(Un)convinced to Kill

Morgan Minor's thesis

(Un)convinced to Kill

– Executive Summary –

As  the territorial significance once held by the Islamic State continues to deteriorate, Western nations are grappling with how to handle returning foreign fighters. Processing, categorization, and management of returning foreign fighters must be done in a way that reduces the risk of increased radicalization, both within the justice system and on the streets.

The radicalizing influence of the mistreatment of those categorized as enemies has been leveraged through terrorist propaganda since the declaration of the War on Terror. During this time, freedom, a core American value, was questioned as the hunt for those involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks was underway. Motivational speakers who later aligned with al-Qaeda, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, proselytized the infringements of freedom. In an address before the Dar Al-Hijrah congregation during the jummah prayer on March 22, 2002, al-Awlaki stated,

So this is not a war on terrorism – we need to all be clear about this. This is a war against Muslims and Islam. Not only is it happening worldwide, but it is happening right here in America, that is claiming to be fighting this war for the sake of freedom while it’s infringing of the freedom of its own citizens – just because they’re Muslim, for no other reason.[1]

Miscategorization and mistreatment of the perceived enemy in the post September 11, 2001 era has had a radicalizing effect on margins of the population. Those persons labeled enemy combatants, despite citizenship or guilt, were stripped of their freedom. During this time, the United States struggled with the categorization of the enemy resulting in the warehousing of those allegedly associated with terrorism.

The emergence of the Islamic State and the creation of the self-proclaimed caliphate exacerbated radicalization to the point of travel. Reporting indicates that approximately 250 to 300 Americans were convinced to adopt Salafi-jihadist ideology and make hijrah, or religiously justified migration, to the caliphate.[2] As the Islamic State began to hemorrhage its territorial hold in 2017, the question remained: how would the United States handle those labeled as returning foreign fighters? Had the U.S. learned from the categorization issues of its past? Nearly two decades after September 11, 2001, this thesis is grounded in the suspicion that the United States continues to misunderstand and miscategorize its enemies.

In an effort to answer this question, this thesis reviewed eight American foreign fighter cases from 2011 to 2017. Of the eight cases examined, seven had returned home after traveling to Iraq and Syria to be a part of the creation of the caliphate. Using needs theories, this thesis found that many American foreign fighters traveled to the caliphate to fulfill perceived moral obligations. Upon first-hand realization of the brutality and un-Islamic gestures of the Islamic State, those able to escape returned from their misadventure. This finding is counter to the common belief that foreign fighters travel to quench a thirst for violence without consequence and may require reconsideration of the policies adopted to respond to returning foreign fighters.

In the United States, returning foreign fighters have continually been met with prosecution, which serves are the defacto returnee policy. Though no one should be absolved of the consequences for his or her actions, softer approaches to counterterrorism and responses to terrorism could produce more positive, long-term results, especially in cases involving a misadventure. This thesis provides a framework for understanding the idiosyncratic reasons for radicalization and return through needs theories. Through an empathetic lens, it is recommended that counterterrorism officials view returning foreign fighters first as humans who have reacted to emotions after witnessing atrocities and second as a resource to understand ideologies that may differ from personal beliefs.

The United States must disengage from the kinetic war on terror and enter the battle of ideas where the perpetual war is being fought. As the Islamic State loses legitimacy, this battle of ideas will continue to be waged by Salafi-jihadists on the internet. Utilizing the experiences of returned foreign fighters to creating a compelling, first-person counter narrative is likely to result in more resiliency against terrorism. When U.S. authorities assess a returnee to present a threat, they should utilize hard-power polices, such as prosecution and prison. However, for those who do not present a threat, authorities should consider softer policies, such as deradicalization and the reestablishment a higher purpose through reintegration. The challenge lies in determining the difference between returnees who present a threat and those who do not. This thesis recommends that the United States implement a returnee risk assessment tool to understand the level of threat presented by each returning foreign fighter.

The methods by which the United States implements a deradicalization and reintegration strategy will alter its collective resiliency against radicalization and those vulnerable to terrorist ideology. In order to curtail the threat of long-term, generational terrorism in the United States, the U.S. should consider proper categorization and treatment of these Americans returning from the Islamic State.

[1] Scott Shane, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015), 104.

[2] Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, and Bennett Clifford, The Travelers American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq (Washington, D.C.: Program on  Extremism The George Washington University, February 2018), https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/extremism.gwu.edu/files/TravelersAmericanJihadistsinSyriaandIraq.pdf.

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