Challenge Related to Jihadi Activity in the West
The United States, the United Kingdom, and other European nations are faced with a new challenge on how to deal with their citizens who joined Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and are now willing to come back home after years of fighting alongside the terrorists. According to Speckhard, Shajkovci, and Yayla, from 2013 to 2016, ISIL used a unique propaganda through the social media that convinced many American-born youths to join them in their campaign to liberate the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) from the perpetual oppression by the West.1
tailored to your instructions
for only $13.00 $11.05/page
The United States and its allies had not anticipated a situation where their citizens would join these terrorists, but that is what happened. Many young Americans and Britons left their country and openly announced their decision to join these groups in their fight against the United States and its allies. During this period, many American soldiers and civilians lost their lives because of activities of ISIL.2 After years of aiding these criminals against their own states, these people have now made the decision to come home.
Some of them are genuine defectors who realized that ISIL is not practicing what it preached while other are mere returnees who want to continue with the fight in the United States soil. The primarily focus of this study is to determine why and how the West, specifically the United States, face a challenge from these returnees, and how to prevent potential attacks from them.
The United States has an obligation to protect its citizens within the country’s borders and those who are in the foreign states. The criminal justice system was established to prosecute and help in the reformation of those who break the law. However, Pokalova notes that how to deal with deserters has been a major issue for years.3 In this case, the United States is faced with a situation where its own citizens who had joined ISIL, one of the most notorious terror groups in the world, are willing to come back home.
As Pokalova observes, some of these returnees are genuinely reformed individuals who have experienced the true nature of some of these Islamic extremists and are willing to help the government to crush them.4 On the other hand, some are still loyal to the terror group and have come to conduct surveillance and to facilitate their activities in the country. As such, their entry into the country and subsequent reintegration into the community poses a major national security threat.
Besides providing ISIL with intelligence, there is the risk that they can easily organize and execute major attacks within their communities. Historical records show that some of these terrorists do not even need to work in groups to achieve their evil goals.
On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen executed a gun attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others.5 The United States security agencies feel that releasing these people to the public may bring a major security threat. Taking them and sending them to prison may also be a risky strategy because they may become a major influence to other criminals they will interact with while incarcerated. They may have the opportunity to sell their propaganda to these criminals, radicalizing them in the process. It is not clear how the government should deal with the current problem of these returnees, but they pose a serious security threat in the country.
as little as 3 hours
Understanding Primary Reasons Why These Fighters Joined Jihad
Homegrown terrorism has emerged as one of the greatest threats to the United States national security. According to Malet, long before the September 11, 2001 terror attack, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other security organs in the country had the intelligence that radical Islamists in the Middle East and parts of North Africa were planning attack on the United States soil or its facilities abroad.6
This fear was confirmed on August 7, 1998 when United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Saalam, in Tanzania were attacked through truck bomb explosion. It left 200 people dead.7 Three years later in September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda succeeded in attacking some of the most important facilities within the United States. What followed was the War on Terror that led to the capture and assassination of most of the Al Qaeda leaders. However, as Al Qaeda got weaker following the elimination of its top leaders and the focus from the international community, ISIL started emerging as a powerful extremist group in the region.8
The biggest security challenge that the country faced is that some of its citizens, mostly Muslims, started sympathizing with the terrorists groups. They felt that the United States was using excessive force against the helpless. Another group felt that the United States was to blame for the instability in the Middle East. The conspiracy theory that the United States was creating instability in oil-rich countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to get this important commodity way below the international oil prices. These feelings made some of these people convinced that the United States was in the region for selfish interest and at the expense of lives of many innocent people, especially women and children.
ISIL managed to achieve what Al Qaeda was unable to, and that was to recruit a large number of people from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and other parts of Europe who were born and brought up in these European and North American countries. The social media became an important platform and tool that they used to sell their propaganda. In their messages, they reminded all Muslims around the world that they had a moral and religious obligation to protect their brothers and sisters in the MENA region who were oppressed by the United States and its allies.9
They were able to identify with the Muslim minorities in these countries, reminding them of how badly they were treated in the United States and most parts of Europe. Facebook became a platform where they could communicate and monitor the progress of this group. Liang explains that their message convinced many Americans born and brought up in this country.10 Some even converted to Islam after getting this message and made the decision to travel out of the country to become ISIL fighters. They were convinced that this terror group was determined to liberate the region, stop activities of foreign forces, and promote socio-economic and political prosperity in the region in line with the teachings of Quran.
