Small Wars Journal

Returning Foreign Fighters in the Caribbean: Issues and Approaches

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 1:54pm

Returning Foreign Fighters in the Caribbean: Issues and Approaches

Jaimie Ogilvie

The involvement of Foreign Fighters (FFs) in conflicts around the globe is not a recent phenomenon. From as early as the time of the Crusades, individuals have been leaving their home territories for distant shores to wage war.[i]  However, the detailed study of this field has only emerged in the last 10 – 15 years, with even less written about it in relation to the Caribbean region. In 2014, reports surfaced of Caribbean nationals leaving their home countries in the Caribbean, bound for the Middle East, ostensibly to join in the fight being waged by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[ii] Governments and societies in the Caribbean have been concerned, both by the movement of their nationals to join the fight as FFs, as well as by their return to the region.  Successive Commanders of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), General John Kelly,[iii] and Admiral Kurt Tidd,[iv] have expressed concerns about the potential impact of these returning FFs to the security of the United States, countries of origin of the FFs, and the region as a whole.

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Implementing Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS),[v] estimates that since 2013 approximately 200 Caribbean nationals have traveled to either Iraq or Syria to engage in fighting on behalf of ISIS. These individuals have now been placed on regional and international watch lists and intelligence databases. The discussions which follow will include a definition of the term foreign fighter and a discussion of the perceived threat. It will then examine approaches to the reintegration of violent and displaced persons, including current approaches dealing with FFs, migrants, fighters under Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) models and persons deported for violent offences. Finally, recommendations will be proposed on likely approaches for policy makers in the Caribbean and external stakeholders.

David Malet (2015), in sifting through the various definitions relating to foreign fighters, highlights the 2014 UNSCR 2178 definition of “foreign terrorist fighters” as “individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning of, or participation in terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict.”[vi] A wider definition proffered by Malet defines a Foreign Fighter (FF) as “a non-citizen of a state experiencing civil conflict who arrives from an external state to join an insurgency (e.g., International Brigades, ISIS),”[vii] while acknowledging that there is the potential for these FFs to engage in terrorist activities, synonymous with those activities associated with foreign terrorist fighters as defined above. 

The enhanced individual skill sets of these returning FFs are a cause for concern to states everywhere. Whether acting as a “lone wolf” or as part of a small cell (as prime actors or enablers), and potentially with the support of/to international terror networks, the threat is palpable and of grave concern to stability and security in the region. There are many soft targets in the Caribbean which individuals or small cells can target and attack, as part of a broader global ISIS campaign. The significant contribution which tourism makes to Caribbean economies, makes these countries vulnerable to the devastating impact of a terrorist attack within their borders; whether the targets be domestic, or planned against American interests (cruise ships, commercial aircraft, offshore universities, embassies, diplomats, visitors, business interests). Unlike developed economies which are more resilient in the aftermath of terror attacks, fragile and developing economies stand to suffer major and longer lasting damage.[viii]

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey in July 2016, projected an increase in the flow of FFs from Syria and Iraq to Western nations and their countries of origin, due to gains made by the coalition forces fighting ISIS in those countries.[ix] The gains made in the fight against ISIS in those countries in the second half of 2016, have increased the likelihood of this exodus and the potential destabilization of the security environment in these destination countries. The collective, yet distributed, presence of increased numbers of radicalized fighters in the region, will only increase the sensitivity to this emerging threat which has the potential to cause major disruptions in the region.

Notwithstanding the potential impact of these FFs, the assessment in some quarters of the threat presented by returning FFs, is that they are lacking in numbers, leadership, resources, networks and the capacity to plan terror activities. At best, they are likely to engage in local criminal activities, but are largely focused on survival as they seek to reintegrate.[x] Consequently, the default approach to dealing with these individuals is centered around law enforcement strategies concerned with fighting violent crime.

The Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for the Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders by the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF),[xi] provides a summary of best practices on the reintegration of persons involved in violent extremism. The GCTF, while focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration through incarceration, highlights the critical importance of unambiguous and carefully thought out policy goals and strategy implementation. They also advocate enhanced information sharing, making use of a wide cross section of properly trained and sensitized stake holders, the retraining of FFs in both cognitive and vocational skills, and incentivizing and recognizing transformation in FFs, along with post-release support (including fostering a positive community environment). Finally, the Forum encourages international agencies and countries with the capability to engage in capacity building with those countries in need of, and which request it.[xii]

