[Interview] Julia Mullert: "The foreign fighter phenomenon has some unique challenges for policymakers"

Published 7 March 2024
By Sara Urso

@ Hilko Visser

Julia Mullert is a visiting research fellow at the Asser Institute and a Fulbright research scholar in the Schuman programme, which focuses on EU-wide research. Her work investigates how member states in the European Union have implemented the EU 2020 Counterterrorism Agenda in their domestic counterterrorism approaches as it pertains to foreign fighter returnees. We're starting to move into the future of mitigating and controlling risk rather than responding to the immediate threat. An interview. 

What is the main research project that you are working on at the moment? 
My current research project is called ‘Mapping EU member state responses to foreign fighter returnees’ and its main focus is the 2020 EU counterterrorism agenda. A lot of the agenda deals with foreign fighter returnees – people who went to Islamic State (IS) conflict zones in Syria and Iraq and that are coming back to their home countriesThe EU counterterrorism agenda offers suggestions on how to deal with these returnees, but it does not say ‘You have to do XYZ. So there are different national approaches that fit within this broader framework. I am writing three case studies on EU countries that have been uniquely impacted by the foreign fighter phenomenon - the Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium - and these case studies involve systems mapping, a data visualisation technique to look how different elements of a system interact with one another. 

I’m trying to show not only the policies that member states have enacted, but also how these policies are currently being implemented. I also want to create maps of these national responses that include all stakeholders, including the public and private sectors, as well as multinational entities. I'm hoping to shed light on how these EU countries have responded to the threat of returning foreign fighters, maybe draw some preliminary conclusions on what challenges still remain, and what policies have been successful or not. 
Why did you choose to focus on foreign fighter returnees specifically?  
It was a class that I took in grad school called ‘evolution of global jihad’ with professor David Malet that sparked my interest: he has been working on foreign fighters since 2005, so his passion and expertise carried over into the class, and the topic really struck me. 

Apart from this, I think now is also a really interesting time to be doing this research. Foreign fighters and foreign fighter returnees have been a pretty high-priority topic for EU counterterrorism for around a decade now. Despite a gradual decline in the number of foreigners remaining in Syria, many countries have been hesitant to accept their citizens back, citing jurisdictional constraints, difficulties in prosecuting them domestically, and reintegration concerns. To address these challenges, some nations have resorted to drastic measures like stripping their citizens of their nationality. Meanwhile, many foreign individuals who had joined IS during the height of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts have managed to return home independently, presenting their states of origin with a range of challenges, particularly legal ones. 

Foreign fighters became a high-priority threat around 2013 to 2014, when the number of European citizens moving abroad to engage in terrorist activity increased significantly. A debate was sparked about how significant a threat this phenomenon posed, which was then exacerbated by high-profile attacks involving foreign fighter returnees, such as the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. As a response, policies were quickly implemented at a national and regional level. 

It has been ten years since this wave of foreign fighters, and five since the fall of the Islamic State, so I think it’s an interesting time to evaluate how EU Member States responded to these threats and what the current landscape looks like. 

What are you hoping to achieve with your research? 
The focus of my current project is about lending insight into implementation. I'm lucky to be at the Asser Institute and to have access to the Foreign Terrorist Fighters knowledge hub because this portal contains a lot of interesting information. In the future I would like to help develop Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (C/PVE) programmes. I hope that my research will be a stepping stone for that, but in terms of the specific aims of the project, it's really to look at implementation and see some early signs of success and what those are. 

Are there any policy approaches that you've studied that struck you as particularly innovative? 
The foreign fighter phenomenon and the threat posed by returnees from Syria and Iraq to European countries has some unique challenges for policymakers. I am looking at the generation of foreign fighters that went to IS conflict zones, primarily around 2013, 2014, and they differ from previous generations of foreign fighters. The foreign fighters were much younger than previous generations, for instance. There was a higher number of women joining IS as well, which led to more children being born in conflict zones or being moved to one 

There are a lot of challenging issues surrounding the repatriation and reintegration of foreign fighters, especially for children that have been radicalised, or who might have been trained as fighters. You cannot simply put these children into a public school system, so this nexus of security and human rights is a topic that I am very interested in.  