The deliberate action of joining this terror group meant that they would be willing to attack and destroy the United States and its allies, because that was one of the fundamental goals of ISIL. They were convinced that they had a moral obligation to do so. Through the massive online propaganda, they were convinced that the United States was using its strong military might to oppress the Muslim community. They viewed themselves as the liberators, jihadists who will bring peace and justice to the people of MENA region and restore order. They also expected numerous benefits as promised by the ISIL leaders in their campaigns.
It is important to note that in their propaganda, ISIL targeted a specific group of people they considered vulnerable. The events before, during, and after the September 11, Al Qaeda attack created a deeply rooted mistrust between Muslims and the rest of the country.11 It was almost impossible for the majority of Americans (non-Muslims) to separate Islam and terrorism. As such, many Muslims felt that they were unwanted in this country. They were viewed with mistrust and their actions subjected to further scrutiny, just to ensure that they are not planning an attack. ISIL offered them goodwill and trust that they were missing in the United States.12
Some of these homegrown terrorists were dejected youths who felt inadequate and incapable of meeting society’s expectations. In ISIL, they were assured of a community where everyone is equally important. As such, they viewed the terror group as their savior at a time when they had despaired in life. They long to be in a society where they will be viewed as people of great value.
Experience of These Fighters in the Foreign Land
When these fighters left the United States to join ISIL IN Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, they had high expectations based on the propaganda that was sold to them through the social media. Malet and Hayes explain that many of these youths believed that their entry would bring instant peace without necessarily engaging in war.13
Some even believed that they would be seen as symbols of unity among warring factions for having sacrificed their comfort and safety in the United States to come to the rescue of their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters. Bogaards explains that a significant number of these foreign fighters from the West had not been involved in military combat.14 They had no training and a few only knew how to use a gun but with no knowledge on how to respond to an attack when in the battlefield.
The first experience that they went through was the training. ISIL had to train them on how to engage an enemy in the battlefield. In this case, some of these enemies were the elite United States military officers fighting alongside other well-trained NATO troops. They had to train knowing that at one point they had to be involved in the fight.15 These individuals also realized that their identity as American-born Muslims did not make them special in the Middle East.
They could not be trusted with top military command positions because of their limited experience. ISIL leaders also felt that it would take time for them to trust these foreigners. They feared that some of them might be working with the CIA or other international intelligence groups. As such, it was a tough time for most of these youths who had not experienced such levels of hardships. Then when it came to the battlefield, they learned how inexperienced and outsmarted the ISIL fighters were. They watched as their close friends lost their lives in the battlefield.
Some of the young women who went to the Middle East to join ISIL expected that they would play active roles in promoting peace and bringing justice to the people of that region. Bogaards explains that they expected they would be assigned office work or such other responsibilities directly related to the liberation of Muslims in the region.16 However, they were forced to become wives of the ISIL soldiers. Everyone was expected to follow strict rules and regulations set by the leadership of this terror group. For an American who grew up understanding their liberty in the country and the significance of being able to think freely, the new rules set by ISIL were strange. However, they had no choice but to follow them because the other alternative would be death through execution.
Determining Whether They Achieved Their Goals
The foreign fighters from the United States joining ISIL expected to change that part of the world in the Middle East based on the propaganda from the leaders of this terror group. However, they were shocked when they arrived in this region and realized that most of the things they had believed were not true. Most of these inexperienced youths believed that ISIL was fighting to protect women and children. Some of them were genuinely shocked to realize that these vulnerable people were victims of ISIL activities. They were appalled to see women and children being flogged for failing to follow orders given by ISIL.17
It was horrifying when they saw people dying of hunger because ISIL leaders felt that they did not deserve to get fed because of minor mistakes. It downed on them that whatever these people had promised them was not what they were encountering.
you can get a custom-written
according to your instructions
Female foreign fighters were the first to experience the disappointment. In the United States, they grew up knowing that men and women should be offered equal opportunities.18 That was not the case in the ISIL camps. They immediately learned that their primary role in this fight would be to meet sexual needs of the male fighters. That was not what they expected. Some of them had their phones confiscated to ensure that they do not communicate with people back in their home country. The young men who felt that they would be assigned senior positions in the military realized that they had to start from the bottom.
It was mentally and physically draining for them. When it came to encountering the enemy, Byman says that sometimes these inexperienced fighters were placed on the front line where they would ultimately lose their lives.19 Some of the ISIL commanders still viewed them as Americans, and as such, their death would mean no loss to their people.20 To these commanders, it would be a classic case of having Americans fighting against themselves.
The biggest disappointment of the majority of these young foreign fighters was the realization that the ideology that had been sold to them through the propaganda was based on lies. They had been informed that a true jihadist should not fear death as long as they were fighting infidels who were frustrating believers.21 However, they learned, after staying with the local fighters that these people feared death. They would retreat when they felt that the enemy had a stronger firepower. Most of the commanders would send the new and inexperienced fighters to some of the fiercest battles but ensure that they remain safe.22
It was hypocritical of these leaders to convince them that it was an honor for one to die fighting the infidels while they were doing everything to avoid death themselves. The pain and suffering of woman and children further convinced most of these fighters that they were wagging a wrong battle.
Investigating Reasons Why They Are Coming Back
The majority of American and British nationals who joined ISIL and have managed to avoid death have expressed their desire to get back home after staying there for less than five years. Byman says that almost all of them give the same reason why they feel that they need to get back home.23 They say that they did not know the truth and as such, made a mistake of joining the terror group.
They have publicly apologized for having joined ISIL and feel that given opportunity, they will become responsible citizens back at home. Most of them are malnourished and so demoralized, having gone through traumatizing experience and having witnessed their colleagues die in the battle field or executed by ISIL soldiers.24 They have appealed to their families to convince the government to allow them back home.
The government is reluctant in allowing them back home because of the fear of the real reason why these people want to come back home after renouncing their country and joining the enemy. A report by the CIA revealed that a significant number of these people are true defectors who have learned the hard way about lies of ISIL and atrocities committed by its soldiers, especially the top commanders.25 They went out of the country expecting a lot, but when they arrived in the Middle East, they were shocked to learn the reality in the region.
They suffered a lot, especially when they had to witness their friends losing their lives in the battlefield. Most of the youthful women who went to the region became sex objects, and they had little they could do because they had to obey orders. They became captive of an organization they believe would liberate the region. They were so disappointed and took the opportunity they had to request for a return back home.
The same report also shows that everyone coming back from the Middle East and North Africa region cannot be trusted. Some of them still have strong allegiance to ISIL and their real reason of coming back to the United States is more sinister than they want to reveal. Byman explains that ISIL realized that it was losing the war in MENA region, especially following the spirited military campaigns that is supported by foreign powers such as the United States and Russia.26 As such, they need a new retaliatory strategy to help in ensuring that the group remains relevant. They want to use some of these foreign fighters to plan and execute terror attacks back in their home country27.
It means that a section of those who are appealing to the government to allow them back home are hardened terrorists who want to bring the war to the United States soil. It may not be easy for the government to monitor their activities and determine if they are spreading the propaganda of the terrorists among the local community if their friends and family members fail to pass the intelligence to the relevant authorities.28
It means that the government must act with caution when determining when and how to bring these people back to the country. At one point in their lives, these people had sworn to attack the United States by joining ISIL. They knew about the attacks that this group had planned and executed against the United States and its allies. Still they went ahead and joined the group and participated in their activities for years.29
They can face the charge of treason, which would mean spending the rest of their lives in prison, given the fact that almost all the states in the country are no longer executing their death row inmates. However, there is the problem of the influence that these people would have in the American prison. Releasing them to the back to the society, which is what they are requesting, poses even a greater threat.
Challenges That These Fighters Pose to the National Security
The biggest challenge that the United States’ government is currently facing is how to address the threat of the returning jihadists from the Middle East. As Cook observes, a section of the community has expressed its reservations, stating that allowing these jihadists back to the country would be a major security blunder.30 They argue that these people lost their rights to American citizenship when they left the country and joined the extremist group. Their argument is strongly backed by information that the CIA and other security organs have gathered about the potential threat that these people pose, including historical facts.31
On the other hand, there are some people, back by a few legal scholars, who argue that the United States government has to bring these jihadists back home, especially those who were born and brought up in the United States. They argue that the government is at liberty of deciding on the right punishment for these people, but first, they have to be brought back home.32 The fact that this issue has attracted the attention of the political class, religious leaders, and human rights groups, knowing how to deal with the problem is currently the biggest challenge. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the government may be forced to bring back these people to the country despite the strong opposition from a section of the society.
Separating Returnees from True Defectors
When planning to airlift Americans who joined ISIL but are now willing to come back home, the security agencies and the justice department must have a clear blueprint on how to deal with them. Article III Section 3 of the United States constitution states, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.
