with France that they would mop up the jihadists to prevent them from returning home.
“We will prevent as much as possible any French person leaving Mosul alive,” he was quoted as saying. “Our aim is to kill them so that no one from Daesh can flee.”