Denmark has opted to focus on the reintegration of FFs in a holistic way, focusing on individual risk assessments, counselling, de-programing of radicalized individuals, mentoring, helping FFs reconnect with family, friends and society in general, and helping the families of FFs reintegrate with their family members. They have however, been very clear and unambiguous in their communications to FFs about their reintegration prospects. Specifically, it has been made patently clear to the population, that if there is sufficient evidence that link FFs to participating in hostilities, then they will be prosecuted. However, in the absence of any such evidence, the focus is on reintegration. Due to the difficulty in obtaining credible evidence in this regard, reintegration has been the approach used more often than not.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) recommends that reintegration programs (RPs) be sustainable, measurable, complementary, innovative (including multi-sectoral partnerships), and balanced. Additionally, established RPs which have economic, social and psychosocial dimensions, make continued participation in FF lifestyles less attractive and spur voluntary return.[xiii] The challenge with reintegration programs in countries with challenged economies however, is that the provision of limited resources to FFs may be met with opposition by the population, who will demand that these same resources be spent on social services such as health and education for the law abiding citizens.[xiv]

The United Nations has long recognized the value of preventing future conflict through the planned Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of protagonists. Edloe, distills some DDR best practices which find useful application in the FF problem.[xv] At the heart of effective reintegration strategies are the political will and the execution of a mandatory orientation program to facilitate re-integration. These orientation programs ideally should be long term in nature, tailored specifically towards the FFs and their dependents, jointly run by government agencies and NGO partnerships, include effective and strong public information operations, and incorporate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) counselling and marketable skills training and other sustainable socio-economic stabilizers.[xvi]

The scale of RPs and the associated resource requirements to be considered for FFs, is nowhere near what it is in typical post-conflict societies (given the numbers involved), making them less economically burdensome. A failure however, to effectively re-integrate FFs and their dependents, could see them turn to crime (both ad hoc and organized), or worse yet violent extremism within borders, thereby negatively impacting the security and public safety environment for Caribbean nations and the region as a whole. The potential economic cost of FFs engaging in terrorist acts within the region are likely to be significantly more than any investment to reintegrate them. 

Best practice recommendations regarding the re-integration of persons deported for violent crimes include mandatory community supervision, half-way houses and parole officers to monitor and counsel individuals, cultural networking and orientation to help reduce recidivism, and the establishment of offices for the resettlement of deportees. Program support and reintegration subsidies by the deporting countries under a development support theme, are also strongly recommended, as deportation falsely assumes border and immigration integrity. Given proximity, and the relative ease with which persons are able to illegally cross sovereign borders, the US and other countries would stand to benefit from supporting RPs in the Caribbean, thereby reducing their own vulnerability and exposure to criminal/terrorist activity. The same applies to returning FFs.

Caribbean states should pursue a deliberate program of reintegration. This option should have a broad enabling national focus, with specific targeted RPs at the individual FF and community levels, and solicit support by regional and international partners and agencies. At the national level, there must be strong and unwavering political will to address the FF problem. The development and communication of clear policies dealing with FFs, through robust information operations aimed at increasing public awareness of the FF problem, obtaining public support and buy in of FF oriented RPs, while countering radicalization and recruiting messaging, will be critical to the success of any such initiative. The developed RPs must be sustainable, measurable, complementary, innovative and balanced, while incorporating broad multi-sectoral and multi-agency involvement in execution. The provision of resources required for these RPs is a necessary investment in establishing a positive security environment. This includes increased monitoring and surveillance capabilities to track the activities of FFs when they return, whether they be incarcerated, or are being reintegrated at the community level.

Returning FFs must also be held accountable for their actions in keeping with international standards, as part of the reintegration process. Countries should therefore seek to develop and enact national legislation in accordance with UNSCR 2178 to criminalize FF activities, thereby laying the foundation on which accountability processes may proceed. There must also be the concurrent development of effective investigation and prosecutorial processes targeting FFs; both to punish and to serve as a deterrent. Countries should consider implementing specifically tailored programs in prison to transform and de-radicalize FFs (including the incentivization and public recognition of successful transformation), limit recruiting opportunities in prison, and which will work to rehabilitate, re-socialize and reintegrate FFs into a receptive society. Likewise, there should be specific tailored RPs for returning FFs who do not face incarceration. FFs are a vulnerable group that often consist of “poor, illiterate, uneducated, unskilled fighters with few links to jobs and training opportunities.”[xvii] RPs should be long-term oriented and promote community support and acceptance of FFs to facilitate re-integration. Reintegration Programs (RPs) must also address the needs of dependents.

