Decades before ISIS existed and the term foreign fighters came to mean Western Muslims traveling to Iraq and Syria, a 15-year-old Italian-American kid from Chicago sat down and wrote a letter. Christian Picciolini had been struggling to fit in after his parents moved to a new neighborhood, and he had been taken under the wing of an older man who spoke about pride, honor, heritage. Now he wanted to show his new friends his commitment to the cause. “I sent an application to the South Africa Afrikaner Resistance Movement because I wanted to go and fight for apartheid,” says Picciolini, now 43, whose arms still bear the tattoos that marked his allegiance to white extremist gangs. He could have been the “original foreign fighter,” he says. “Luckily, they sent me a letter back saying I was too young.”
Now Picciolini, who left the neo-Nazi movement in 1995, is using his experiences to help others who have fallen under the influence of extremism—foreign fighters returning from the ISIS heartlands. “My story is no different from somebody who flew to Syria,” he says. That’s how he came to spend a long night last October pacing the streets of Brussels with a 26-year-old Muslim who traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS. The pair talked for hours, one strand of a pioneering new program to help former fighters return to society and break from their extremist pasts.
Nowhere in Europe is the issue of returning foreign fighters more urgent than in Belgium. Among E.U. countries, it has the highest per capita number of foreign fighters—around 500 are reported to have left, a rate of 41 fighters per million people. Now the men and women are starting to come back. An April 2016 report by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in the Hague estimated that about 30% of the total 4,294 Europeans who had fought with ISIS and other extremist groups had returned. As the international anti-ISIS coalition moves to retake Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, that number is expected to rise sharply. And yet there is no E.U.-wide program to tackle the challenges of reintegrating these men and women. In Belgium, all known returning fighters are questioned by the police, with the judicial authorities then deciding whom to prosecute. Some will serve prison sentences, but in cases where there is not enough evidence of a crime, the people will simply be returned to their home in Belgium, under varying degrees of surveillance. Then it is up to the individual municipalities to decide how to reintegrate them. Right now, most are just leaving it to the security services.
Not Vilvoorde; instead, the municipality just outside Brussels is spearheading a new approach to reintegrating people back into the societies they rejected, providing tailored social assistance in everything from education to marriage counseling. “There are still some colleagues of mine who dream that this is something we can avoid,” says Hans Bonte, the mayor of Vilvoorde. He is determined to tackle the issue in a humane way but concedes that there are many challenges. Do you treat the returning fighters as enemies of the state and potential attackers, or the victims of brainwashing in need of treatment and help? That’s especially pertinent in a country that suffered a terrorist attack on March 22, 2016, when a cell of Belgian Islamists—most of whom had spent time in Syria—detonated bombs at Brussels Airport and on the city’s metro, killing 32 people. “It’s not a popular topic,” says Jessika Soars, who heads the counter-radicalization team in Vilvoorde. “Already within my own family I am having to defend the idea that you are helping terrorists.”
With a hostile reception from their neighbors, and security experts warning that they could pose a threat, the risk is the returnees could become yet more isolated, continuing the cycle of alienation that sent them overseas in the first place. The authorities have a duty to question and engage with them, says Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE, a London-based NGO originally set up to assist people detained during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The question is how do you do that in a way that is sensitive and doesn’t create an environment where that person feels like they are being intimidated or coerced or being intruded on. That’s the hard part because you could end up creating the very thing that you are trying to stop.” The first step, says Qureshi, is trust, and in many places, trust between the Muslim community and the security services has been severely eroded over the years.
This is where people like Picciolini come in—someone from outside the structure of the state who can reach the returnee through shared experience. Richard Barrett, a former British counterterrorism official who is now an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says reformed fighters could be an “enormous asset” in counter-radicalization. “Returnees know an awful lot about the people who may be radicalized, they come from the same society, they know what buttons are pushed by extremist recruiters,” he says. The problem, however, is where to find former fighters from such a recent conflict willing to take on this mentoring role. The man in Vilvoorde is one of eight people from the municipality to return, and the only one who has served his prison sentence and is now under the guidance of the counter-radicalization team here. They have worked with him for a year, but his experiences are still raw, and he declined to be interviewed for this article, concerned for his and his family’s safety.
Picciolini, however, has a wealth of personal experience to share. Like many of the men and women from North America and Europe radicalized by Islamist extremists, the young Picciolini was feeling isolated, marginalized and insecure when he was “recruited,” struggling with his identity as a child of migrants in a predominantly white suburb. His encounter in 1987 with the leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads led to about eight years in the white-supremacist movement, where he climbed the ranks and became a recruiter himself, hanging out at concerts and skate parks looking for disaffected youth—very similar to what ISIS does today, with the added advantage that it can also trawl social media for vulnerable youngsters. “The tactics are nearly identical,” Picciolini says.
He not only has personal experience of the lure of extremist ideals, but also many years working with what he calls “formers” with the NGO he founded, Life After Hate. With backing from the U.S. State Department, he has traveled all over Europe to meet with authorities and discuss the shared strategies in deradicalizing white nationalists and jihadists. When the young man in Vilvoorde heard Picciolini was coming to his city, he requested a meeting, and the pair set off to walk and talk. “Our stories are so similar,” says Picciolini. “He went over and his brother was killed; my brother was also murdered because he was trying to live up to my legacy—it is such a parallel world.”
Bringing someone like Picciolini on board is all part of the tailor-made approach that Soars and her team are pioneering. They devised it by studying other approaches including the Aarhus Model in Denmark, which focuses on finding mentors for returning fighters, and a community-based initiative called Safe Spaces in the U.S. where people can discuss politics and current affairs without fear of being reported to the authorities. Soars deduced that the more successful models responded to the needs of the individual. “It is not like a laundry washer where you can put someone in, and then you press start and the program runs for three months, and then after someone comes out deradicalized.” The program brings together everyone in the community who comes into contact with the returnee—from a job-center employee and the police liaison officer, to the psychologist and social worker—so that if any problem emerges, it can be dealt with quickly. And crucially, the reintegration is led by social actors, not the security services. “If you are not able to come with an integrated approach, these people are left outside in the cold, and that creates new frustrations, new alienation from society, new isolation from individuals, and then you are just turning in circles,” Soars says.
Vilvoorde has so far been able to learn from mistakes of the past and stop the cycle of extremism. Since May 2014, nobody has left the city to join ISIS. Picciolini, however, has new challenges back home in the U.S. His NGO is threatened by President Donald Trump’s recent decision to change the government’s Countering Violent Extremism program, which part-funded Life After Hate, to focus purely on countering Islamic extremism. It’s a move Picciolini believes could empower hatred of a different stripe. “The white supremacists become emboldened when our governments just focus on what they call radicalization in certain communities, and for the Muslim communities, that marginalizes them,” he says. “So I’m afraid that by focusing solely on one ethnic group, we are doing ourselves more damage than good.” It’s not only Europe, in other words, that needs to learn from mistakes of the past.