– Executive Summary –
The number of foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria and Iraq between 2011 and 2015—including those from the United States (U.S.)—to join Islamic State (I.S.) and other Islamic foreign fighter groups is unprecedented. The issue for the United States is that since foreign fighter membership peaked in early 2015, it has been steadily decreasing. Some foreign fighters have been killed but others have become disillusioned with their group and their purpose for being a foreign fighter and have disengaged to return home or elsewhere to peacefully reintegrate back into society. This poses an immediate security concern for the United States: what to do with U.S. foreign fighters who depart the conflict area and want to peacefully return to the United States and reintegrate back into society.
To address this question, this research project first identifies groups from within the United States that have existing reintegration programs that appear analogous to Islamic foreign fighters. Street gangs and the military, specifically the National Guard, are two groups with members who seem equivalent, in terms of the cognitive process of joining their respective group, to Islamic foreign fighters; the experiences and activities they partake as members of their group and the physical and cognitive process of disengaging from their groups are broadly comparable. U.S. street gangs utilize the Comprehensive Gang Model as their primary reintegration strategy, and the U.S. military, including the National Guard, employ Total Force Fitness as their primary reintegration model.
Prior to applying these reintegration strategies to construct an ex-foreign fighter reintegration strategy, the conceptual life-cycle of U.S. street gang members and National Guard members were independently deconstructed into three parts: joining their group, supporting their group, and disengaging and desisting from their group. Using the gang member and National Guard member life-cycles as independent frameworks, the life-cycle of foreign fighters was mapped to assess the similarities and differences between gang members and National Guard members, and foreign fighters. The research reveals that individual and group identity as well as group-sanctioned violence are two primary aspects of all three groups. The research also reveals that U.S. gang members and foreign fighters progress through similar cognitive processes to join their groups, and National Guard members and foreign fighters share similar experiences and activities that experienced by members of both groups during deployments. Members from all three groups go through role transition as they disengage from their group and attempt to acquire a new identity. An additional factor identified for some formerly deployed National Guard members, which may affect some returning ex-foreign fighters, is that they suffer from a variety of post-traumatic stress disorders as a result of their deployment.
Based on the noted similarities between U.S. street gang members and National Guard members to Islamic foreign fighters, an ex-foreign fighter reintegration model was constructed utilizing applicable components of the Comprehensive Gang Model and Total Force Fitness strategy. The resulting multidisciplinary reintegration strategy was designed to address the various motivations that caused individuals to initially become foreign fighters as well as the reasons that foreign fighters decide to disengage from their group and reintegrate back into society. Religious identity, acceptable use of violence, excitement, adventure, revenge, and financial benefits are all factors that motivate individuals to become foreign fighters. These factors are also important to foreign fighters as they contemplate disengagement from their group and is addressed by the ex-foreign fighter reintegration strategy. The last aspect of the ex-foreign fighter reintegration strategy is Suppression. Suppression is based on a relationship between the criminal justice system and ex-foreign fighters, whereby the ex-foreign fighter is constantly reminded of the negatives of foreign fighter group membership or association, to proactively prevent any type of relapse. It also enables local law enforcement to reassure citizens that the ex-foreign fighters who reside in their communities are not a threat. Overall, the proposed ex-foreign fighter reintegration strategy addresses ex-foreign fighters holistically, utilizing existing and proven components of the Comprehensive Gang Model and Total Force Fitness.