With a collapse of Da’esh (the Islamic State), the international community would face the issue of militants returning back to their home countries. Some will end up continuing the fight in another part of the world or join other like-minded terrorist groups in the region. But for others returning to western countries, their communities and governments will be facing the challenge of what to do next.
Militants will be leaving a familial environment, where everyone shares the same harsh standards of living, poor nutrition, and a lack of discipline from their leaders. The communities they return to will never understand the conditions and trauma they have experienced. These militants will pose a real danger to their communities and will not be able to return to normalcy.
They will come from large groups who have experienced everything together, to small isolated families who cannot imagine a life under Da’esh. Whether it be a child or a parent returning to what was once a normal family, the difficulties in reintegrating will be enormous.
The Da’esh ideology will not go away. It is not something that can be switched on and off like a light bulb. It will remain in the mind whether at the forefront of day-to-day thoughts or festering away in the back of the mind. For the majority of those returning from Iraq and Syria, they may find a way back to their original country and remain undetected from the authorities. Many who return though would be known to the authorities, arrested, brought to trial, and sentenced as members of a known terrorist organisation. They would likely be imprisoned in local prisons, where they would be mixing with non-terrorist criminals, exacerbating the radicalization issue in prisons.
Sending so many like-minded individuals to prison together may be counterproductive. Small terrorist cells may be formed whilst incarcerated, while the time being served allows for the creation of plots. The terrorists would be introduced to other criminals, which could create the necessary connections and resources for them execute future plots.
Like many soldiers who returned from war, Da’esh militants will face significant hardships financially, medically, and psychologically. Unlike veterans from an institutionalized military however, militants will not have access to the kind of benefits veterans have available to combat issues like homelessness and illness.
Many former Da’esh militants will have difficulty accommodating to their civilian life. They may find themselves feeling alienated, isolated, and rejected by society. Many will return with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as do a number of military veterans who have returned from conflicts. Symptoms such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bad dreams, moments of paralyzing fear, and social problems within family groups can plague former militants. They may experience auditory and visual hallucinations often associated with PTSD. Da’esh is infamous for its abuse and oppression of women, including rape and forced marriage, and former militants will be returning to communities with vastly different gender values. As they struggle with conflicting norms, some may commit sexual crimes in their communities. In their attempts to cope, some may turn to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
Former militants may harbour a deep resentment for the destruction of their so called Caliphate. As they return to their home countries, they may plot acts of revenge.
With many Da’esh members becoming married while fighting, militants will face issues trying to return home with their new brides and children. Without any official documentation of the marriage or births, they will find difficulty in trying to bring their new families into country and accessing government services. While many may be able to find ways to get by through under the table dealings or charities working with former militants to reintegrate, eventually they will find a lack of official documentation to be a major hindrance to a normal life.
So what are the possibilities of returning militants?
The ideology of Da’esh will still appeal to some even after collapse, especially those who were supporters at its peak. They will target the non-believers/infidels and those who helped to bring about its demise. As time goes on, support should fade, but in the immediacy governments need to be cautious of militant activity at home. With the availability of online how-to guides for weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the ease of low-tech attacks such as knifings, former militants can turn to lone-wolf style terrorist attacks to continue to instil fear into the populace.
Some nations may seek reintegration rather than incarceration for some low level militants who return home. Some of those returning could assist the authorities with identifying other militants and introduce them to de-radicalisation programs. This could occur in many ways: some may attend programs and disappear into obscurity; others may attend the program just to be able to continue with their lives and become models for reintegration; but yet others may attend and fail to reintegrate, going off to join another terrorist group or committing a lone-wolf style attack.
Authorities will face a crisis with returning militants, as some may be ready to return home and reintegrate to the society they left behind, but many will face isolation or lingering loyalty to the ideology of Da’esh. These militants could be just an IED away from a devastating attack on their home nations, becoming more difficult to contain or inspiring others to follow suit.
When the so called Caliphate is finished there is going to be a great deal of uncertainty in the future and we will be vulnerable. The prospective future is likely to be a difficult time, with no-one sure of the outcome.