What to Do When Foreign Fighters Come Home


Since ISIL began its rampage through the Middle East, more than 20,000 people from around the world are estimated to have traveled to join the group. Of that figure, compiled from government data by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a London-based research center, many will die. But many will also return either to their countries of origin or relocate somewhere new.

The choices these men and women make next, the sorts of lives they will lead, and the threat they may pose to their communities will be heavily determined by what options they have in this next stage of their lives, and how they are treated upon return.

There is a pressing need to develop effective strategies to respond to these returnees — and these strategies must be rooted not only in a clear understanding of the reasons why these people left their home nations in the first place, but also what propelled them to return. Because, by utilizing a targeted and thoughtful strategy, governments can keep their communities safe while still acknowledging that not every returnee is a potential threat.

Fear of the returning fighters, and the security threat they may pose, is not a new concern — before ISIL became a beacon, foreign fighters from Arab countries, the United States, and Europe were drawn to the conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan. But studies show that only a small proportion engaged in violent activities upon return to their homes.

Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment studied the impact of Western fighters returning after joining jihadi groups in places such as Afghanistan and Somalia over a 20-year period. He found that a clear minority of returning fighters presented a true and lethal risk. Because the number of fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria is higher by a degree of magnitude, however, identifying those who do present this risk is all the more critical.

Many countries both in Europe and North Africa have opted to treat all foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria as potential threats, criminalizing their travel and association, even though there is often little evidence to prove exactly what they did and how engaged they were in the “fighting.” In some cases, the treatment they receive upon return by security forces or in prisons can further radicalize returnees and forge behavior that may not have occurred otherwise. Other punitive policies such as confiscating passports or revoking citizenship can serve to ostracize the returnees in ways that present a true barrier to de-radicalization and reintegration.

The experience of and exposure to the brutality of groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab has been, and will be, deeply disillusioning for some who attempt to join their ranks. Although the reasons why individuals leave terrorist groups have been less studied than why they join in the first place, research published in the Journal of Peace Research on “formers” points to disappointment in leadership as a motivating factor for leaving.

Some who return may be damaged, scarred physically and emotionally by the experience, and in need of psycho-social support. In Nigeria and Kenya, USIP research found that trauma is prevalent not just among victims of violent extremism, but also among those who have joined in the violence, especially young teenagers. Options for recovery are limited — which poses a problem because it is possible that untreated, traumatized former fighters may be more prone to acts of violence.

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This is an excerpt from Georgia Holmer’s essay What to Do When Foreign Fighters Come Home, published in the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, page 87. Georgia Holmer is the Director of CVE, Rule of Law & Peacebuilding for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP)

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This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy

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