These programs should address the social, economic and psychosocial needs of the FFs, inclusive of counselling, skills training, psychological/cognitive adjustments and job placement. Additionally, support should be provided to families to facilitate the reintegration of the FFs, as well as public education and sensitization initiatives to encourage acceptance and positive reinforcement of acceptable social behavior in FFs by the receiving communities. Finally, countries should seek to establish mandatory orientation facilities and activities for individuals as part of RPs, under the central direction and control of a multi-disciplinary body, who will take ownership of the RPs for newly returned FFs, or recently released rehabilitated individuals from prison.

At the regional and international levels, Caribbean countries should solicit and seek to facilitate and promote increased information and intelligence sharing with regional and international partners, to monitor the movement of FFs. Finally, Caribbean countries should seek external support (both resource and technical) for RPs and capacity building for dealing with FFs.

The return of FFs to the Caribbean from conflict zones, primarily in the Middle East, presents a challenge for the security and stability of the region. The loss of territory and influence of ISIS in the Middle East, is likely to see an increased flow of these persons back to the region in the foreseeable future. For countries like Trinidad and Tobago with a history of its nationals participating in conflicts overseas as FFs, the challenge continues. The current ad hoc approach throughout the region to addressing this potentially destabilizing phenomenon, is neither feasible, acceptable nor suitable because it does not offer a sufficient guarantee in maintaining the security and stability of the region. It is therefore necessary that Caribbean states develop deliberate and planned RPs for FFs.

The risk of these returned FFs, engaging in violent extremist behavior or criminal activity, is a significant threat to the security and stability of the region. The economies and societies of the Caribbean can ill afford the impact of such events and activities. All efforts should therefore be made to engage these FFs and significantly reduce if not totally eliminate the problem. A failure to do so could prove catastrophic for the Caribbean Basin and littoral states including the United States of America.

End Notes

[i] Thousands of Christians from Western Europe answered Pope Urban II’s call to war against the Muslims in the Holy land in 1095; a struggle which lasted almost to the end of the Thirteenth Century when the Crusaders were driven out of Palestine and Syria.

[ii] The Caribbean Council, “ISIS: a moment for Caribbean reflection” (accessed February 06, 2017); Jamaica Observer, “Trinidad and Tobago Confirms Nationals Fighting for ISIS” October 14, 2014,  (accessed February 06, 2017).

[iii] General John F. Kelly, Posture Statement before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee on March 12, 2015, (accessed on September 16, 2016).

[iv] Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Posture Statement before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10, 2016, (accessed on September 16, 2016).

[v] CARICOM was established in 1973 as the flagship for regional integration in the Caribbean, primarily among English speaking states. Today it consists of twenty countries (15 member states and 5 associate member states) encapsulating some sixteen million people and comprised of a diverse array of ethnicities, cultures and colonial antecedents. CARICOM IMPACS was established in 2006 and was designed to specifically administer a collective response to the crime and security priorities of member states. 

[vi] United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 2178” posted September 24, 2014, (accessed October 13, 2016).

[vii] David Malet, “Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Persistence in a Global Context” in Terrorism and Political Violence, posted May 5, 2015, (accessed September 15, 2016).

[viii] Madeline Moreau, “What is the Economic Cost of Terrorism” Global Risk Insights, posted December 13, 2015, (accessed October 14, 2016). The article highlights why stronger economies are more resilient by showing how Bali, Egypt, Mali have all suffered significant economic loss in the aftermath of their terror attacks, when compared to the US, Belgium and France. The increasing frequency of terror attacks against tourism oriented targets in the last 8 years demonstrate the vulnerability of this sector.

[ix] Independent, “FBI director: Crushing Isis in Syria risks releasing ‘terrorists diaspora’ into the West,” July 29, 2016, (accessed November 29, 2016).

[x] As per a senior policy maker in the region.

[xi] Global Counter Terrorism Forum, “Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders” (accessed on November 8, 2016).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] International Organization for Migration, “Reintegration: Effective approaches” (accessed October 19, 2016).

[xiv] The first version of the Colombia/FARC peace deal was rejected in a national referendum, as the population inter alia, disagreed with the provision of economic benefits and resources to the FARC, while no provisions were made for the victims of the FARC’s activities.

[xv] L. Lenisse Edloe, “Best Practices for successful Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration,” in New Voices in Public Policy, Spring 2007,;sequence=1 (accessed November 06, 2016).

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Edloe, Best Practices, 18.


About the Author(s)

Colonel Jaimie Ogilvie is a 28 year veteran of the Jamaica Defence Force who is currently an International Fellow at the United States Army War College. In his last assignment he was the Colonel General Staff. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and should not in any way be interpreted to represent the Jamaica Defence Force or the Government of Jamaica.