By Dr. Doron Pely
The Muslim men and women who are leaving their home countries and joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are foremost on the minds of those in charge of homeland security in almost every Western country. The concern is that after fighting with ISIS, these “veterans” will return to their home countries and become a major attraction for aspiring local Islamists, extremists, the undecided and the confused. They will be able to use the “skills” they acquired with ISIS, along with its doctrinaire ideology, to help recruit new jihadists and to launch terror attacks in their home countries.
How to deal with these departing and returning jihadists has been a source of intensive debate within and between many Western countries. There have been suggestions to prevent those who departed from returning, to prosecute them for a variety of criminal offenses, to revoke their citizenship (for those naturalized), and to otherwise find ways to mitigate their impact on their immediate communities and on society at large. It is safe to say, however, that Western policymakers and law enforcement are largely at a loss as to how to successfully deal with the phenomenon of hundreds—possibly thousands—of returning ISIS fighters.
Recently, a possible counter balance to this phenomenon is starting to appear in the form of multiple ISIS deserters—the same formerly enthusiastic Islamists-in-the-making—only now they are disillusioned, complaining about their experiences, and looking for ways to return to their own countries and put the ISIS experience behind them. ISIS is, naturally, quite unhappy about this trend and is taking severe measures to curtail a wave of desertions. Western countries are also uncertain about this development and are hesitating in their response.
Instead of refusing ISIS deserters entry back into their home countries, they should be recruited as part of a campaign to help “inoculate” Muslim communities against ISIS propaganda and indoctrination. These returning, disillusioned youngsters should be convinced to help their struggling communities, as well as help regain their place in their former communities by agreeing—indeed, insisting—on their duty to appear in public forums, describe their experience with ISIS to members of their own communities, and warn their co-religionists against repeating the same mistakes.
Disillusioned returning jihadists should be interviewed by every available media organization, spreading their story as far and as wide as possible. It may even be advisable to offer disillusioned jihadists immunity from prosecution (assuming they did not commit capital crimes during their stay with ISIS) in exchange for joining the battle for the hearts and minds of their young community members.
Of course, all this should be done in close cooperation with the impacted communities, will require in-depth understanding of the cultural forces that drive various behaviors within each community, the traditional “chain of command” that must drive such processes, the place and position of returnees’ extended families, and other factors. Granted, there will be some failures in such an undertaking, but it is possible that the force of a disillusioned returned fighter providing a first-hand report of the true nature of ISIS and of his or her experience, delivering a credible counter-narrative to that of ISIS, may actually deter potential new recruits from going to Syria or Iraq. That will be a significant, if only partial, victory.
Dr. Doron Pely is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center in Israel. Doron studies and teaches Muslim customary conflict and conflict management practices. His experience combines military (Lieutenant), police intelligence (field and analysis), business intelligence, executive duties, and academic and field research. Doron earned his PhD in Middle East Studies from King’s College, London.