What should we do to re-integrate returning foreign fighters?

Imagine the following scenario if you will.  You are an HR officer for a company or in a government department and you are going through a stack of applications for an open position.  One candidate strikes you as very qualified so you arrange for an interview.  In the course of your talk with the aspiring employee you ask about a gap in his/her CV. An awkward silence ensues.  After a little bit of prodding you learn that the person was in Syria during that time.  Efforts at learning more about that period are for nought and the interview ends.  Still curious, you do a little digging and find that the individual who had sat across the table from you had travelled to Syria to be part of the Islamic State’s so-called Caliphate.  You are dumbstruck and wonder if your safety had been compromised.  Thank God you didn’t end up making an offer of employment!

Sound far-fetched?  Well, it isn’t.  There are thousands of Westerners who thought it was a good idea to travel to Syria/Iraq and hook up with IS.  Some are still there.  Others are probably dead.  A third cohort will come back to their homelands. As I discussed in Western Foreign Fighters, the returnees will be a collection of disillusioned, angry, traumatised or battle-ready people whose ultimate intent can only be guessed at.

We are already hearing that some who claim to have rejected the hate and violence of IS are having a hard time upon their return and some in Sweden at least are finding it difficult to get employment.  Should we be surprised?  Hardly.

It is normal for employers to want to land the best candidates.  In most job markets there is a surfeit of good people vying for good jobs and in a perfect world (nepotism aside) the most qualified person gets the position.  Some people are inherently at a disadvantage: those with low levels of education and criminal records would be in that category I suppose.  To that we must add returning jihadis or those who have been found guilty of participating in terrorist acts (planned or successful).

I am not an apologist for terrorism but at the same time there is a danger in completely shunning ex(?)-jihadis.  While socio-economic conditions are a poor predictor for those that radicalise to violence, not having a job or a steady source of income does not help the situation.  Those in this position can start to blame society for their problems and could dive back into the world of extremism where there are far too many ideologues ready to say “See? I told you that the West hates Muslims!  That’s why you cannot find a job.  Come back to the fold since we are the only ones that truly defend Islam and Muslims.”  We thus enter a self-perpetuating cycle.

I do not have a solution to this.  I fully agree that we cannot just take returnees at face value because we can never know for certain whether or not they pose a risk (another former intel guy, David Wells, makes this point).  And I fully believe that the choices one makes, whether good ones or bad ones (and joining a terrorist group strikes me as a bad one) have consequences.  Many would say that these people deserve their fate and that we should not do them any favours.  OK, but that does not make the problem disappear.

If we are to do everything we can to reduce the terrorist threat we need to figure out what to do with returnees.  One option is to try them and put them away, throwing away the key – if we have enough evidence that meets legal thresholds in our countries.  Another is to monitor them until we ascertain that the threat is mitigated (easier said than actually determined and who figures out how long we have to maintain surveillance?).  A third is to devise some kind of ‘deradicalisation’/reintegration programme.  None of these are easy and I have yet to see any de-rad strategy that is foolproof, irrespective of the efforts put in (which I admire by the way).

We are thus left with a problem with no obvious solution.  And the worst part?  If I am correct in my forthcoming book (The Lesser Jihads), we will see more conflicts that attract wannabe jihadis, some of whom will leave for  a bit and eventually return.  This issue is not going away folks.  We might want to start putting some serious thought in approaches to dealing with it. Ignoring it is not an answer, unless we want more Manchesters, and Brussels and Orlandos.  The choice to act is ours.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply