Disillusioned, Traumatized, or Radicalized: The Journey of Foreign Fighters Returning Home

By Tina Huang, Columnist

Photo illustration by: Idris Khan

As of February 2018, over five thousand foreign fighters who traveled to fight alongside jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have returned to their home countries.[i] While most of these foreign fighters travelled from European countries, a handful made the journey from the United States. As these individuals return home, the United States must now figure out how to appropriately address this potential national security threat. While some fighters return after being disillusioned and traumatized by their experiences, others return fully intent on either carrying out an attack or recruiting and radicalizing those around them. In either case, these foreign fighters demand the attention of US policymakers as the threat of homegrown extremism continues to rise. The United States needs to implement targeted programs that will prevent these individuals from falling back into or spreading their extremist ideology.

To date, 64 Americans are known to have traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside jihadist groups; 12 have returned to the United States.[ii] The current US method of managing returned foreign fighters is to funnel them through the criminal justice system. Since it is nearly impossible to determine exactly why these individuals decided to return, we are placing potentially radicalized individuals in prisons. Considering that prison culture is known to promote the formation of gangs for protection and market efficiency, these returnees have little incentive to deradicalize and are surrounded by hardened criminals who may themselves be susceptible to radicalization.[iii] Unlike its western counterparts, the United States lacks a prison-based countering violent extremism (CVE) program to deradicalize and stabilize these individuals. Considering that the average prison sentence for a foreign fighter is 10 years, this makes prisons a breeding ground for terror networks that may then be released to the public.[iv] While the number of returning foreign fighters may seem inconsequential, the seductive influence of just one radicalized individual could exacerbate the already growing homegrown extremism threat. The United States would benefit from providing these returning foreign fighters with therapy in prison to support their transition back into society and prevent them from radicalizing others.

Providing therapy for returning foreign fighters would address the greatest obstacle for all CVE programs: the fact that there is no single path to radicalization. Previous CVE efforts have been one-size-fits-all programs to address as many potential driving factors behind radicalization as possible. Therapy would allow the therapist and patient to specifically identify the factors that drove the patient to radicalization, and then develop solutions geared toward those factors. As previously mentioned, the sentencing time for returning foreign fighters is astonishingly short, so individuals will inevitably re-enter society, likely returning to the towns in which they was originally radicalized. With therapy, the returnee would be equipped with the tools necessary to cope with and combat the factors that compelled them to radicalize, and, hopefully, put them on a different path.

Furthermore, returnees face scrutiny and stigma from their family, friends, and, ultimately, any American who learns of their travel. While this tainted reputation is warranted, the additional judgment may preclude the individual from reintegrating back into society as a healthy and productive citizen. In addition, if a fighter has returned disillusioned and traumatized, they may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).[v] Any individual struggling with PTSD would benefit greatly from therapy, and a returnee will likely have the aforementioned obstacles to overcome upon their homecoming. Moreover, the returnee may be tempted once again by the anti-Western narratives of jihadist groups. Therapy would allow these returnees to better analyze and understand their emotions so that they have a greater chance of overcoming these obstacles, and would reduce the risk they pose as an extremist threat within their communities.

Returnees should also be considered untapped sources of information that can be used to better understand the contributing factors that not only led them to radicalize, but also persuaded them to leave the United States and actively fight with jihadist groups. The United States can capitalize on returning fighters by providing the option to allow scientists who study the psychology of extremism to interview them. In fact, some returning foreign fighters claim they are critical for CVE program creation. Albert Berisha, a fighter who left Kosovo for ISIS, has asserted that he knows the key to deradicalizing fighters and preventing them from committing attacks; Berisha founded a nongovernmental organization focused on this mission and believes he should be viewed as an asset to Kosovo’s government, rather than a criminal.[vi] But it is not surprising that governments are skeptical about working with returning fighters. Not only is there a trust issue on whether one has truly deradicalized, but it may also prevent severe punishment for betraying one’s country. In addition, working with returnees offers little deterrence for future radicals considering travel when they can simply return home without consequences by claiming that they can help stop individuals just like them.

Offering therapy as a form of CVE programming for returning foreign fighters in prisons is undoubtedly a controversial concept. Opponents argue that these resources could be allocated to provide our veterans with the specialized health care they require after serving our country. While this argument is valid and appropriate resources should be offered to our veterans, it does not diminish the threat of growing terrorist networks in prisons. The truth of the matter is that extremism and radicalization is not a new concept in the prison system. America has been combating an extensive network of white supremacist prison gangs for decades.[vii] The threat of returning foreign fighters fueling the rise of homegrown extremism demands the attention of US policymakers, and they should create and implement a CVE program focused on therapy to rehabilitate and stabilize radicalized returnees. By specifically targeting individuals we know have been or are currently radicalized, this program could majorly impact national security, working to protect US citizens from both radicalization and violent extremist attacks.








[i] Tim Meko, “Now That the Islamic State Has Fallen in Iraqw and Syria, Where are All its Fighters Going?” The Washington Post, February 22,2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/world/isis-returning-fighters/?utm_term=.fb1a58c571d2.

[ii] Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, Bennett Clifford, “The Travelers,” The Program on Extremism at The George Washington University, February 2018,  https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/TravelersAmericanJihadistsinSyriaandIraq.pdf.

[iii] J.D., “Why Prisoners Join Gangs,” The Economist, November 12, 2014, https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/11/economist-explains-7.

[iv] Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, “The Travelers.”

[v] Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci, and Ahmet S. Yayla, “Defected from ISIS or Simply Returned, and for How Long? – Challenges for the West in Dealing with Returning Foreign Fighters,” Homeland Security Affairs, January 2018, https://www.hsaj.org/articles/14263.

[vi] Alexander Smith and Vladimir Banic, “What Should the West Do With Fighters Returning from Syria and Iraq?,” NBC News, October 12, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-uncovered/what-should-west-do-fighters-returning-syria-iraq-n800261.

[vii] “White Supremacist Prison Gangs in the United States,” The Anti-Defamation League, 2016 https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/white-supremacist-prison-gangs-in-the-united-states.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.