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Recycled Bricks: Exploring Opportunities to reintergrate returning American foreign fighters using existing models


Author: Scott, Edwin Francis

Date of Publication: 2016

Publication: Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, Published Thesis


Purpose of Study

What key questions were addressed? 

  1. What to do with U.S. foreign fighters who depart the conflict area and want to peacefully return to the United States and reintegrate back into society?
  2. The Comprehensive Gang Model and TFF incorporate social and psychological dynamics that are applicable both to their intended audience and, potentially, to returning ex-foreign fighters. Through an exploration of these reintegration programs and the group members whom they are designed to serve, this thesis will explore the following research question: How can the United States develop an ex-foreign fighter reintegration strategy using the existing, analogous models of the Comprehensive Gang Model and TFF? 

Design of Study


This research compared the foreign fighter life-cycle to the life-cycle of street gang members and National Guard members’ post-deployment. Secondary sources regarding Islamic foreign fighters as a larger historical group, from Afghanistan in the 1980s and Iraq and Syria from 2003 to 2015, were included. Data comprised news reports, social media information, and blogs as a source of up-to-date information on foreign fighters. The exact cohorts of foreign fighters was not clear.

(If applicable) Number of participants? N/A

Where? USA

Type of ‘participant’ (e.g. Islamic terrorism, lone actor, ISIS defector, returnee from Syria): 

Foreign fighters, street gang members and National Guard members’ post-deployment – secondary sources only. 


This thesis explores how the United States can develop an ex-foreign fighter reintegration strategy using existing, analogous models. This study identifies two groups that possess similar characteristics to foreign fighters: U.S. street gangs and the U.S. military. Utilizing the conceptual frameworks of street gangs and the military, the conceptual lifecycle of foreign fighters is detailed to ascertain the practicality of developing a foreign-fighter reintegration program utilizing the existing reintegration programs of street gangs and the military.

Using the gang member and National Guard member life-cycles as independent frameworks, the lifecycle of foreign fighters was mapped to assess the similarities and differences between gang members and National Guard members, and foreign fighters.

Using the deconstructed life-cycle parts of joining the group, experiences and activities in support of the group, and disengagement and desistance from the group as independent frameworks, the conceptual life-cycle of foreign fighters was mapped. Once the conceptual life-cycle of foreign fighters was mapped for comparative analysis, the primary reintegration strategy for each control group was analyzed using the framework from each control group respectively, to assess the applicability of using the existing reintegration models for foreign fighters.

Key Findings

The output of this research project is two-fold. The first is a greater understanding of the conceptual life-cycle process(es) of foreign fighters. The second reveals an opportunity to leverage two existing reintegration strategies to reintegrate returning U.S. ex-foreign fighters, when the current strategy of criminalization is not most prudent.

Examining gang members and National Guard members, and foreign fighters, the research reveals that individual and group identity as well as group-sanctioned violence are two primary aspects of all three groups. The research also reveals that U.S. gang members and foreign fighters progress through similar cognitive processes to join their groups, and National Guard members and foreign fighters share similar experiences and activities that experienced by members of both groups during deployments.

Key Recommendations

Based on the noted similarities between U.S. street gang members and National Guard members to Islamic foreign fighters, an ex-foreign fighter reintegration model was constructed utilizing applicable components of the Comprehensive Gang Model and Total Force Fitness strategy. The resulting multidisciplinary reintegration strategy was designed to address the various motivations that caused individuals to initially become foreign fighters as well as the reasons that foreign fighters decide to disengage from their group and reintegrate back into society.

Authors claim that the proposed ex-foreign fighter reintegration strategy addresses ex foreign fighters holistically, utilizing existing and proven components of the Comprehensive Gang Model and Total Force Fitness.

Establishing an ex-foreign fighter reintegration program is risky and complex but necessary. The US has the opportunity to develop proactively and preemptively a reintegration strategy utilizing existing reintegration programs designed for individuals who progress through processes or have similar experiences to foreign fighters without overwhelming any community or agency. While this research project focused on Islamic foreign fighters, the recommended reintegration strategy is applicable to all ex-foreign fighters. It is scalable and duplicable in cities and communities throughout the United States. 

One noted limitation of this research project is the inability to test the findings. Another limitation of this research project is that it was designed for U.S. ex-foreign fighters who return to the United States and sincerely want to reintegrate back into society, regardless of any beliefs and ideas they may still possess. It is not designed as a process to reintegrate returning foreign fighters planning any criminal or terrorist activity in support of or as a member of a foreign fighter group.

Reviewer Notes and Comments

SUBJECT TERMS: foreign fighter, reintegration, street gang, military service member, life-cycle, social identity theory, joining a group, activity in group, desistance, disengagement, national strategy, National Strategy to Combat Terrorist Travel, Islamic State, Final Report of the Task Force on

Combating Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel, PTSD, TBI, PMD, deployment

This is a 113 page thesis report.

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