No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”33 Actions of these fighters meet the threshold of treason because they made a deliberate decision to join an organization that had declared war on the United States and even sponsored several attacks through their agents and sympathizers. As such, there seems to be no contention when it comes to the fact that they deserve to be punished. However, the government faces numerous challenges in such endeavors.
It is important to note that some of these people went to the Middle East when they were too young to understand the graveness of their actions. In a report by Mironova, some of these people were girls as young as 13 years who were brainwashed through the social media platforms.34 They had no capacity whatsoever to provide ISIL with proper intelligence that would enable them to execute successful attacks on the country and neither did they have the physical capacity to wage meaningful wars against well-trained American soldiers once they joined the extremists in the Middle East.
Once there, they became sex slaves of the fighters and did very little beyond that. They are now young adults who have learned their mistakes and want to be integrated into the American community as they want nothing to do with the group. Other young men who joined ISIL after listening to the propaganda witnessed how their friends lost their lives in combat or in the hands of the extremists for failing to follow orders. They have suffered both physically and emotionally and want to come home for a fresh start. However, there is another group of these young men and women who are so attached to ISIL that they are still willing to betray the state and act against its interests for the sake of the terror group.
The problem that the government faces is how to separate true defectors from extremists who want to come to the country to plan and execute attacks. Sageman note that at the moment, all of them are speaking the same language.35
They are apologetic and are begging the government to accept them back to the society. They are claiming that they have reformed. ISIL leaders want some of their loyal followers to get back to the United States to help them with planning and executing attacks. As such, these criminal elements are part of the entire team that is seeking to come back to the country. The fact that the government lacks proper intelligence system operating among these terrorists means that it is nearly impossible to know the reformists from mere returnees who are still sympathizing with the ISIL.36
If the decision is made that they should be brought back home, it may force the government to bring back everyone. The nature of punishment may be determined based on the age of these radicalized Americans and their activities in the Middle East. It will be upon the government to monitor their actions very closely once they are in the country to know those who are still loyal to ISIL and the true defectors. That can be done when they are in prison or after being released back to the society.
Determining How to Re-Integrate True Defections into the Society
The intelligence agencies will have the challenge of identifying those who may pose security threat to the society based on their strong ties with ISIL and ensure that they are locked down for the rest of their lives. However, the biggest challenge will be on how to integrate some of these people who are deemed not to be a security threat back to the country. According to Byman the American society is intolerant towards terrorists, especially after the September 11, 2001 attack.37 So many people lost their loved ones while others sustained life-changing injuries. As such, they consider it treason when an American joins such a group that is keen on planning similar attacks. The government has to find ways of addressing two main challenges when addressing this concern.
First, there is a major threat that these returnees face when they are integrated back to the society. According to Cook, history has shown that some Americans often take laws into their own hands when they feel the state is failing to address a major socio-economic or security issue.38 Some radical groups such as the Ku Klux Klan may target these individuals and execute them for having played a role in helping the ISIL.
There will be a constant suspicion of every action that these people may take. As such, it will be necessary for the government to find a way of protecting these people from a possible attack. Secondly, there is a threat that some of these people may change their mind and decide to support ISIL having been with them for years. Some of these women even have children of these terrorists, which may be a reason for them to want to engage with them.
Liang explains that even among the current population who are genuinely reformed and want to get back to the American society, there is the fear that some of the connections such as the intimacy they had and even a child may be a reason to still have sympathy for them.39 Such individuals pose genuine risks to the American society. The government should have means of monitoring their activities and be capable of neutralizing any threat they may pose as soon as it is detected.
The United States face a serious security threat from Islamic terror groups such as ISIL and Al Qaeda. It is unfortunate that some Americans considered it appropriate to join these terror groups, especially the ISIL. They went to the Middle East and fought alongside the terrorists and assisted them in various ways but they have now realized that they were manipulated through the online propaganda of these criminals.
They now want to come back home and get integrated back to the society. However, there are genuine security concerns that the government has to consider. It is legally justified for the government to prosecute these returnees of treason under Article III Section 3 of the United States constitution. In case a decision is made to release them after some time, especially those who joined ISIL at a very tender age, the government should put measures in place to protect them from possible mob attack. Their activities should also be monitored closely to ensure that they do not become supporters or sympathizers of ISIL.
Bogaards, Matthijs. “Kinder, Gentler, Safer? A Re-Examination of the Relationship between Consensus Democracy and Domestic Terrorism.” Journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 11 (2017): 1-11.
