01:48 - Source: CNN
Watch when the 'American Taliban' was found

Editor’s Note: Moustafa Ayad is the Deputy Director for Communications, Education, Networks and Technology at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. He tweets at @MoustafaAyad. Amarnath Amarasingam is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and has co-directed a study of western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo for six years. He tweets at @AmarAmarasingam. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN —  

The message arrived as we were passing through airport security. A US returnee from ISIS-held territory needed help. Reintegrating back into his American community was not going well. His past was doggedly blocking his prospects for the future. And the same drivers that often push people into extremist groups – isolation, trauma and societal marginalization – were weighing on him once again.

Amarnath Amarasingam
Kirk Neff
Amarnath Amarasingam
Moustafa Ayad
Institute for Strategic Dialogue
Moustafa Ayad

We have interviewed dozens of returning foreign fighters and domestic terror suspects for our work and understand their struggle to reintegrate into a society that finds them abhorrent. We also know that rehabilitation and reintegration programs for returning foreign fighters and terror-offenders do not exist beyond experimental pilot initiatives, which are few and far between.

On Thursday, pundits, politicians and the public at large took aim at John Walker Lindh – the government’s first US-born enemy combatant captured on the battlefield in the global war on terror – as he stepped outside of prison for the first time in 17 years.

However, few have argued that there is a need for rehabilitation and reintegration programs for convicted terrorists and returning foreign fighters. The circumstances may be different for returnees and terror-offenders, but both are transitioning from environments where they likely have not been challenged on their ideologies and require assistance reacclimating to a more peaceful society.

In 2001, Lindh, a teenage convert to Islam, traveled to Afghanistan. There, he aided the Taliban, received weapons and explosives training at an al Qaeda camp, and continued to fight alongside the Taliban until his capture in November 2001. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

During his trial, he condemned “terrorism unequivocally” in a written statement. But, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) noted, in an internal report that was leaked last year to Foreign Policy magazine, that “Lindh continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”

Approximately 90 more terror-related offenders, like Lindh, will be released from prison over the next five or six years, according to the NCTC.

They will present new challenges to federal probation, specifically since “no federal agencies, state or local jurisdictions, or nongovernment organizations in the U.S.” have “specialized evaluation and assessment practices or intervention programming for radicalized defendants and offenders,” as the former Chief US Probation Officer for the District of Minnesota Kevin Lowry stipulated in this paper late last year.

These offenders will face a new chapter in their journeys from citizens to terrorists – and back to citizens. Most importantly, they will do it with little to no support.

As we mentioned, there are no formal rehabilitation and reintegration programs for convicted terrorists in the US. What few programs do exist – beyond those for the wider prison population – are experimental at best – and have not been without their controversies.

The effectiveness of these programs is also debated. The Saudi program, for example, has been widely panned by academics and the media for its ineffectiveness and lack of transparency. In 2014, 88 al Qaeda supporters were arrested on terrorism charges in the kingdom, and 59 were graduates of its terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration center. The kingdom touts an 80% percent success rate, and a 20% recidivism rate, but the program lacks independent external evaluation.

The Prevent program, the British government’s countering violent extremism policy, which utilizes early interventions to support young people in moving away from extremism, has been both lauded and criticized by academics and civil rights activists. However, it stands as one of the most robust frameworks for preventing, as well as rehabilitating and reintegrating terror-offenders globally.

Recidivism hangs over this debate like a pall. Roughly 50% of people released from US federal prisons, primarily for drug offenses and fraud, are rearrested. In contrast, to date, none of the people released on terrorism charges in the US have been rearrested for terror-related crimes. These individuals, however, continue to struggle with religious questions, isolation and difficulty finding employment.

The perception also remains that many of these terror-convicts are just ticking time bombs, waiting to go off. Research suggests that these fears are largely unrealized. A recent study of 230 terror-offenders and foreign fighter returnees found that the first five months were a “dark window” when returnees were the “most at risk” at committing a domestic terror attack. Rehabilitation and reintegration programs in the US would be best positioned to work with terror-offenders transitioning out of prison or returning foreign fighters during this dark window.

Unlike Lindh, the returnee who messaged us was one of a handful to actively participate in designing and supporting an experimental program. The program was designed to pair people who are at risk of joining extremist groups with mentors, who would then challenge their notions of supporting such groups. Other former extremists are suited to work with rehabilitation programs on dissuading others from engaging in extremist activity.

He was able to connect to the Against Violence & Extremism Network (AVE), managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (where we both work). AVE is a network of former extremists and survivors of extremist attacks, who challenge polarization and hate in the US and across the globe through interventions, prevention programs and restorative justice programs.

Programs like the experimental project the returnee took part in have the potential to succeed. However, these programs need to be designed with a holistic approach that involves civil society, government agencies and the private sector to support rehabilitative efforts. They also need buy-in and support, such as enhanced information sharing, from multiple government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the FBI and the Federal Probation Service.

And, of course, they need financial resources. The government and the private sector can do more to ensure these programs are funded. The government and the private sector should provide long-term funds to agencies with experimental programs focused on rehabilitation and reintegration of terror-offenders, and returnees, in order to test the effectiveness of these types of programs in the US. Without access to long-term funding, many of these programs cannot generate results, much less sustain their programming.

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    Creating programs to rehabilitate and reintegrate terror offenders may not solve the wider issue of extremism, but it does more for national security in the long run. As Lindh walks out of prison, and many more like him wait in the wind, we need to do more to ensure that we are ready to receive them.