Mental Health Professionals Asked to Help with Terrorism

Returned foreign fighters and their families are in need of treatment.

Posted Jul 23, 2018

Most mental health professionals don’t see themselves as involved in the prevention of terrorism. But as the military fight against ISIS winds down, and the Islamic State is in ruins, some mental health professionals in many different countries now find themselves on the front lines of the struggle against terrorism.

Many of those who went to join the Islamic State are now returning home—voluntarily or involuntarily. A recent New York Times article reported on several countries that have repatriated them, from France to Chechnya. Meanwhile, 5000 family members of ISIS foreign fighters still remain in camps in Syria and Iraq. Eventually, many will likely return to their home countries. The foreign fighters themselves most likely end up imprisoned for some time, while their family members typically return to their families in the community.    

The concern of governments is that if returned foreign fighters are still committed to terrorism, then they could radicalize other prisoners, and upon release could pose a threat to national security. Therefore, one task is to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society—which means to disengage them from involvement in committing, plotting, or supporting terrorist violence. 

The wives and children of the foreign fighters often have experienced the traumas of war and living in the Islamic State, such as witnessing beheadings. Many also face difficult living situations in their home countries, such as family conflicts and financial problems. The fear is that some may still be engaged with the ISIS cause, and others could become engaged later, especially if their lives don’t improve upon return.

The countries with returned foreign fighters can draw lessons from other countries, which have developed programs for the rehabilitation and reintegration of terrorists, including Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia. Mental health professionals play key roles in these programs, both in counseling to help these persons leave terrorism, and in treating any psychiatric conditions or psychosocial problems that they may have. Mental health professionals also work with offenders and their families once they return to the community. They do so as part of multidisciplinary teams, alongside Imams, job coaches, teachers, and others, who together help these persons to restart their lives on a peaceful path.

Putting these kinds of services together is a challenge in upper income countries with a lot of mental health resources. It is even more challenging in low- and middle-income countries which lack adequate mental health resources to address the basic mental health needs.

Consider Kosovo, a small country of 1.8 million persons in South East Europe, which had a reported 316 foreign fighters—the highest per capita rate of any country in Europe. Kosovo has an existing community based mental health system, and mental health professionals in the corrections system. These professionals are skilled at treating mental disorders, but not in dealing with the challenges posed by terrorism. What Kosovo, along with some other countries, is doing is asking mental health professionals to become involved in these public safety efforts, and training them appropriately.

To meet these demands requires resources that the countries themselves do not have enough of.  That is where other governments, NGOs, and outside experts come in. Low income countries like Kosovo or neighboring Balkan countries, depend upon resources and expertise coming from the outside in order to address this urgent national security need. 

This same challenge has now struck here at home. Last week the New York Times reported on Ibraheem Musaibli, of Dearborn, Michigan, who was apprehended attempting to escape Syria. He is being returned to the U.S. along with his wife and children, one of which is a 10-year-old boy who appeared in an ISIS propaganda video. Children like him, who were exposed to violence and ideology associated with the Islamic State, will need expert assessment, placement in community-based therapeutic programs, access to trauma-informed care, and religious counseling.

Simply killing or arresting terrorists, which President Trump claimed is the core of his counterterrorism strategy, will never be enough. The military battle against the Islamic State may be won, but the struggle against ISIS and terrorism must continue in new spaces with new players. As long as foreign fighters and their families survive and return to their home countries, many countries will need mental health professionals to work with them as part of innovative multidisciplinary programs in prisons and communities. Mental health professionals will need specialized training to do this work. However, we don’t want this to come at the cost of their meeting ordinary public mental health demands, especially in countries where mental health resources are already in short supply.