Radicalisation and Rehabilitation: Do foreign fighters coming home pose a threat to society?


By Mahmut Aytekin



Foreign fighters have been present throughout the third and fourth waves of terrorism since the 1970’s onwards. They serve as ‘fresh legs’ for organizations involved in terrorism activities both on-ground, and also aid in logistical support. While some have not had direct access to the battlefield, they generally do provide support for propaganda and recruitment as seen with the cases of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Foreign fighters present direct threats to civil society’s security if they have not been rehabilitated for re-integration into society. Within this respect, special rehabilitation centers and programs are needed to be employed by governments for social rehabilitation, religious rehabilitation, economic rehabilitation and psychological rehabilitation.

This paper will be divided into three key sections. The definitions of terrorism and foreign fighters will be compared and contrasted according to existing literature present in the field of terrorism studies to set the scene. Secondly, the life cycles of foreign fighters and radicalization will be deliberated. Various models of radicalization will be utilized in this paper as seen further on. Special emphasis will be put on the threats foreign fighters pose to civil society and national security, these being the aiding in radicalization of non-radicalized persons, especially those of the youth, and also skills transfer of terrorism tradecraft to individuals who have been radicalized previously. These will be supported with evidence from mainstream news agencies and academic journals. Finally, the concept of rehabilitation, disengagement and legal doctrine regarding returnee foreign fighters will be presented whereby recommendation will be made.

Definitions of Terrorism and Foreign Fighters

Terrorism has been a much debated concept throughout the four waves of terrorism identified by Rapoport (2004). Cliché statements such as ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ have come about as a result of differences with regards to understanding due to political, cultural, religious and social reasons as to who is a terrorist and what terrorism is exactly. According to Hoffman (1998), terrorism is ‘violence or equally important, the threat of violence – used and directed in pursuit or, or in service of a political aim’ (Hoffman, 1998: 14-15). Alex P. Schmid on the other hand describes terrorism as ‘an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by a (semi-clandestine) individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons whereby – in contrast to assassinations – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets’ ( Schmidt & Jongman, 1988: 28). Finally, Combs (2006) describes terrorism as ‘a synthesis of war and theater, a dramatization of the most proscribed kind of violence – that which is perpetrated on innocent victims – played before an audience in the hope of creating a mood of fear, for political purposes’ (Combs, 2006: 11).

Like terrorism, there is also no consensus on a definitional level of what foreign fighters (also called foreign terrorist fighters (FTF)) are. The only binding definition present in regards to foreign fighters at the moment is that of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178 stating foreign fighters are ‘individuals who travel to a state other than their state of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict’ (United Nations, 2017).


Life Cycles of Foreign Fighters and Radicalization

Members of organizations involved in terrorism can broadly be divided into two: Sympathisers and militants. According to McCauley & Moskalenko (2011), the sympathizer with means of a ‘bottom up approach’ becomes radicalized according to a pyramid model consisting of several stages. The authors divide their pyramid into three sections, these being individual radicalization, group radicalization and mass radicalization. According to the authors, radicalization of the individual takes place through five key strains : 1) Personal Grievance 2) Group Grievance 3) Traumatized life 4) Love 5) the lust for risk, status and adventure 6) Loss of social connection (McCaulay & Moskalenko, 2011: 14-75).

Personal grievances are generally the initial stage at which one individual steps into the radicalization cycle. Through personal grievances or other strains stated earlier, individuals tend to experience an emotion of loss and suffering, and thus get re-framed into feeling that ‘the world is full of injustice, and something needs to be done about it’. This creates a ‘psychological opening’ in the mind of the individual whereby organizations involved in terrorism activities exploit, and fill in with the ideology of their own. The sympathizer in the process of radicalization then has his or her perspectives and view of the world re-framed according to the ideology of the organization. With this process, group isolation tends to take place with the sympathizer by going to the talks, speeches, recreational organization and other activities of the group. Rapport is then formed even further between the organization and the individual whereby the new learned values are internalized even further (Ahmad, 2016: 13-17). A way out is then shown for grievances or ‘sins’ the individual is suffering from. In addition to being shown a way out, individuals also are offered personal benefits such as marriage, monthly wages, real estate property and the like. Individuals on this pathway of radicalization then tend to join the organization and its activities if not cut off by an external entity such as a friend or a government along the way (Wiktorowicz, 2015: 10-15).

Sinai (2012) has come up with a three phase model divided into radicalization, mobilization and action. Sinai offers similar factors leading to radicalization like the authors identified earlier. In the second phase of mobilization identified by the author, certain catalysts in the form of triggers drive forth the individual as he or she cannot be held by inhibitors. This phase consists of three components leading one to become a foreign fighter in the long run, these being 1) opportunity (to have contacts within the organization) 2) capability (training in the use of weapons and bombs) and 3) Readiness to act for the organization (Sinai, 2012: 24). As the individual completes this phase, he or she then joins in the acts of terrorism, completing the pathway of radicalization, mobilization and action.