Byman, Daniel. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Byman, Daniel. Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Cook, David. Understanding Jihad: Radical Islam and Contemporary Jihad Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.
De, Guttry , Francesca Capone, and Christophe Paulussen. Foreign Fighters under International Law and Beyond. The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, 2016.
Hoffman, Adam, and Marta Furlan. Challenges Posed by Returning Foreign Fighters. Washington: The George Washington University, 2020.
Holmer, Georgia, and Adrian Shtuni. “Returning Foreign Fighters and the Reintegration Imperative.” Special Report 402, no. 1 (2017): 1-16.
Klausen, Jytte, Rosanne Libretti, Benjamin Hung, and Anura Jayasumana. “Radicalization Trajectories: An Evidence-Based Computational Approach to Dynamic Risk Assessment of Homegrown Jihadists.” Journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 3 (2018): 18-31.
Klausen, Jytte, Selene Campion, Nathan Needle, Giang Nguyen, and Rosanne Libret. “Toward a Behavioral Model of Homegrown Radicalization Trajectories.” Journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 39, no. 1 (2016): 18-31.
Liang, Christina. Cyber Jihad: Understanding and Countering Islamic State Propaganda. Geneva: GCSP Policy Paper, 2015.
Malet, David, and Rachel Hayes. Foreign Fighter Returnees: An Indefinite Threat? Washington: George Washington University, 2019.
Malet, David. “Why Foreign Fighters? Historical Perspectives and Solutions.” The Foreign Fighter Project 11, no. 2 (2010): 97-114.
Mironova, Vera. From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists: Human Resources of Non-State Armed Groups. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Pokalova, Elena. Returning Islamist Foreign Fighters: Threats and Challenges to the West. Washington: Palgrave McMillan, 2020.
Sageman, Marc. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
Speckhard, Anne, Ardian Shajkovci, and Ahmet Yayla. “Defected from ISIS or Simply Returned, and for How Long? Challenges for the West in Dealing with Returning Foreign Fighters.” Homeland Security Affairs 14, no. 1 (2018): 1-23.
Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci, and Ahmet Yayla, “Defected from ISIS or Simply Returned, and for How Long? Challenges for the West in Dealing with Returning Foreign Fighters.” Homeland Security Affairs 14, no. 1 (2018): 9.
Georgia Holmer, and Adrian Shtuni, “Returning Foreign Fighters and the Reintegration Imperative.” Special Report 402, no. 1 (2017): 13.
Elena Pokalova, Returning Islamist Foreign Fighters: Threats and Challenges to the West (Washington: Palgrave McMillan, 2020), 12.
Vera Mironova, From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists: Human Resources of Non-State Armed Groups (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 45.
David Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? Historical Perspectives and Solutions.” The Foreign Fighter Project 11, no. 2 (2010): 108.
Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 112.
David Cook, Understanding Jihad: Radical Islam and Contemporary Jihad Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 78.
Christina Liang, Cyber Jihad: Understanding and Countering Islamic State Propaganda (Geneva: GCSP Policy Paper, 2015), 67.
Adam Hoffman and Marta Furlan, Challenges Posed by Returning Foreign Fighters (Washington: The George Washington University, 2020), 78.
David Malet and Rachel Hayes, Foreign Fighter Returnees: An Indefinite Threat (Washington: George Washington University, 2019), 124.
Matthijs Bogaards, “Kinder, Gentler, Safer? A Re-Examination of the Relationship between Consensus Democracy and Domestic Terrorism.” Journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 11 (2017): 10.
Jytte Klausen, Rosanne Libretti, Benjamin Hung, and Anura Jayasumana. “Radicalization Trajectories: An Evidence-Based Computational Approach to Dynamic Risk Assessment of Homegrown Jihadists.” Journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 3 (2018): 28.
Daniel Byman, Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 45.
Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 46.
Guttry De, Francesca Capone and Christophe Paulussen, Foreign Fighters under International Law and Beyond (The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, 2016), 84.
Byman, Al Qaeda, 98.
Jytte Klausen, Selene Campion, Nathan Needle, Giang Nguyen, and Rosanne Libret. “Toward a Behavioral Model of Homegrown Radicalization Trajectories.” Journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 39, no. 1 (2016): 27.
Cook, Understanding Jihad, 22.
Mironova, From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists, 75.
Sageman, Leaderless Jihad, 43.
Cook, Understanding Jihad, 54.
Byman, Road Warriors, 95.
Liang, Cyber Jihad, 85.