Another unique aspect of this terrorist threat is the role that the internet has played. This was the first time that we saw online radicalisation and recruitment, and that requires policymaking in both the physical and digital realms. There have been unique policy solutions and every country has taken a slightly different approach. Some countries, for instance, are more repressive, whereas others are more focused on rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign fighter returnees 

If I were to highlight a specific policy, it would be plan R, which is a national action plan in Belgium to help combat the drivers of radicalisation and to really intervene as early as possible. An American programme that I have looked at is a working group at Boston Children's Hospital, which focuses on providing mental health services for the reintegration of children of foreign fighter returnees. 

What are your thoughts on rehabilitative versus repressive policy approaches?  
I think that we are not yet able to see the long-term impact of these policies. Some people prefer a more soft or humane approach which is more in line with human rights. However, you should also keep the national context in mind, especially in countries where big terrorist events have happened, and realise that there is a natural desire to control and stop the threat. I'm definitely interested in human rights-based perspectives, but my work is not necessarily arguing that these are the best way forward. My work is really more of an exploration of what's been done so far. If we see policies having a positive impact, well, then that's great, but I'm not trying to prove that one approach is the superior approach. 

Why did you choose to study terrorism specifically? 
Before taking the class ‘Mapping online hate speech’  in my senior year with Dr Jessica Stern, an incredible terrorism researcher and professor, I had been trying to find my niche. For a long time, I was focused on sexual violence in conflict zones, forced migration, and human trafficking. At that point, I had figured out that I was really interested in this nexus of security and human rights. When I realised that in conflicts it is often the most disadvantaged members of society that are facing the most extreme impacts, I realised that I wanted to focus on that. This one class opened my eyes, and while conducting a research project on extremist rhetoric online, I fell in love with the work. 

What would you say has been your proudest or maybe the most challenging moment that you've had as a researcher? 
Certainly, I think my proudest and most exciting has been being awarded the Fulbright grant, which made it possible to come and stay in Europe. Europe really is at the cutting-edge of terrorism research, with a lot of important thinkers working on this topic, so I feel incredibly grateful for being here, at the Asser Institute, with its amazing researchers.  

My most challenging moment was a research project that I worked on in my senior year of university. During Dr Jessica Stern’s class on mapping online hate speech, she actually let us go into extremist forums to collect information. That led me to apply for an undergraduate research grant for which I wrote a comparison of the rhetoric from incels and tradwives, two extremist movements. When you are spending a lot of time on incel forums, you're seeing really graphic, really violent, misogynistic rhetoric. 

That definitely pushed me, but it also inspired my work. I was very moved by how on incel forums, you are seeing this horrible violent hate speech towards women, but you are also seeing profoundly lonely and isolated people that have turned to extremism because of their personal pain. A strange feeling of empathy emerged, which changed my approach to this work, and which solidified that this is what I want to be doing. 

Do you have any advice for young academics who are looking to either enter the field or pursue a similar scholarship programme? 
Making connections has been so invaluable for me. I am definitely somebody who found it hard to show up during office hours to try to speak with my professors and form those connections. Networking is not a natural talent, but it is a skill that can be learned, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. There's so much benefit to finding older mentors; it introduces you to opportunities you wouldn't have thought of yourself.  

The second thing is that you should really go for opportunities that interest you, even if you don't think they perfectly align with your career plan. I have known people with meticulous five-year plans, and these never end up totally working out like that. You might also not always feel perfectly qualified for these opportunities, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try them. The Fulbright grant is something I would have never thought I would end up pursuing. But once I really adopted this mindset of ‘the worst that can happen is they say no, but it is worth pursuing this’, that really led me into doing things that I wouldn't have thought I was capable of doing. 

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Julia Mullert MSc