Repatriation of foreign fighters and individuals accused of association with designated terrorist groups –  whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere – is a highly contentious issue in international security, and also essential to deescalating conflict. Communities on the frontlines of conflict are confronting  head-on the challenges of integrating returnees and armed group affiliates at a massive scale. But our recent research suggests possible hopeful news: local communities – those most affected by fighting – may be remarkably receptive to the return of former armed group affiliates.

In post-conflict societies, humanitarians and the U.N. have long worked to promote peacebuilding and reconciliation by facilitating ex-combatant re-entry and the social reintegration of individuals affiliated with armed groups. Recently, Kazakhstan made headlines for welcoming hundreds of women and children back from detention camps in Iraq and Syria; many Balkan states have done the same. But many other countries have revoked foreign fighters’ citizenship, refusing entry and due process.

Such wholesale exclusion is not feasible for the tens of thousands of fighters recruited within conflict zones, such as Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. But it seems especially improbable that communities still being victimized by active armed groups would welcome former fighters and associates to live amongst them. Repeated failures in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) campaigns are part of the reason conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan have lasted for decades. These programs have been criticized for being overstretched, under-resourced, unable to balance justice and amnesty, gender-blind, and more. Yet maximizing pathways out of armed organizations is essential to conflict de-escalation – those who fight must return to civilian life for violence to end. Families and communities play a critical role in preventing fighters’ and associates’ return to armed groups. Counterintuitively, new data from Northeast Nigeria’s Boko Haram conflict suggests that community members are more willing to accept returning affiliates than is often assumed.

Researchers from United Nations University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Harvard University recently conducted a representative survey with 3,500 respondents in and around Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Most respondents had been heavily affected by 12 years of violent conflict between government forces and Boko Haram. Yet, the survey revealed remarkably high acceptance rates for armed group affiliates returning to the community.

When community members were presented with a generic question on whether they would accept former Boko Haram affiliates returning to their communities, around 70 percent responded positively. Even without much information about potential returnees, community members voiced widespread acceptance of return. When researchers provide more specific, fictionalized profiles of former affiliates – giving vignettes with a name and age, and indicating that they are repentant – community members’ willingness to accept those returning increases significantly. Support for the return of these fictionalized Boko Haram associates jumped to 85-90 percent of all respondents being receptive to them living in their community.

This trend is also seen in relation to the more specific question of known family members and neighbors returning to communities. The large portion of the population with family or community members who have been abducted or willingly joined Boko Haram, report a hypothetical willingness to accept returning community or family members ranging from 53-56 percent for those who joined willingly, to 78 percent for abductees. Crucially, however, when people have actually had a family member or neighbor return, acceptance rates jump nearly 30 percentage points. According to our representative survey, respondents have welcomed back actual returnees over 80 percent of the time for voluntary recruits and 95 percent of the time for returning abductees.

This broad trend of acceptance may not be evenly felt by returnees themselves, especially if they experience even small amounts of vocal stigma, or subtle forms of social exclusion that can affect wellbeing. For example, advocates have long raised concerns for women and girls returning from Boko Haram. In 2016, UNICEF published a report that documented that many girls and women who had been abducted by Boko Haram faced, upon returning home, “marginalisation, discrimination and rejection by family and community members due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence.” There was particular concern that children born of sexual violence were at an even greater risk of social exclusion, seen as having “bad blood” as a result of their parentage and destined to commit violence in the future. While our research suggests that fictionalized women and girls receive rates of acceptance in the community as high or higher than men and boys, the potential for stigma and social harm should not be dismissed.  Indeed, any opposition to reintegration – even if only from a small number of community members – can impede an individual’s reintegration prospects and affect other community members’ attitudes.

