In early June, I was privileged to be among experts from civil society, academia and government agencies invited to Washington DC to discuss and exchange ideas on what is now referred to as ‘soft-power’ approaches on countering violent extremism.
Held under aegis of the George Washington University and the Prevention Project among other agencies, the meeting brought together governments’ and non-government experts and practitioners from Africa, Europe, and North America to explore the challenges and exploit opportunities for effective reintegration of young people who were radicalized and recruited to join extremist groups as fighters.
At the conference, it was acknowledged that as military action by allied countries piles pressure on militant groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia, hundreds of so-called foreign fighters have started abandoning their positions and returning to their countries of origin.
In Kenya, a significant number of radicalized youth who joined terror groups abroad are now streaming back as ‘returnees’ and has already shown interest in being reintegrated into society under the amnesty programme announced by the government of Kenya in early 2015.
However, what emerged from the Washington DC forum is that many governments across the world, including Kenya, still lack effective mechanisms for dealing with returnees. Workshop participants shared experiences from Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya, the European Union, the United States, and Canada, and it was noted that despite efforts to reintegrate returnees, many governments are still determined to use force to deal with such people. Such force, unfortunately, takes the form of extra-judicial killings in an effort to eliminate so-called ‘most wanted terrorists.’
Upon further deliberations, the Washington DC forum acknowledged that there are more than 30,000 individuals’ from the West, US, and Canada who have joined terror organizations and trained as fighters. The question, therefore, is— is it possible to arrest and jail or kill all these ex-combatants when they return to their countries? The answer is certainly ‘No’.
No civilized society can bring itself to arrest and jail or kill such a huge number of its citizens. The only viable option is to find appropriate ways of rehabilitating these people and re-integrating them into society so that they can lead productive lives. A failure to deal with them humanely could just lead such returnees into more violent, and even deadlier, terrorism.
As a country that is in the frontline of the war against terrorism, Kenya has good lessons to learn from the Washington Forum. Given the significant number of returnees sneaking back into the country, the government needs to work with appropriate non-state actors to assist it deal with this challenge— lest the returnees metamorphose into another deadly threat to national security.
In this regard, more attention and resources set aside for fighting terrorism and violent extremism need to be directed towards preventing support for violence on the front-end and stemming recruitment into terrorist and violent extremist groups on the back-end. Secondly, government attention and resources need to be channeled into effective programs for disengaging, de-radicalizing, rehabilitating and reintegrating terrorist offenders as a way of reducing support for violent extremism over the long-term.
The amnesty initiative by the Kenyan government was acknowledged in the Washington Forum; with caution- that the state should establish rehabilitation and reintegration policy and legal framework that reflects the complexity of the problem of violent extremism.
Hence, the Washington Forum resolved that the next frontier in countering violent extremism and terrorism should invest more in programs that seek to disengage an individual from violent behavior while others should aim to de-radicalize an individual by changing the ideas and worldviews they hold that justify and encourage violence. Rehabilitation programs, on the other hand, should aim to reduce recidivism rates and reintegrate former terrorist offenders by preparing them and their receiving community for their return.
The writer is the Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM)