By Hicham Tiflati

Since the start of the conflict in Syria in early 2011, dozens of countries have seen young Muslims enter the conflict zone in unprecedented numbers to fight alongside rebel groups or to settle and live in areas under extremists’ control. With the rise of groups like ISIS, and as the dynamics of the conflict changed on the ground with these groups losing territory, influence, and power, we saw some of these young people return home. Others stayed and shifted allegiances to different groups, and some even plotted attacks in Western countries.

Canada has not been immune to this phenomenon. According to Public Safety Canada, there are over 190 extremists with a connection to Canada, suspected of engaging in terrorism abroad. Approximately 60 of these individuals have returned home. Recently, public debate has been heated about ISIS members and what to do with these men, women, and children who may want to return home.

"We are going to monitor them. We are also there to help them to let go of that terrorist ideology"
— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

A December 2017 Nanos poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Canadians prioritize prosecution for extremists suspected of being involved with jihadi groups overseas over rehabilitation, as opposed to 28 percent who favour rehabilitation and deradicalization.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued that some returnees could turn into “powerful” voices against violent radicalization within Canada.

“We are going to monitor them. We are also there to help them to let go of that terrorist ideology,” Trudeau said.

Understanding the root causes

In order to help these returnees let go of that terrorist ideology, it’s important to establish who they are. For instance, while it is common belief that radicalization is more attractive to men, recent findings prove otherwise.

A study by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism finds that at least 550 Western women traveled to Syria to join ISIS. However, while they are there, the vast majority of these women serve the role of mothers and wives, not fighters. Many of them have had children while in Syria, further complicating the discussion around returnees.

The next step is to tackle what motivated their desire to join in the first place. Some may have been drawn to ISIS’s promise of an Islamic utopia resplendent with justice, wealth and peace, where God’s laws are respected and applied. But other factors are also at play such as racial and religious discrimination, Islamophobia, the role of ideology, and youth identity struggles, which make some young people vulnerable to recruitment. Many policy makers argue that we must better understand these root causes, to help with the deradicalization process.

Prevention and deradicalization programs

In response to these ongoing challenges, many prevention and deradicalization programs were launched. In 2014, the Calgary Police Department created the “Prevention and Education Program” within the “ReDirect program,” which targets youth vulnerable to radicalization. In 2015, Montreal launched its own initiative: the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV). CPRLV serves individuals who are at risk of radicalization leading to violence, and also offers seminars and workshops in schools, colleges, and other institutions.

The largest initiative began in January 2017, when the federal government announced the creation of the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence (CCCEPV). The center does not engage in direct action but, instead, it funds research and supports relevant initiatives related to the cycle of radicalization to violence.

In addition to these official government-funded programs, many community-based programs are reaching out to vulnerable youth. For instance, in Quebec, the Canadian Muslim Forum and Brossard Community Center launched their own prevention initiative in 2016, working mainly with Muslim youth and their families.

Returnee rehabilitation

“Returnees” are considered a danger for many reasons: their military training that prepares them to carry out attacks in their home countries (as happened in Paris and Brussels), or their unwavering commitment to the ideology, and continuous support for ISIS.

There are laws, and a vast security apparatus in Canada that can deal with those who pose a threat. But what next? What about those who can’t be prosecuted or those who served their time in prison and are then released? The radical ideas, for instance, are best dealt with by qualified experts who understand the ideology, know how to engage young people and turn them away from these movements.

There are laws, and a vast security apparatus in Canada that can deal with those who pose a threat.

Yet there is still ambiguity around what rehabilitation looks like; what would it entail to be successful, who should be prioritized, and who should be in charge of rehabilitating youth. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. In order for it to be effective, rehabilitation has to be tailored to the needs of the individual; and it should specifically tackle the individual trauma one may have witnessed while overseas. Any sincere deradicalization or disengagement process should focus on what radicalized the individual in the first place.

It should go without saying that I am not in any way advocating guilty individuals be spared prosecution. Of course, we should never put our safety at risk, but when these individuals are not prosecuted because of the lack of evidence, the question is no longer whether to pursue a hard or soft approach. Rather, the question to ask is if we have the support and rehabilitation services in place to make sure they are on the right path.

The best way to rehabilitate these returnees is through our own humanity and respect for the law.

Hicham Tiflati is a senior researcher with the study, Canadian Foreign Fighters, based at Waterloo University, and a fellow at the German Institute for Radicalization and deradicalization Studies (GIRDS). Tiflati is also a fellow at the Center for the Research on Religion (CREOR) at McGill University, and a Ph.D. (abd) in the Department of Religious Studies at UQÀM). Follow him @htiflati

Tiflati is featured in the documentary The Way Out.