From Radicalization to the battle ground, and back to organized crime

Individuals who have been radicalized tend to go to battle grounds where conflicts are present and join the organization they sympathize with as stated earlier. This takes place for two primary reasons: Firstly, individuals who travel overseas to join the organization further undergo ideological indoctrination with means of camps, effective speakers and preachers, and the utilization of ideological materials within the camps. Individuals who join the organizations and become foreign fighters are taken to a point of no-return whereby the sympathizer becomes a militant for the organization, and he himself loses his individualistic values and ‘wears on’ the values of the organization that he possesses sympathy for. These individuals, if not treated on their return to their home countries present various dangers to the security of civil society.

According to Basra & Neumann (2016), prisons have been the spotlights whereby by extremist radicalization has taken place as a result of foreign fighters returning back and being incarcerated in prison (Basra & Neumann, 2016: 31). Foreign fighters in prisons, if not incarcerated properly and are permitted to make contact with non-radicalized individuals from other cells in prison tend to act as ‘mobile’ recruiters whereby the individual is indoctrinated with the ideology of the foreign fighter who has had prior terrorism experience. Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly were both imprisoned in 2007 for seven months for different crimes, one for armed robberies and theft whilst the other had tried to travel to Iraq for terrorism purposes. Whilst one of them was on his way to radicalization, the latter was not radicalized. Both were then radicalized and mentored by Djamel Beghal (Vincent, 2017). Beghal was an al-Qaida recruiter in Europe who was discovered by Senior al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah in 2001. Beghal had travelled to Afghanistan where he was given religious indoctrination and military training. Djamel was given orders by al-Qaida to blow up with U.S embassy in Paris but was stopped in Dubai where he was going to transit to France from Afghanistan. Beghal was then deported to France where he served eight years in prison and met Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly (Fyerick, 2015). Keith Broomfield codnamed Gelhat Rumet like Cherif Kouchachi and Amedy Coulibaly also had prior crime experience. According to Orton (2017), Keith was a motorcyclist who usually was against the law. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for possession of weapons and narcotics, and distribution of methapehatimines. While in prison, Broomfield was most likely mentored by Christian extremists where he stated that ‘he had converted to Christianity and was going to go to the YPG to protect the Christian Kurds (most Kurds are of Sunni origin though). After travelling to YPG territory as a foreign fighter, Broomfield was killed on June 3 2015 in the region of Ayn Al-Arab in Syria (also known as Kobani) (Orton, 2017: 38).

Skills transfer is also a major problem faced with foreign fighters returning back to their countries of origin. Three properties of foreign fighters who have had a criminal past exist within this dilemma:  Firstly, foreign fighters who have criminal pasts tend to have easier access to weapons and ammunition; secondly, they are more experienced in staying underground and being undetected by ‘foreign’ and ‘governmental’ entitites. This allows them to create cells and execute attacks much easier. Finally, foreign fighters who have experienced combat in the regions they have travelled to have much lower psychological thresholds to go back to acts of terrorism (Basra & Neumann, 2016: 32) if they are not rehabilitated correctly upon their return.

Aspects of Rehabilitation

Foreign fighters who have become returnees therefore need to go through effective rehabilitation for de-radicalization and disengagement. This is necessary for returnees to reintegrate effectively back into society. Rehabilitation according to Gunarata (2011) is needed because ‘terrorists whether they are operational or extremist supporters believe that violence and other extreme measures are acceptable means to bring about political change. Terrorists and their supporters are not mainstream but are extreme. To facilitate their return to the mainstream from the extreme, they must be rehabilitated. Unless a terrorist is rehabilitated before his release from custody, he is likely to pose a security threat to the government and a societal threat to the community upon his return’ (Gunarata, 2011: 65). According to Horgan & Koehler  (2017), no single typology of terrorism rehabilitation alone exists (Horgan & Koehler, 2017: 12) In this respect, rehabilitation employed by governments should be based upon for key forms: Social rehabilitation, psychological rehabilitation, religious rehabilitation and economic rehabilitation. If rehabilitation is employed properly, returnees can be re-integrated into society and may prove effective in counter-narratives of terrorism propaganda. ISIS defector’s who have gone through rehabilitation will provide insight into the true nature of organizations involved in terrorism activities, their ideology, their propaganda and recruitment techniques, and the projection of their true goals.

Putra and Sukabdi (2014) have identified two types of rehabilitation needed to transform and rehabilitate persons involved in terrorism activities: peripheral routes and central routes. According to the authors, peripheral routes involve applying positive psychology in developing and heightening the quality of life of those being rehabilitated, these include education and socio-economic standards. The central route on the other hand focuses on ideology directly and the proper interpretation of sacred texts. Clerics and charismatic preachers are utilized in the central route of rehabilitation proposed.

Foreign fighters go through seven key behavior transformation with means of government initiated programs. Initially, the context into which the foreign fighter sees’s the world changes. Rather than seeing the struggle as physical, the urge for struggle is channeled into other peaceful means such as that of an ‘economic’ struggle, or one that of ‘to become a better person’. Secondly, sudden interaction with law enforcement officers creates a sense of fear and shock to commit an attack. Thirdly, sudden commitment is seen in foreign fighters and those engaging in terrorism activities to abide by laws in order to avoid the maximum sentence of prison. Fourthly, crisis in which existing strategies are questioned and other peaceful means are sought for in the struggle of the foreign fighter. Fifthly, physical forms of terrorism are questioned even extensively, and the legitimacy of such acts is pondered upon. On a sixth point, mental re-adjustments are seen where thoughts and psychological processes are in-line with the majority of the community. Finally, rewards are seen from law enforcement agencies and his or her community for the change that has come about (Sukabdi, 2015: 45-46).

How should governments go about dealing with foreign fighters?

Returnees as assessed above have been a great dilemma for governments. Amendments have been made globally, with Australia being in the forefront. Initially, under the Criminal Code Act 1995, the phrase of ‘advocating terrorism’ has also been added. Amendments have also been made upon the Australian Passport Act 2005 whereby power is introduced to the necessary legal and judicial bodies for suspension of a person’s travel documents for fourteen days if requested by the Director – General of Security. Further amendments are also present on the act including the person not having to being notified that his or her travel documents has been cancelled or suspended if it is essential to national security or adversely affect an investigation into an act of terrorism (Library of Congress, 2017).

Such measures are definitely needed for those who cannot be rehabilitated. For this reason, special emphasis must be put on SIGINT and HUMINT. An early warning system must be put in to allow for the forecasting of foreign fighters who are going to return back to their countries. As foreign fighters are flagged, psychological assessment of foreign fighters should be conducted to foresee as to what the level of radicalization of the returnee is at. If returnees are not able to be rehabilated, governments should incarcerate them into cells on their own, and cut off their contacts with other inmates or the outside world. This will allow for the isolation of radical ideology, and push-back the echo-chamber utilized by organizations involved in terrorism activities for propaganda purposes.

Secondly, governments should be careful of narratives used for foreign fighters on media outlets. Rather than labeling terrorism in terms of belief systems such as ‘Islamist terrorism’ or ‘Christian terrorism’, a narrative that terrorism does not hold place in no religion or belief should be emphasized. This will stop the feeling of injustice others within the public sphere may feel, and allow for trust to form between the government and public. Rather than utilizing islamophobic or xenophobic narratives, a more general narrative for terrorism should be formed.

Thirdly, rehabilitation centers should be formed by governments for de-radicalization and dis-engagement. Foreign fighters should firstly undergo psychological assessment to assess as to what form of rehabilitation should be applied. According to this assessment, foreign fighters should undergo treatment for clearing of radical ideology and being brought back to the mainstream. The curriculum of rehabilitation to be applied should be formed with consultation of experts and religious leaders.

As a returnee completes his rehabilitation, governments should open up ways for re-integration of the returnee back into society. This will allow for a sense of identity and belonging of the foreign fighter, and will make it easier for him to strip away from his old identity, and take on his new one. One key way of doing this is to open up ways of employment. Former foreign fighters have stated it is almost impossible for them to gain employment, even after completing their rehabilitation processes. One example of this is the case of 27 year old Walad Yousef who states that ‘he applies for a lot of jobs, but can’t get any because his pictures are out there’ (Moore, 2017). Other cases such as that of Omar el-Hussein also exist, showing us individuals can become radicalized if jobless and homeless. Hussein was released from prison in January 2015 as he was jobless and homeless. Upon arriving at the municipality center, Hussein had asked for a place to temporarily stay at and a job. Hussein was not accommodated for and was given a new appointment on the 12th of February. Upon this, Omar el-Hussein executed a terrorist attack on 14th of February at a cultural center and Synagogue, killing tens of people (Basra & Neumann, 2016: 33).

The identities of rehabilitated returnees should not be made public to make it easier for re-integration in society. Returnees should also be used for rehabilitation of other returnees and portrayed as examples for sympathizers of terrorist organizations. They should be assisted by governments to give interviews and form counter-narratives against terrorist organizations, showing their true faces and their intentions.


Foreign terrorist fighters are a grave concern for the governments of countries where they are returning to. Returnees as pointed out above can be a great threat to a nation’s national security if not dealt with in the proper manner. Radicalization as a result of information being accessed much easier because of globalization is becoming faster as days go by with means of social media and the internet. Online videos on video sharing websites such as YouTube and Vimeo have been platforms where radicalization has taken place with multiple cases being present. Certain governmental policies and remarks have also allowed for feelings of injustice and hatred to form towards governments, which have marginizalised and caused individuals into the radicalization cycle.

Foreign fighters may want to return back to their countries to re-integrate back into their societies of origin. Governments should firstly assess the situation of these individuals to identify pathways of rehabilitation for them and re-integrate them back into society. Not one form of rehabilitation fits for all. For this reason, careful assessment is needed to forecast what type of rehabilitation is needed.  Behavioral transformations have been proven to take place with rehabilitation practices. Governments should continue to excel their rehabilitation programs and take expert opinions.


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