Back Into the Fold: Reincorporating Foreign Fighters

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*Originally written in 2014 and revised in 2016

In an al-Jazeera article published on 7 September 2014, journalist Simon Hooper discusses an innovative take on Denmark’s newest program to deal with foreign fighters returning home from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Western governments are under pressure to manage the flow of fighters to and from their countries, with political responses varying across the board. British Prime Minister David Cameron and London’s mayor Boris Johnson have both been critically outspoken against the return of British jihadists, both of whom have promoted policies that assume guilt before innocence. Denmark, however, known for its innovative social welfare programs like its 2012 legislation that allows the creation of “fix rooms” for drug addicts, has begun a similar system for Danish jihadists returning home.

The innovative program offers “treatment for shrapnel and gunshot wounds and psychological trauma to returning fighters and humanitarian volunteers as well as assisting them with finding work or resuming their education…and provides support to the families of those already in Syria, ranging from helping them stay in touch via Skype to liaising with government officials, consulates and intelligence agencies to help get their relatives home when they decide they want to leave.”

“We don’t spend a lot of energy fighting ideology. We don’t try to take away your jihadist beliefs. You are welcome to dream of the Caliphate. But there are some means that you cannot use according to the penal code here. You can be al-Shabab all you like, as long as you don’t actually do al-Shabab.” –Steffen Nielsen, crime prevention advisor, Aarhus, Denmark.

In what some might say resembles a veterans affairs program, the new initiative is meant to be supportive and welcoming to Danes returning home. From an ethics and security standpoint, Denmark’s response to the return of foreign fighters ensures the privacy rights of individuals who participate in rehabilitation programs, but such programs also provide an important information pipeline to law enforcement and intelligence services that can immediately respond to threats. As an American, I find the availability of this type of service to returning fighters — even if they aren’t soldiers of the state — to be compassionate and very socially responsible, particularly in comparison to the U.S.’s Veterans Affairs services that too often underserve our own state-sanctioned soldiers.

Studies conducted on the subject of western foreign fighters often quote those who express regret for their decisions to leave home for Syria and Iraq, saying the violence and brutality that is often carried out against women, children, and other Muslims is not part of the holy jihad they had envisioned.

Denmark’s soft-handed reintegration is not only a compassionate approach to managing the return of hardened fighters back into the general population, but it also has implications for global security as well. For historical comparison, when foreign fighters attempted to return to their homes in 1991 after the Afghan war, many countries denied them entry with the fear of mixing jihadists back into civilian populations. What then resulted is many of those fighters, needing a place to call home, settled in Yemen where they formed various jihadist groups that — after several iterations and mergers — developed into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). As we know today, AQAP is one of al-Qaeda Central’s (AQC) most active franchises with claims to the 2009 Christmas Day bombing plot, the 2010 cargo plane bomb plot, as well as being the publisher of several editions of the jihadist magazine, Inspire.

As the war in Iraq and Syria continues, the population of fatigued fighters with the desire to return home is only going to increase and the way in which western governments respond to this desperation is going to be critical. Whether governments take a hard-lined approach like the U.K., or a softer approach like Denmark, returning fighters will either be criminalized and punished, or de-radicalized and rehabilitated. Allowing people to resume their lives and once again become contributing members of society is a much more responsible approach than to force experienced fighters to resort to desperate alternatives, which invariably results in increased radicalization and extremism as a result of desperation: see Somalia or any other economically disadvantaged society with fringe extremist elements. Denmark’s solution is a responsible compromise between the need for social welfare programs that support Danish citizens, as well as the need to maintain a safe and secure society.