Although these findings provide important insight into reintegration dynamics in Northeast Nigeria, not every frontline community around the world will be equally receptive to reintegrating former community members, and any efforts to translate these results to other areas should be customized for the local context. Still, these findings suggest that even when formal programming and institutional resources are lacking, community resilience and a widespread desire to forgive rather than criminalize repentant fighters may provide a path to peace. The survey also provides clues as to some key variables that could help – or hinder – reintegration efforts in other contexts. To build each community’s receptivity for returning individuals more broadly, these results offer several overarching findings for policymakers and practitioners to support community efforts toward reintegration and reconciliation.

First, the study finds that repentance of returnees may be instrumental in building community acceptance. There was a 15 to 20 percent increase in acceptance levels when specific vignettes referred to “repentant” returnees, as compared to generic questions about accepting male or female Boko Haram affiliates back into the community. This corroborates an earlier study by Mercy Corps that found a statistically significant impact of returnee repentance in community attitudes. This presents practitioners with a conundrum. Many affiliates of armed groups were involved under extreme duress and are victims themselves, particularly children, whom international norms dictate should be treated primarily as victims. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, recently criticized the treatment of young boys in conflict settings as affiliates of armed groups rather than as victims. She argues, “It is time to pay attention to the boy child as a victim of terrorism, and to avoid the reproduction of out-of-date tropes that fail to recognize the boy and the rights that accrue to him.” Treating these affiliates as active participants who must “repent” in order to reintegrate into their communities may effectively deny the recognition of their simultaneous status as victims of violence, and result in further victimization.

However, there is some evidence that communities’ demands for “repentance” can be satisfied with relatively modest displays of remorse: while describing a returnee as repentant significantly increased community acceptance, neither public apologies nor participation in government-run “reorientation” programming by returnees further increased respondents’ willingness to accept them. This suggests that a light touch identification of returnees as repentant may be sufficient to integrate them back into communities. Practitioners and community leaders should find a nuanced way to address returnee repentance that facilitates their acceptance without creating opportunities for further stigmatization.

Second, the findings highlight that community members are more likely to be aware of returnees who had been “good” community members than ex-Boko Haram affiliates who have caused trouble as a result of their return. Practitioners can help to amplify stories of safe and unremarkable reintegration trajectories as a way to help bolster acceptance. Sharing stories that reflect the realities of reintegration will set more realistic expectations amongst recipient communities and the broader public, and may alleviate the pressure on individual returnees to publicly share the details of their experiences. Moreover, because people expressed less fear or anger in response to the survey vignettes than in response to questions about ex-combatants more generally, returnees choosing to share basic information, like their name and age, may mitigate negative emotions. Returnees themselves and their families thus have to balance their need for privacy and anonymity with the value of more open approaches to re-entry.

Third, knowing that fellow community members and community leaders are supportive of reintegration may help affirm welcoming attitudes, according to the study. One straightforward way to capitalize on this finding is to ensure that researchers consistently communicate public opinion findings such as these to respondents, to let them know that their fellow community members and leaders mostly agree that former affiliates of armed groups (in this case Boko Haram) can come home. Ultimately, sharing stories of repentance and acceptance – including opinion polls on attitudes toward reintegration – may help pave the path to reconciliation and peace.

While this study focuses solely on northeast Nigeria, it provides a powerful counterpoint to common headlines and rhetoric we see today, which often suggest that reintegration is “disastrous” and dangerous. In a region beset by multiple overlapping and intertwined crises – armed conflict, climate change, food insecurity, economic malaise – it can be easy to feel discouraged about the prospects for peacebuilding and sustainable development. This new study provides an important dose of hope about the power of community in facilitating reintegration, which can in turn bolster reconciliation and peacebuilding.

The research referenced in this article was undertaken in collaboration with Dr. Rebecca Littman (University of Illinois at Chicago), Kato Van Broeckhoven, and Mohammed Bukar (UNU-CPR).

Image: Supporters of the “Coalition of Northern Groups” (CNG) rally to urge authorities to rescue hundreds of abducted schoolboys, in northwestern state of Katsina, Nigeria on December 17, 2020. (Photo by KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images)