An estimated 5 600 Islamic State fighters from at least 33 countries globally have returned to their communities of origin. In Somalia, by the end of 2017, at least 2 000 former militants from al-Shabaab were reportedly reintegrated into Somali society. In February 2018, a Nigerian court released 475 people suspected of having affiliations with terror group Boko Haram for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Investigations confirmed they had no links to the group.
In Africa, the socio-economic reintegration of returning militants from Islamic State as well as militants fighting locally is difficult but important. Some challenges are similar to those encountered in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of militants in armed conflicts, and there are lessons from these efforts for the reintegration of former terrorists.
In Africa and globally, facilitating the reintegration of former militants and their families is a complex process that usually begins only after rehabilitation. Socio-economic reintegration supports efforts to build economic self-sufficiency. It is a crucial process that helps former terrorists reconstruct and rebuild their lives in a way that is beneficial to themselves and society.
The process of reintegration deals with former fighters’ alleged culpability, and whether or not they should be prosecuted. It also involves peace and reconciliation processes, and initiatives for granting amnesty to former militants. The challenge for many African countries is the lack of effective processes to determine the culpability of returning fighters, and provide the necessary rehabilitative and reconciliatory measures.
The individual motivations and circumstances of those who get involved in extremism is also an issue, and needs to inform reintegration initiatives. But what mechanisms exist to individually assess former terror fighters and determine their motivation for recruitment and their profiles, qualifications, skills and health (physical, psychological and emotional)? This information needs to inform the nature of reintegration programmes. Expecting all former fighters to return to formal education or to start formal employment could, for instance, be unrealistic.
Furthermore, what economic opportunities exist in communities that former militants are being integrated into? Despite the differences between terrorism and armed conflicts, experience from the field of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration after armed conflicts illustrates the need for a thorough understanding of existing economic opportunities in former militants’ communities.
For instance in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other areas where disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration initiatives have been conducted, a lack of opportunities in the post-war economy limited the success of socio-economic reintegration. This is despite the provision of skills training to former civil war combatants.
A related challenge is how reintegration is perceived by community members. How can economic support for former militants be provided in a sustained way without the appearance of rewarding previous terrorist engagement, especially in places where poverty is widespread?
In April, the Somali government provided a former militant with $15 000 cash. The Kenyan government provided motorcycles as part of the benefits for returning al-Shabaab fighters in 2016. How should community perceptions that economic incentives are unfair be addressed?
Furthermore, with the stigma attached to returning fighters and their relatives, communities’ reluctance to welcome former militants need to be addressed. Former Democratic Republic of the Congo child soldiers still suffer the consequences of stigma even from their families, more than a decade after their involvement in hostilities. In Diffa, Niger, communities continue to view former militants as killers, and are reluctant to accept former militants.
The successful socio-economic reintegration of former extremists faces multiple challenges. Providing sustained financial support for disengaged militants and ongoing insecurity in their communities of origin can impede or delay their transition to alternative livelihoods. The complex nature of reintegration, coupled with a limited evidence base from which to learn, means there is no single model for success. It also makes measuring achievements hard.
African govenments and development partners need to assess the socio-economic aspect of reintegration programmes and develop plans that take the local context into account. This should be seen as an indispensable part of efforts to sustainably prevent and counter terrorism in all its forms.
Written by Uyo Yenwong-Fai, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria.