As the United Nations and member states undertake the sixth review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy this week, one of the many critical questions related to recovering from the effects of violent extremism and terrorism is: what is to be done with offenders when they return to local communities? In Iraq and Syria, for example, an estimated 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) from over 110 countries joined the so-called Islamic State in the years it was active, and now about 5,600 from 33 countries have returned home, with many more to follow and others who will relocate elsewhere. Additionally, groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia have attracted their share of fighters, both locally and regionally.
Governments face the challenge of identifying, detaining, trying, and sentencing these individuals, and the reality is that many will escape prosecution due to insufficient evidence, or will evade detection as they return to communities. Whether they are detained and prosecuted or not, former violent extremist offenders (VEOs) will likely require assistance addressing the factors that led to their involvement in violent extremism to begin with, as well as assistance (re)settling into productive roles in society—processes broadly known as rehabilitation and reintegration (R&R).
Though governments have primary responsibility for the careful development, implementation, and coordination of R&R initiatives, a multidimensional, whole of society approach that involves civil society organizations (CSOs) is also essential. Such a holistic approach is highlighted in Security Council resolution 2396, in which the Council calls on member states to work with local communities, mental health and education practitioners, and relevant CSOs to address the challenges posed by returnees and relocators. This recognition is crucial as the scourge of violent extremism is felt most acutely at the local level, where it is CSOs that often have the best knowledge of, access to, and engagement with the community to confront the challenges of recruitment and radicalization, as well as the aftermath of violence and conflict. In pursuit of reconciliation, peace, and security, CSOs play multiple roles in the R&R process.
For example, one CSO in the northeast of Nigeria provides psycho-social and trauma counseling for both the victims of Boko Haram and former perpetrators. Another CSO in Somalia enhances vocational and trade skills of former combatants and marginalized youth to assist with economic empowerment. In Indonesia, a CSO facilitates the disengagement and eventual reintegration of ex-offenders while preventing the radicalization or recruitment of their families by ensuring that their wives have the business acumen to support their families during their incarceration. Another initiative in Indonesia employs former extremists as chefs and waiters in restaurants—a model that might work well for the many returning chefs after joining the so-called Islamic State.
These and other nascent R&R initiatives by both governments and CSOs have helped shape the development of guiding principles and good practices that outline the considerations for effective R&R programming. For example, R&R programs must be age appropriate and gender-sensitive both within and outside the prison context, accounting for the varying needs of adults versus juveniles, and the differing approaches for men versus women, and boys versus girls.
Following international guidance like the Paris Principles are particularly important, reinforcing that the juvenile should be considered primarily as a victim, not a perpetrator. Policies and programs should also be tailored to the needs of women and girls who willingly or forcibly joined violent extremist groups and may have been elevated in status and privilege that they then lose when returning to strictly patriarchal communities. Furthermore, the needs of those affected by violent extremism, such as victims of attacks, internally displaced persons (IDPs), or vigilante groups formed in response to violent extremist groups, must be addressed.
Equally important, R&R programs should include elements of community engagement to prepare families and community members for the return and (re)integration of VEOs. Perpetrators cannot be expected to fully reintegrate into communities that harbor resentment toward them and obstruct their inclusion in society, nor can communities be expected to embrace the R&R of perpetrators if their own security concerns or basic needs are overlooked.
In other cases, the success of initiatives for VEOs and returning FTFs directly relates to the R&R of their victims and whether their rights as victims of conflict are acknowledged and addressed. Working with victims is especially important in cases where VEOs inflicted destruction and devastation in their home communities and will be reintegrated into those same communities alongside their victims. A restorative justice approach that accounts for the needs and perspectives of victims can facilitate the reconciliation necessary to effectively undertake R&R for VEOs and returning FTFs. Community-based CSOs are crucial in these informal contexts where government involvement would be counterproductive or where communities view authorities with suspicion.
However, as governments and CSOs engage in efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate perpetrators and address the needs of victims, they face a number of constraints. First, many governments lack a conceptual or legal framework on R&R for VEOs and FTFs that delineates procedures, protections, and responsibilities, much less the role of CSOs in the process. Secondly, many CSOs lack the relationships with government officials that would facilitate partnerships or information-sharing to the benefit of R&R programming. Worse yet, CSOs are sometimes viewed with suspicion and left out of the process altogether. In cases where CSOs are asked to take or have taken on the responsibilities of R&R, many of them lack the access to prisons or detention centers necessary to engage with VEOs and determine their R&R needs. Finally, many governments and CSOs have a dearth of personnel with the substantive knowledge or training and insufficient resources to provide aspects of R&R, such as legal aid or psycho-social counseling, on the scale necessary.
As the UN and its member states review Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, they should consider these constraints and opportunities for CSO engagement in R&R programs, especially as the Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT) continues to mobilize and coordinate UN efforts around the full life cycle of terrorism offenders. CSOs must be involved from the beginning and must be given the space, resources, and time to operate. They can be a key partner and can help develop other partnerships—including with the (local) private sector and media, who can assist with employment opportunities and sensitization efforts, respectively—but to be effective as both community representative and government partner, CSOs must maintain a neutral and independent role. Their legitimacy hinges on community perceptions of them and their ability to hold governments accountable. When trusted by all stakeholders, CSO involvement can be the key difference between peace and stability, or recidivism and violence.
Christina Nemr is a Senior Fellow and Rafia Bhulai is a Senior Programs Officer at the Global Center on Cooperative Security, which, together with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism—The Hague, will be releasing an action agenda on the role of civil society in rehabilitation and reintegration in mid-summer 2018.