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24 Aug

What Does the Journey of Jordanian Foreign Fighters Returning to Jordan Teach Us about Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Efforts?

A recent study by the West Asia – North Africa (WANA) Institute shows that by focussing on key drivers of radicalisation, we might be overlooking more targeted approaches.

The main focus of CVE efforts is currently on fighting key drivers, such as under-employment, lack of civic agency, and corruption. While these factors provide strong motivation to young radicals, the researchers state that eliminating such deficits requires long-term processes, and claim that more targeted approaches are required.

The study, which was funded by the Australian Embassy in Amman, provides unique insight into the mindset, actions, and behaviours of five fighters from Ma’an and Zarqa who joined Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Al Nusra Front) and afterwards returned to Jordan.

Empowering relatives to counter violent extremism

Close relatives, but also teachers, Imams and civil society organisations, can interrupt an individual’s radicalisation process at an early stage. Empowering them with the tools to detect and respond to early signs, is therefore likely to be more effective than conventional approaches.

The study showed that in some cases relatives interpreted the changes as signs of maturation. Others, who did interpret signs correctly, either did not act or acted non-constructively. One fighter’s parents got him married to divert his attention from the fight in Syria, for example.

Providing counter-narratives

Though studies have shown that fighters are influenced by sensationalist media coverage, little has been done to rival the attractiveness and sophistication of extremist groups’ media networks.

The testimonies of returnees about the oppression they observed, the Muslim-Muslim fight, and the realisation that they had been misled, are powerful narratives that could be used to deter others from joining the fight in Syria, the study shows. It also avoids messaging that might be perceived as attacking Islam or Islamists, a move which may have a reverse impact by polarising population groups.

Preventing economic and social isolation

Security restrictions currently prevent returnees from being employed in the public sector, which leaves them with few options apart from the informal job market, limits their social and economic integration, and contributes to their frustrations. Returnees are also largely confined to family relations, as friends and neighbours fear increased scrutiny from security forces.

Poor reintegration measures leave returnees vulnerable, frustrated, and marginalised, which might increase the likelihood of them searching re-attachment with the extremist group.

Policy blind spot

The interviewed returnees spent significant amounts of money to be smuggled into Syria. One fighter paid USD 563, another USD 422. Given the extreme financial hardship they faced, the transactional nature of their recruitment implies a large amount of agency on their part.

It also means there might be many more who are willing to join violent extremist groups if they had the resources. This is a potential blind spot that policy-makers need to be aware of. Extremist groups may reduce the burdens currently in place or may attempt to use these ideologically inclined individuals in-country. As the political-military situation evolves, this potential should be monitored carefully.

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