On 18 March 2015, the International Institute for Peace, Justice, and Human Rights (IIPJHR) organized a side event during the 28th session of the Human Rights Council. The event highlighted the issue of foreign fighters returning home after waging jihad abroad. Specifically, the panel sought to answer the critical question of how states should manage the return of foreign fighters. An internal workshop on the topic was carried out in the morning at the IIPJHR preceding the event.
Dr. Imene Ajala, Project Manager at the IIPJHR, moderated the panel discussion. The panel featured Professor Preben Bertelsen, Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Aarhus, Ms. Géraldine Casutt, Religious Studies PhD candidate at the University of Fribourg, and Mr. Jean-Paul Rouiller, Director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism (GCTAT), as key speakers.
Mr. Bertelsen advocated for a psychological approach when dealing with returning fighters. He emphasized the importance of identifying what these people want out of life and understanding their basic motivations for radicalization. Mr. Bertlesen argued that social, economic, and political exclusion are the greatest threat factors, and that a strong feeling of belongingness often drives people to radicalization. Considering this, he proposed that states facilitate social inclusion and participation of returning fighters through empowerment, education, and strengthening of social networks.
Ms. Casutt focused on the phenomena of Western women supporting the jihad in Syria and Iraq. Ms. Casutt explained that, although women are not currently physical fighters, they are essential in establishing the legitimacy and durability of the state. She warned of misidentifying women solely as victims or passive bystanders, and argues instead that many women feel like active participants in jihad by fulfilling the role of a dutiful counterpart to a male fighter. Ms. Casutt emphasized the necessity of this supporting figure to the jihad, and highlighted the important responsibility of women to raise the next generation of jihadists and recruit other females. Ms. Casutt agreed that individuals who are drawn to jihad demonstrate a sense of belongingness, and therefore that we must consider the social status of women in the West to identify why they feel excluded.
Mr. Jean-Paul Rouiller asserted the serious threat that returning fighters pose to society. Mr. Rouiller exemplified the success of various jihadists who endured incarceration and other obstacles over the course of many years to illustrate the dedication and perseverance foreign fighters have to their cause. He reiterated the impact that returnees have in inspiring and influencing the next generation of jihadists to insist that states take serious precautions against reintegrating them into society. He cautioned against the power of old networks and channels that are successful in transporting fighters to Iraq and Syria today. Mr. Rouiller concluded that states should exercise strength when dealing with returning fighters, and consider long-term incarceration strategies to ensure public security.