London, United Kingdom – What do you do when you don’t want to be a foreign fighter anymore? This is a question many expatriate combatants in the Middle East – and their home governments – are wrangling with.
About 500 British citizens are thought to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the group calling itself Islamic State (ISIL) and other rebel groups since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. The figure increased drastically after ISIL declared a new caliphate on land it controls along the Iraq-Syria border.
But some British fighters are losing faith and want to come back and reintegrate in Britain.
In recent months, Prime Minister David Cameron gave police additional powers to confiscate passports and place travel restrictions on those suspected of planning to join the fight. He has also announced moves to ban British citizens who pose a threat to national security from returning to the United Kingdom.
London’s Mayor Boris Johnson has suggested that returnees from Iraq and Syria should be presumed guilty of terrorism offences unless they can prove their innocence.
We know that there are people in Syria right now who are not happy to be there and who regret having become involved in the first place.
It appears that public opinion is behind such punitive measures. A recent poll by YouGov found that three quarters of Londoners believe anyone who has fought with groups in Iraq or Syria should be banned from returning to the UK. But analysts warn that focusing only on crackdowns is an over-simplistic strategy that could exacerbate the problem.
“Foreign fighters are not a monolithic group,” says Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London.
“We know that there are people in Syria right now who are not happy to be there and who regret having become involved in the first place. If you don’t give people an option to return, the idea of these fighters in Syria becoming dangerous international terrorists becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
A case in point is the group of 30 British fighters in Syria who recently told the Times they were disillusioned. They had travelled to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but were now fighting other rebel groups. A representative said they wanted to return to the UK but feared long jail sentences, adding they would be willing to be monitored by security agencies, or to undertake deradicalisation programmes.
Some European countries, such as Denmark, are successfully running such programmes, whereby returnees from Syria and Iraq – who have not committed serious crimes abroad – are monitored, treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and given theological teaching and socioeconomic support. No such scheme is currently in place in the UK, but behind the scenes the Home Office is exploring softer measures to deal with the influx of war-experienced returnees.
“We take the risk of those returning from Syria very seriously,” a spokesman for the Home Office told Al Jazeera. It is UK government policy for spokespeople not to be named.
“Some of these people may have been exposed to traumatic experiences and others may be radicalised or vulnerable to radicalisation. In the UK we work with our partners, including the police and health service, to determine how we can best support returnees from areas of conflict and help them successfully reintegrate into society.”
At present, the UK does not have any specific “exit programmes” in place for those who wish to leave violent groups. The government has, however, carried out intervention work for the last decade. The Channel programme identifies people at risk of radicalisation – mostly through referrals from family, teachers, or social workers – and works with them to change their views.
Like the rest of the Prevent Violent Extremism strategy, introduced after the September 11 attacks, it has been controversial. Critics argue the bar for labelling people as potentially dangerous is too low.
No independent assessment of the Channel Programme has been conducted, but according to researchers it has worked with up to 4,000 people over the last 10 years and is broadly considered successful. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has recommended this scheme be extended to cater to those who have already joined armed groups and want to leave them.
“Government doesn’t need to build a deradicalisation programme, we already have one,” says Neumann. “All that needs to be done is to build on that expertise, and gear it towards exiting people and some of the traumatic experiences people have had in Syria.”
Yet, given the prevailing mood of anger and disgust with ISIL, which grows with every new videoed atrocity, the government does not want to appear “soft” on returnees who have fought for the group.
According to officials in the Home Office, one option being considered is opening a deradicalisation centre in Turkey, where British citizens would be required to complete a programme before being allowed to return.
“I’m not sure this will work – most people want to come back because they want to see their families,” says Neumann.
Another option for reintegrating low-risk returnees without damaging headlines is for government to quietly work with civil society and NGOs.
The Hayat programme, meaning “life” in Arabic, has been running in Germany since 2011. Since then, it has worked with 100 highly radicalised individuals and their families. With its roots in Exit, a scheme designed to help neo-Nazis leave far-right groups and reintegrate into society, it has had considerable success through family counselling. It plans to start work in the UK with a pilot project for selected London boroughs.
In Germany, Hayat’s main donor is the government, and it is likely the Home Office would fund its work in the UK, although the decision is still pending. “We work with our European partners on the issue and continually assess whether approaches adopted by other countries could benefit Britain,” the Home Office told Al Jazeera.
In 80 percent of the cases it deals with, Hayat works with the relatives of radicalised individuals, rather than giving direct counselling.
“We want the family to become a positive, living counter-narrative, a counter-force to the radicalising environment and milieu,” says Daniel Köhler, a researcher on de-radicalisation programmes and one of Hayat’s counsellors. Many families cut all ties to relatives fighting in Syria, either horrified at the beliefs they espouse, or afraid of the legal consequences.
Hayat encourages families to maintain contact and helps them respond to sometimes highly provocative and inflammatory statements.
You want people to return and to deradicalise and reintegrate. The mistake is looking away and forgetting about them.
“Our goal is to intensify and stabilise the communication between the family and their relatives in Syria. At some point, there will be a moment of homesickness or doubt, and we want them to know that they can reach out to their family,” explains Köhler.
“When you start family counselling, in almost every case, you have an immediate slowing down or stopping of the radicalisation process.”
‘Doing social media’
But despite effectiveness, such programmes are a tough sell to a public that is enraged by the beheading of two British citizens. The fact that many Britons in Iraq and Syria have not engaged in active combat at all is a nuance lost on many.
“This is for people on the fringes of ISIL, who maybe haven’t fought that much. A lot of foreign fighters are just doing social media,” says Neumann. “It clearly isn’t for people who have committed serious crimes, who should be prosecuted for those crimes.”
Given that all deradicalisation programmes – government-run or otherwise – operate under strict security and ethical guidelines, they can also be highly effective in sharpening the eyes of the security agencies, helping to identify which cases are dangerous.
Debate is ongoing among counterterrorism experts about the best methods for deradicalisation. Some argue that compulsory programmes are nonsensical, as individuals must be willing participants. But all agree such schemes are a vital part of the jigsaw of effective counterterror policy, giving people a way out while also keeping them within the system.
The current political strategy of blanket criminalisation of Britons returning from conflict in the Middle East could end up worsening the problem.
“You want people to return and to deradicalise and reintegrate,” says Köhler. “The mistake is looking away and forgetting about them. It is simply idiotic because these people provide you with the voices you need against ISIL, against radicalisation. Their biographies are tremendously important to formulating effective prevention strategies.”