When Prodigal Jihadis Come Home

Published in the Toronto Star, September 30, 2013

It’s getting to be a familiar theme that Canadians’ global origins and global mobility can intersect frighteningly with currents in Islamist terrorism. Two Canadians were killed in this month’s Al Shabab attack on a Nairobi shopping centre, and a Canadian teenager maimed in the attack is recovering in a Toronto hospital. Early rumours that some of the Kenyan militants were Canadian now appear to be unfounded. However, it is known that some Canadians (perhaps up to 100) have travelled to Syria to join rebel forces fighting against the Assad government – and one of the former “Toronto 18” terrorist plotters has apparently died fighting there.

What happens when some of these prodigal militants return home? Canadian security forces, Muslim communities and indeed all Canadians have reason to be worried about that eventuality. The potential for such returnees to conduct attacks inside Canada, and to recruit others to their cause, is very real.

It is worth expressing public support for the idea that Canadian security authorities could work together with Canada’s Muslim communities to identify potential ex-jihadists who might be valuable allies in the cause of moderation.

That said, it is worth bearing in mind the possibility that some Islamist militants might return home thoroughly disillusioned by the disparity between the religious ideology they embraced and the brutal reality they saw. An article published earlier this year in Foreign Affairs recounts the experience of six Muslim Kenyan men who were recruited into Al Shabab, sent off to fight in Somalia and fled back to Kenya as deserters from the cause. “Many other Kenyans who are still with Al Shabab in Somalia,” the article reports, “are disillusioned with the group.”

Of course, not all Kenyan Al Shabab recruits leaving the Somalian battlefield come back as deserters; some are “bringing with them their guns, grenades and ideas,” likely intent on committing attacks within Kenya. As the disillusioned returnees point out, however, the Kenyan government is losing opportunities by aiming to kill all former Al Shabab fighters rather than taking steps to identify and rehabilitate those who want to renounce violence.

No one could think that would be easy to do. Figuring out who are true deserters from the jihadist cause, and giving them the resources to integrate back into society, would likely take more intelligence and financial resources than the beleaguered Kenyan government has to spare at the moment.

That said, Canada could do well to remember that some Canadians returning home from fighting with Islamist forces abroad might also be ready to lay down arms and renounce the ideology that sent them to fight. If it is possible to identify with confidence who these ex-militants are, they could do more than just reintegrate into their former lives: they could become valuable resources for countering the indoctrination of other Canadian youths.

Such a potential is suggested by a recent brief from the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, which urges the U.S. to support existing efforts by Muslim organizations abroad to counter violent extremism through education and social action. Noting that al Qaeda and other Islamist groups “feed off of ideas that have proliferated in Muslim communities over decades,” the brief points out that “[u]nless such ideas are challenged and discredited, extremist groups will continue to regenerate no matter how many terrorists are killed.”

One means of creating “counter-narratives” about Islam and militant politics is by drawing on the credibility of those who once embraced those ideas and now renounce them. To this end, the brief urges, efforts at countering violent extremism should include “[e]ducating Muslim thought leaders in mosques and on university campuses through workshops and testimonies from former radicals about why Islamist hardliners threaten Muslim communities.”

Such efforts must originate within Muslim communities; they will not succeed if viewed as propaganda by Western governments. But Western governments can help by providing resources to enable Muslim-led counter-extremism activities to succeed. For that reason, Canada’s government, and Canadians, should keep an open mind to the possibility that some fighters returning to this country might now be ex-jihadists ready to support the anti-extremist cause.

Inevitably, security concerns will come first, and the reasons for alarm will likely be much greater than reasons for hope when returning fighters are identified. Most of us will never be in a position to know how many of these cases there are or who they involve. That said, however, it is worth expressing public support for the idea that Canadian security authorities could work together with Canada’s Muslim communities to identify potential ex-jihadists who might be valuable allies in the cause of moderation.

Global flows of ideas and people are not going to stop any time soon; nor are threats of citizenship revocation much use in stemming the circulation of Canadian would-be terrorists out of and back into the country. Bringing to the fore constructive policy ideas for dealing with returning militants could, if only marginally, be a step in the right direction.

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