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In several countries, including European countries, there are public worries about citizens travelling to Syria. Although those press reports are not always precise, what is usually meant is people travelling to territory controlled by Islamic State with the purpose of taking up residence. Some are arrested upon return.

What are they arrested for? Does any country in Western Europe prohibit its citizens from travelling to an area controlled by an organisation designated as terrorist? That would leave journalists travelling to IS- or PKK-controlled areas in violation of the law, so I suspect not. Joining an organisation designated as terrorist is often prohibited, as is joining a foreign military. But does taking up residence in an area controlled by such an organisation constitute either of those? Or do legislators suspect anyone returning from Syria to have actively supported the Islamic State (para-)military forces and/or be preparing terrorist attacks at home?

(This question is hypothetical. I am not asking for myself. I am not even asking for a friend.)

  • If there is such a prohibition, it would certainly contain an exception for, among others, journalists. – phoog Nov 27 '15 at 15:19
  • Does Australia count? Eurovision jokes aside, it's usually considered a "western" nation. It has some restrictions on people going to the conflict zone without a legitimate reason, and has had police questioning of people alleged to be fighting on the side of the Kurds. – Andrew Grimm Dec 3 '15 at 11:44
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Regarding the situation in Germany, it is not a crime by itself to travel to Syria (or in fact any other country), nor to take residence there. When people are arrested after such a trip, it is because they are suspected of having committed a crime during their stay. In this context, the crime could be, e.g., murder, abduction, or rape, but there are more specialized crimes, too, such as:

Preparation of a serious violent offence includes participating in a terrorist training camp where people are taught how to use weapons, construct explosive devices, etc. The definition of the crime was recently extended such that it is already punishable to make an attempt at leaving Germany with the intention of travelling to and participating in such a training camp. It is important to note that this intention would need to be demonstrated in court in order to get someone convicted; and someone travelling with different intentions, such as a journalist, would obviously not render oneself liable to prosecution.

Outside of criminal law, there are other measures that the authorities may take to try and prevent people from travelling abroad if they are suspected future terrorists. As these are administrative measures and not criminal prosecution, the requirements for evidence are less strict.

It has long been possible under German law to deny someone a passport (§ 7 PaßG; translation), or to revoke a passport that was already issued. The idea is that, without passport, the destination country or any transit countries are going to reject the traveller. This didn’t work too well in the case of Syria because a national ID card is sufficient for German citizens travelling to Turkey, which shares a land border with Syria. Therefore, also very recently, it was made possible to deny or revoke an ID card in much the same way as a passport (§ 6a PAuswG; no translation currently available).

(Note that the translations I linked to are official but non-authoritative. In particular, be warned that the translation for § 89a StGB at least does not yet reflect the latest amendments.)

  • I wonder if they treat people fighting on the Kurdish side (agaist IS) the same as those fighting on the IS side. Certainly the Kurdish rebels have training camps. But that'd be a question about priorities rather than the letter of the law. – gerrit Nov 28 '15 at 18:12
  • It is conceivable, although I am not aware of a case. Courts have repeatedly judged the PKK a terrorist organization and convicted leading supporters in Germany. See, e.g., this recent newspaper article (in German) which also mentions the court considering the various roles the PKK has played at different times and in different countries. The courts are not bound by the government’s opinions on what to consider a terrorist organization. – chirlu Nov 29 '15 at 0:57
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In the Netherlands some political parties want to forbid traveling to IS territory, but it's not (yet) forbidden. They arrest people who want to fight in Syria for preparing murder, rape and what else they do out there. Judges have actually convicted people who were preparing to travel to Syria/IS-territory for it. If you did go to Syria they might prosecute for whatever you did which can include attempted murder, aiding murder or maybe even murder. The prosecution will depend on what the authorities can prove.

So no, it's not forbidden to travel there in the Netherlands (yet) and arrests are done for whatever crimes you committed there or at home after your return. Not all are arrested, but they are being monitored and watched intensely.

  • How about people who travel to Islamic State territory but came back after several weeks, with no evidence they have participated in any violence? – gerrit Nov 27 '15 at 18:45
  • For example, in Germany being part of a criminal organisation has been criminal for many, many years. No need to wait until you actually get violent. In most countries, conspiracy to commit a crime is by itself criminal. No need to wait for you to become violent. – gnasher729 Nov 27 '15 at 19:45
  • If there's absolutely no evidence of any criminal behavior, you can't get convicted. Though in Dutch cases intelligence agencies intercept communication, pictures and all other sorts of evidence. Some of these people also have weapons in their houses, they often have letters for their family and stuff like that. Most of the people that plan on fighting for IS aren't the most brilliant people and act out of religious motives. They're not trying to hide what they're doing from those they care about, as they believe that what they're doing is right. So often evidence can be found in those areas. – DrD Nov 27 '15 at 20:21
  • @DrD: Religious motives are quite irrelevant. Mostly its the problem of not getting laid and using a gun as a penis replacement. Deep feelings of inadequacies makes them vulnerable to propaganda that nobody stable and confident would fall for. Anyway, joining a criminal organisation and conspiracy are crimes even before any actual violent action. – gnasher729 Nov 27 '15 at 21:37
  • @gnasher729 Of course, if found with weapons etc. there is evidence for both crimes and preparation of crimes. But what if someone seeks to move to Islamic State controlled territory not to fight for them, but because they believe it is a "pure islamic" state and they want to live under the IS interpretation of Sharia — without planning to commit violence either there or at home? That's rather what I'm after. Some individuals travel to Syria, come back after several weeks, claiming to be disillusioned and disappointed. Suppose their testimony is true, would there still be laws they violate? – gerrit Nov 28 '15 at 18:07
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Yes, but not, to my knowledge, through the action of criminal law.

The British government is using its prerogative powers to revoke the passports of those intending to travel to Syria and those believed to be there already. It also adds them to a "no fly" list circulated around the EU.

If British citizens who are suspected of visiting Syria wish to return to the UK, they must submit to an investigation by government officials before travelling. At the time I last wrote to my MP about this issue (about nine months ago), she said the government plans were to exclude persons suspected of terrorist activities for up to two years while the investigation was made.

There are also crimes which British citizens can commit while abroad, such as murder (See http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/24-25/100/section/9?view=plain). Recently a British man was convicted in London of murdering a US soldier in Iraq.

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