By Isabelle Mahnke
As the conflict in Syria continues into its fourth year, foreign fighters from the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas return home. Some of these ISIS-affiliates have become disillusioned with the Islamic State’s brutal tactics, while others merely seek an intermission before returning to the battlefield. These returning jihadists pose a problem to their home governments: “what are we going to do with them?”
This problem is not insignificant, especially given the number of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS. Recent estimates put the current total at over 20,000 recruits, including over 3,400 Westerners. Of the Western nations, Belgium has the highest number of foreign fighters per capita, with Sweden and Denmark coming in second and third respectively.
It is difficult to come up with a profile of the typical jihadist, since many are motivated by a variety of reasons. However, the Atlantic has identified some patterns that can be found in jihadists’ profiles. The Atlantic reports that the typical jihadi is male and between 18 and 29 years old-- a pattern that has been established in previous conflicts as well. Converts to Islam are particularly vulnerable to being influenced toward jihad because many are very enthusiastic, but lack knowledge about the religion and thus do not have the background to view radical interpretations with sufficient skepticism. However, ISIS is notable in that it has successfully recruited women and families, in addition to young males.
The Brookings Institution contends that there is also an element of rebellion and thirst for adventure to many youths’ decisions to join the Islamic State. Many recruits are ill-informed about the theology of the Islamic State and are attracted by the sense of community and purpose. Furthermore, ISIS has very successfully mounted recruitment campaigns through social media. ISIS advertises a sense of community, purpose, marriage and territory—a much more appealing package than more austere and diffuse organizations such as al-Qaeda.
Once foreign fighters have managed to travel to ISIS (often a difficult task), they face a new set of challenges. Many are quickly killed in battle, some are chosen to die in suicide mission. Some recruits begin to have doubts about the Islamic State’s brutal methods, or question their religious interpretation. Yet others simply become disillusioned with the lifestyle or are assigned to menial jobs and grow bored of their role. Some want to return home to rest before going back to Syria or Iraq. When these militants attempt to return home, they pose a problem to their home governments. There are a number of challenges associated with incorporating returning jihadis into society, not least of which is determining whether they intend to return to battle, and whether they pose a domestic threat. This last fear particularly—that returning foreign fighters will now plot threats in their native countries—drives policy toward returning fighters.
But, as the Brookings Institution puts it, “The concern about foreign fighters becoming terrorists—and the particular fears about Syria and Iraq—are both justified and overstated.” On one hand, it seems clear that the training jihadis receive abroad makes them more lethal, should they decide to carry out an attack. A well-regarded study conducted by Thomas Hegghammer concluded that domestic plots that involved a foreign fighter were significantly more likely to succeed and more likely to be fatal than plots that did not involve foreign fighters. On the other hand, Hegghammer’s research concludes that fewer than 1 in 9 foreign fighters return to plan attacks on domestic soil, and that most foreign fighters go abroad without intending to attack their home countries upon returning. There are many reasons for this, but one of the strongest is that attacks in established conflict zones are generally considered more legitimate by clerics than attacks against civilians in the West. So, there is a potential threat from returning fighters, but it might not be as bad as we fear.
But, the question still remains: what are we going to do with these returning fighters?
So far, governments seem to have pursued two diverging solutions to this problem. The first solution is to punish them by locking them up for joining a terrorist organization. The second is to reintegrate them into society so that they no longer pose a threat. This second policy is by far the better one.
Currently, Denmark is pursuing a policy of rehabilitation and reintegration into society. This program, located in Aarhus, Denmark, began as a way to combat far-right extremism and neo-Nazism among youths, but has been adapted to address the challenge posed by returning jihadists. This program offers counseling and help with being readmitted to school and developing life skills. An important aspect of this program is the mentoring that it offers to convince former fighters that militancy should not have a place in their faith. The program has included outreach to local mosques in an effort to prevent youths from deciding to travel to Syria. Denmark’s program has come under substantial criticism from conservative politicians, as has a program in Sweden that also encourages a rehabilitation and re-integration approach.
Unfortunately, most European countries, including France, Germany, and even Belgium (the largest source of foreign fighters per capita of any Western nation), have taken a much more draconian approach to the problem. These nations take a much more punitive approach, trying and detaining individuals suspected of militant activities abroad, rather than focusing on re-integration.
This approach is a mistake. Many, if not all of these militants have experienced severe trauma, even PTSD, and many have become very disillusioned with jihadism. Critics of rehabilitation argue that it fails to properly punish militants, and that prison upon return is necessary in order to deter fighters in the future. The problem with imprisoning these militants upon arrival is that it further adds to their feeling of alienation and exposes them to militant influences in prison. This only perpetuates the problem because when a former fighter is released from prison, not only will he not have any job prospects, but he will likely feel alienated from society and dissatisfied with his life. As laid out earlier in this article, these factors contribute significantly to militant actions, and this former fighter has already been trained abroad.
To be succinct, five years after this foreign fighter returns, he is now likely to be someone capable of carrying out a domestic attack instead of a well-educated and happily married member of society who has been able to put his past behind him. Rehabilitation and reintegration is not an appeal for sympathy for the “poor terrorist” but rather the most pragmatic solution to a tricky problem.
Isabelle Mahnke is an intern with the Events Department at the EastWest Institute's New York City Center. She is an undergraduate student at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, pursuing a degree in Middle East Studies with a minor in Arabic and Philosophy.