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When Foreign Fighters Come Home: The Story of Six Danish Returnees

A report by Maja Touzari Greenwood takes a look at what happens to returning foreign fighters. Specifically, it focuses on six former foreign fighters on their return to Denmark after having fought with jihadist militias in the Middle East.

Based on an investigation of their struggle to overcome the rejection with which they were met in almost every corner of their social world, the report argues that returning home presented them with an existential crisis. During the crisis of returning, participants actively re-interpret and create meaning not only around their journeys, but also with regard to their standing with their closer and broader relations. In other words, they have to rediscover and redefine their place in the world.

Because their activities were (and are) controversial and necessitated a degree of secrecy, all six participants struggled to align their own understanding of their journeys as foreign fighters with the rejection and negative judgement coming from their surroundings. Consequently, some meanings became isolated and entrenched at the individual level.

The six interview participants remain defiantly attached to those meanings they ascribed to their journeys. In some cases, these meanings were their only claim to a sense of moral dignity. To repent their actions would be to throw the meanings they attach to them as it were into the dustbin and thereby deepen an existential crisis.

This explains why some European prospective returnees have refused to offer public repentance for what they did – even when it may cost them their chance to return. In relation to rehabilitation initiatives, this defiance often represents an obstacle to engaging in programs that presuppose and demand ideological disengagement and repentance prior to joining and benefitting from such a program. It may therefore be fruitful not to make such demands for rehabilitation initiatives.

One observed effect of the entrenchment of meaning, was how some interview participants reacted to social rejection. They did so by a reinterpretation of the spiritual authority located in the embodied experience of jihad. In relation to rehabilitation initiatives, this is worth noting when involving religious authorities into such initiatives. Returnees do not necessarily relate in a dogmatic way to matters of theology and religious authorities, but actively interpret religious creeds in relation to their own situations and select authorities that support those interpretations. As the interview participants placed emphasis on masculine ideals of embodiment and action, a theological discussion with them may miss the target.

Several participants noted how feeling disconnected from their local environments was the most difficult experience upon returning. This points to the sensitivity with which such relations should be drawn into the workings of state programs, as the trust between returnees and their surroundings is crucial for successful reintegration – although it remains fragile.

While away, participants were doused with enormous amounts of adrenaline and praise, two things that one can thrive on. But both experiences – excitement and recognition – were denied them upon return as they felt isolated from the broader society. Not only did they miss the intensity and drama of their wartime experiences, they also missed the profound sense of purpose, meaning, and worthiness that they had felt abroad.

In relation to rehabilitation initiatives, but also with regard to prevention programs, it could be helpful to better understand the potential invigorating effects of these experiences on the individuals. It also explains why the idea of ‘a normal good life’ does not necessarily sound attractive to the returnee nor to the potential jihadist traveler. This may well be the reason why initiatives that focus on the level of ideology struggle to resonate in a way that presents credible and attractive alternatives to ‘the glamor, energy, and sheer badassery’ of jihad as an ideal. Rehabilitation initiatives may need to accept that for some the most disillusioning and traumatizing thing about fighting, may have been giving it up.

Finally, policy questions along the lines of ‘how can we help these people adapt back into society’ miss their target, if these returnees see nothing comforting in European societies. Consequently, it would be helpful to move on from the perspective of radicalization as an event that changes a person, and instead focus on how people choose extremist projects that, however limited and potentially problematic, may pose a ‘solution’ to their frustrations, and offer them a strategy for generating vindication and (self-)esteem.

The Middle Eastern conflicts represented not just a unique opportunity to ‘become’ somebody radically different from the subjectivities available to the participants in the West, but also an easily attainable one. The belief that violence redeems morality may be so appealing simply because it is so achievable. This contrasts with the search for societal recognition and grounding that the participants find unattainable. For this reason, questions around rehabilitation may in fact relate closely to those of prevention. If we do not take seriously the reasons why young men like those interviewed for this study left in the first place, we may wrongly assume they wish to return to that very situation. If their position within society was exactly what they sought to escape by becoming foreign fighters, then rehabilitation promises of readjusting back into it will not sound particularly attractive.

Read the full report at Perspectives on Terrorism

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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