While some will face criminal trial, many of those who traveled to live with ISIS but have disavowed its ideology will have to reintegrate into their communities. “We need to encourage a way to talk about them so that they can form new bonds with their communities,” says Leanne Erdberg. “Language has a very important role to play.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Joining us now is Leanne Erdberg who is the director of countering violent extremism, or CVE, at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Twitter handle is @USIP. Leanne, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.

Leanne Erdberg: Thank you so much for having me this morning.

Tim Farley: Any sense of how many individuals there are who joined ISIS and, by virtue of either their disillusionment with the ideology of ISIS or for whatever reason, are trying to return home? Give us a sense of the scope of this.

Leanne Erdberg: The scope of the challenge is still somewhat unknown. We do know that over 40,000 people from over a hundred different countries traveled abroad to fight or live with ISIS. We have had indications that over 7,000 people have already returned to home countries, and there are countries such as Kazakhstan and Kosovo and countries across the Middle East and North Africa who are returning and repatriating their citizens.

But, the scale of the problem is still somewhat unknown because of the vast amounts of people who have been killed on the battlefield. And so, it's not clear exactly if the numbers who left are still going to be the numbers who come home, as well as many of the people from Syria and Iraq in the conflict is not completely clear how many are going to be returning to their home communities. So, somewhere around the scale of between like 20 and 80,000 are usually the numbers that we're looking at.

Tim Farley: One of the goals, as stated, for next week's event is to discuss the cognitive underpinnings of language and perception in violent radicalization and rehabilitation. Okay – translate us for that. What exactly are you going after?

Leanne Erdberg: So, the best way that I've been able to describe it is we're trying to undo the notion that once a terrorist, always a terrorist and the idea that if people have gone through some sort of justice mechanism, whether that's been in prison or some other type of truth and reconciliation, or if they're individuals who have left this violent group behind them, they have disavowed it or they no longer want to be a part of it, that we encourage a way to talk about them, so that they can form new bonds with their communities, and they're not solely defined by what they've done before them. This is pretty similar to the criminal justice system and how we don't want to talk about formerly incarcerated people just as felons, but that they are able to have a new identity that encourages a pro-social and positive future for them.

Tim Farley: So, let's talk about, obviously this is different countries where we've seen some of these and they are not all these ISIS recruits came from one country, but the cultures they will return to are countries and cultures where forgiveness may or may not be the same as it is in the U.S. Give us a sense of how that will determine the future for these individuals, whether they're incarcerated or punished for life, as opposed to welcomed back into the society.

Leanne Erdberg: I think it's a really tricky problem. You put your finger right on it that it's different in every different country and many different sub-contexts within a country. The truth is the communities may feel anger towards returning persons. After all, ISIS is a genocidal organization that committed horrible atrocities and violence and the like. And so, communities have every right to feel betrayed by those who left their community to join this organization. But, I think that it doesn't mean that there's no way to develop mechanisms for communities to reconcile with people who have returned, that there are ways to provide a sense of justice and closure. And, those of us, like at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who work on peacebuilding know that post-conflict reconciliation is possible even in the most genocidal of cases.

Tim Farley: Yeah, we think about, for example, what happened after the fall of Nazi Germany. Obviously, there were a lot of mainstream, you know a lot of questions about how do you reintegrate people and get a society and recognize a society that was complicit in what took place there and individuals the same way. So, I guess, again, the question of forgiveness and the question of, I guess, efficacy also come to the fore here. How much does language play in that? The way it is framed I guess is an important part of what you're talking about.

Leanne Erdberg: I think that's exactly right. I mean, there is a duality in what we're talking about. On the one side, there is retribution and accountability that needs to be there. Do the crime, pay the time. I think that communities find trust and security in knowing that those who committed crimes have been held accountable, but there also has to be a restoration element if we're talking about, as you said, the efficacy, the long-term ability for communities to be more peaceful and less violent over the long-term. And, that's where I think language has a really important role to play. The idea that we have neurological and psychological ways in which we understand language, where it's processed, who we can see as being a threat or not a threat to us.

Leanne Erdberg: And so, we're bringing to the stage next week social psychologists, as well as cognitive and linguistic experts and those who study reconciliation, along with a person who has disengaged from violent extremism to talk a lot more about both the applied area, what it feels like when you have left violent groups behind you, and how can you reconcile with communities and form new groups and new ways for your future.

Tim Farley: Is part of the discussion, Leanne, also about recidivism? In other words, what got them in the first place, how were they radicalized, and how do you prevent that from happening again? How do you eliminate either confusion or disillusionment with the society in which they live that made that way of life seems so attractive to them in the first place?

Leanne Erdberg: I think that's the hardest part about this. A lot of returning persons are coming back to the very same milieu in which they were initially radicalized to violence, particularly those who went to fight in Iraq and Syria, and are now returning to their home communities. And so, getting the community involved to help generate resilience to the next generation of violent extremism and trying to undo some of the likelihoods of recidivism is incredibly important. I think it's also why we're trying to use the word disengagement. Disengagement means that somebody is leaving a violent extremist group or refraining from violence. The idea is that if you can help them be much more part of new groups, new community advocacy aspects that they will be able to perhaps leave some of their old group identity behind.

Tim Farley: And, Leanne, my understanding is that this event is already signed up. In other words, the event is at capacity, but people will be able to watch this online, usip.org, is that correct?

Leanne Erdberg: That is correct. We have found that even in Washington, D.C. in the middle of August, which tends to be a little bit slow, that this event is oversubscribed. I think people, policy makers and practitioners, are yearning for new solutions to this complex aspect of the challenge, and so we encourage people to tune in online and live-tweet questions at us, and we'll be taking questions online, as well.

Tim Farley: You also have good air conditioning, by the way, which helps in August, so that's always, always nice. Although, everyone does these days. Leanne, thanks for being here at this morning. I really appreciate it.

Leanne Erdberg: Thank you so much for having me and tackling this important topic.

Tim Farley: Tricky questions to be answered perhaps next week. Again, “How to Talk About People Disengaging from Violent Extremism: The Power of Strategic Language” event taking place next Tuesday, a week from today at the United States Institute of Peace. As I said, you can go online and stream this, usip.org, and the Twitter handle for Leanne and her colleagues is @USIP.

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