Perhaps most importantly, those who willingly return, have at some level rejected the Jihadists’ penchant for bloodshed and violent excess, along with their frighteningly dystopic and intolerant vision of the future. Perhaps, like George Orwell, Laurie Lee and other International Brigadeers who travelled abroad to fight in the Spanish Civil War, but later returned disenchanted and jaded by their experiences, Jihadist returnees will also become effective proselytizers against the lost innocence of youthful naiveté and soured idealism.
Naturally, as the military action against IS gains traction, we also have to be cognizant of the fairly remote possibility that in desperation, IS may retaliate by directing foreign fighters to return to their host countries, with the aim of “bringing the war home” through domestic terrorist attacks. So we will need to find mechanisms for differentiating between genuinely disenchanted returnees and those who may feign remorse and disillusionment in order to infiltrate their host societies.
However, the discussion of hypothetical sleeper agents and Manchurian candidates is distracting from the very real prospect at hand—that we have an opportunity before us to utilize these disillusioned young men and women as assets in our war against IS, in the same way that we already successfully employ ex-members in the various struggles against gangs, drugs, crime and even terrorism.
These individuals have stared into the abyss and found it wanting. Instead, they have chosen to renege on the path that promised violence, death and martyrdom, and that surely is some small victory for our way of life, and one that should be celebrated and utilized to delegitimize IS for others.
Akil N. Awan is Assistant Professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research interests are focused around the history of terrorism, radicalization, social movements, protest, and new media. In addition, he is also Research Associate with the New Political Communication Unit, with the Centre for Public History, and the Centre for Minority Studies. Dr. Awan is regularly consulted by government bodies, think-tanks, media and other organizations in his fields of expertise, and has served in an advisory capacity to the UK Home Office, the Foreign Office, the US State Department, and the US Military amongst others. Most recently, he served as special advisor on Radicalization to the UK Parliament, and as academic expert on Genocide to the UK House of Lords delegation to Srebrenica. Follow him on Twitter: @Akil_N_Awan.