This week, President Barack Obama chaired a special meeting of the UN Security Council in which member states passed a resolution establishing an international legal framework to help prevent the recruitment and transport of would-be foreign fighters from joining terrorist groups. As expected, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2148 on Foreign Terrorist Fighters passed unanimously.
Hardly surprising, considering the alacrity and sheer audacity with which ISIS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, drawing foreigners from every corner of the globe, willing to fight and die for its nascent Caliphate. Indeed, some estimates place the number of foreign fighters within ISIS at around 12,000 individuals, originating from no less than eighty-one different countries; a truly globalized mobilization on an epic scale.
As realization gradually dawns upon the international community of the grave consequences for both state and society, should citizens decide to take up arms with brutal and extreme outfits like ISIS, many countries have scrambled to instate strategies for dealing with not just the recruitment of fighters, but also the inevitable influx of returnees once the conflict is over.
Fighters returning from the front lines, brutalized by the ravages of war and potentially suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, may prove incapable of easily slipping back into their respective host societies. More ominously, some will also have engaged in horrific sectarian violence or egregious human-rights violations that have become hallmarks of the conflict. The social media accounts of some Western Jihadists, tweeting images of grisly executions and “selfies” with severed heads, or the prominence of individuals like Jihadi John , the Briton who was shown brutally beheading American and British hostages, is testament to the barbarity many fighters have not just been immersed within, but have positively relished. Naturally, these revelations will prove all the more troubling, should these men choose to return home. Indeed, a small minority may have already brought violence back with them, as the recent example of Mehdi Nemmouche clearly shows; Nemmouche spent more than a year fighting in Syria and is now the prime suspect in an anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium that left four people dead in May.
How then, should states deal with their errant sons, who choose to return home once the conflict has lost its glamour and appeal?
Essentially, there are really only three options on the table.
Firstly, states could potentially opt to revoke citizenship. The Canadian government has just announced precisely that, citing its long-established Canadian Passport Order, which gives officials the right to terminate citizens’ travel papers. However, for most countries, this is likely to be a nonstarter. Unless the accused happened to possess dual nationality, it would be deemed illegal to render a person stateless under existing UN conventions and therefore violate international law, as British governmental lawyers recently established. Moreover, IS has issued new passports to their fighters , many of whom publicly burnt their original national identity documents in response. And so invalidating citizenship would inadvertently place Islamic State’s claims to sovereignty and allegiance on equal footing with bona fide nation-states, and therefore only serve to reinforce the perception of IS as a legitimate alternative polity in the international order.
The second option would be to rehabilitate returnees by disengaging them from violence (commonly referred to as de-radicalization). The British government, in the panicked wake of the Jihadi John situation, recently announced that British jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria would be forced to attend “de-radicalization” programs, “ in order to reverse their warped brainwashing .” Whilst this strategy is far preferable to rendering individuals stateless, for those of us who study radicalization, and attempt to understand the heady appeal that ISIS, Al Qaeda or indeed any form of violent extremism holds for some young people, these sorts of pronouncements do pose some concerns.
For a start, the term radicalization itself is highly problematic, being born out of necessity in the post-9/11, and particularly, post-7/7 world, in which the alarming inability of policy makers to explain the advent of home-grown terrorism to an increasingly anxious and accusing public led to the rise of the term as a means of encapsulating the phenomenon in an inscrutable but self-explanatory bubble. In other words, radicalization gave us a tidy means of packaging our uncertainty and incomprehension without necessarily engaging with or interrogating why these things might be happening. So, the underlying mechanisms and factors involved in radicalization are still not at all well understood by academics. In fact, many scholars have critiqued the unhelpfulness of the term, with some even calling into question the phenomenon’s existence. Consequently, if we are not quite sure what causes radicalization, or even of what it actually is, then the prospect of reverse-engineering a viable remedy in response (i.e. de-radicalization), remains an unlikely possibility.
More problematically, radicalization and de-radicalization have functional analogues in now-obsolete terms like “brainwashing” and its antonym “de-programming.” The former was extensively employed during the 1960s and '70s to describe and explain the appeal of religious sects, cults and new-age movements to young people, whereas the latter described the unethical coercive interventions made by their families and psychotherapists to reverse and rescue them from their “lifestyle choices.” Needless to say, both of these controversial concepts have been comprehensively debunked since then, and have now dropped out of common parlance.