Reintegrating Ex-Terrorists

Entrepreneurship can help reintegrate former militants—and may be useful for U.S. criminal justice reform, too.

An Islamic State billboard is seen destroyed in the middle of a road in Qaraqosh, Iraq, on Nov. 8, 2016.
An Islamic State billboard is seen destroyed in the middle of a road in Qaraqosh, Iraq, on Nov. 8, 2016. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“You’re not scared of me?” Yusuf asked half-jokingly as he tossed his burnt pizza crust on the plate. “No,” I told him, but I probably should have been. Yusuf was convicted on terrorism charges for his connection to the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people. He spent 10 years in an Indonesian prison, fought with al Qaeda, and personally knew Osama bin Laden. In his crowded restaurant in Surakarta, Indonesia, all that seemed very far away. But to him, perhaps it did not. “I built my business the same way I built my teams in Afghanistan,” he explained. “I fundraise, recruit people, track spending, monitor competition—it’s the same game.”

In the United States, someone like Yusuf might never walk free once in prison due to fears that he might return to militancy. The November 2019 terrorist attack in London, in which two people were stabbed to death by a man released from jail after serving half of his 16-year sentence for terrorism offenses, catapulted fears about recidivism into the public eye. Those concerns were deepened in February after another stabbing in which two people were killed by a man who had recently been released from prison for terrorism offenses.

But in reality, these incidents were outliers. A recent study released by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, which examined nearly 30 years of U.S. data, demonstrates that recidivism rates among the most dangerous category of jihadi offenders, namely people directly involved in violent terrorist plots, are far below traditional criminal recidivism rates.

And for most countries, there is little choice but to release such prisoners anyway. They simply don’t possess the resources to indefinitely incarcerate all their citizens who have been convicted of terrorism charges. The United States is relatively unique in this regard, with fewer terrorism convictions and far more resources. As of last spring, the United States had released only about 250 people who had been convicted of terrorism-related offenses after 9/11. By contrast, the Colombian government was tasked with demobilizing approximately 13,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla militia after forging a peace accord with the group in 2016. Countries with larger numbers of people affiliated with terrorist or militia groups have a pressing need to develop effective reintegration programs for those who are released from prison. Some of their success stories can offer insights for how reentry might work—both for people who served prison time for terrorism crimes, and those in for other types of offenses.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost 1.5 million people were in prison by the end of 2017, ranging from people who committed violent offenses to those who were wrongfully convicted. That means for every 100,000 U.S. residents, approximately 440 people were in prison. An estimated $80 billion is spent each year to run correctional facilities, according to the Brookings Institution. Additionally, 95 percent of all state prisoners will eventually be released at some point. Therefore, policymakers should examine successful reintegration models globally and identify best practices to reduce recidivism rates.

Entrepreneurship can often help people who were formerly incarcerated reintegrate into civil society, the job market, and mainstream economies.

Based on interviews with more than 50 former members of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Indonesia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, as well as 30 people involved in their reintegration—business owners who hired them, victims, NGOs, and government officials—it is clear that entrepreneurship can often help people who were formerly incarcerated reintegrate into civil society, the job market, and mainstream economies.

The success rate for entrepreneurs of any demographic is low. Not every ex-terrorist will be suited for entrepreneurship. In fact, they face additional hurdles like gaining access to start-up capital because of their records. And there are few credible statistics on successful ex-terrorist entrepreneurial ventures due to underreporting, difficulty in measuring informal economies, and access issues in remote areas where many of the ventures are based. Still, for many of those I interviewed between 2014 and 2016, starting their own businesses was integral to their transition back into society.

Yaldan is a former bomb-maker for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Southeast Asia. In 2012, he created a lucrative disposable medical products business. He coordinates with manufacturers in neighboring countries and, after hitting record sales in 2015, became his country’s sole distributor of those products to hospitals. “One of our concerns as I grew the business was that people might stigmatize the company because of my past,” Yaldan said. “It’s very dangerous to my business for people to know. When others returned from prison to their communities, it’s been a huge challenge. The stigma is so great.”

Indeed, even after ex-terrorists have served time, undergone rehabilitation, and are considered by their own governments to be disassociated from a terrorist group, their pasts often make them unattractive candidates to employers. Consequently, some are lured back into their former groups by salaries that can reach thousands of dollars per month. In the types of poverty-stricken areas many terrorist groups typically recruit, those salaries are a means of survival. Entrepreneurship helps circumvent the cycle: Generating revenue depends on individuals’ skills, business acumen, and quality of service—not their pasts.

Former terrorists may also be particularly suited to entrepreneurship because they are familiar with taking risks.

Rafiq used to manufacture weapons in his garage for various al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Poso, Indonesia. Following a stint in prison, he created what he called a “peace radio station,” devoted to broadcasting messages that aim to reduce tensions and foster unity among Christians, Muslims, and members of other religions. He gradually expanded it to include a cafe, karaoke space, billiard area, dance hall, and study clubs. At his multifloor facility, people from different religions, ethnicities, and professional backgrounds interact. He deliberately employs members of different faiths to encourage friendship and unity among them. Next, he intends to launch a vocational skill-building program for women. Although his business initially faced threats from extremists, marginalization from the government, and skepticism from the community, over time he won the public’s trust and support.

The fluctuations, high stakes, and unpredictability of life in a terrorist organization are more analogous to life in a start-up than working a 9-to-5 job. Some ex-terrorists said they have had a hard time doing the same work for the same employer for an extended period of time—they’re simply not used to the monotony of routine. Starting an entrepreneurial venture typically involves the kind of unstructured lifestyle with which they’re familiar.

Entrepreneurship can also moderate extreme beliefs. Yusuf spent five years in prison in connection with the 2002 Bali bombings. Post-release, he launched a successful restaurant after receiving seed funding from the government and entrepreneurship training from a local university. “When my former prison guards first showed up for a meal at my restaurant, I was so conflicted in my heart. I hated them, but it was my job to serve them, to be charming and smile.” Over time, he had to start seeing them as real people. “I started chatting and joking with them: ‘You used to give me food for free, and now you have to pay me for it.’ They loved my jokes. Eventually, having to continually serve and converse with them made our relationship and feelings toward each other warmer.” He has since disavowed his extremist beliefs.

After years spent espousing hostile views toward people who do not share their worldview, starting an entrepreneurial venture requires ex-terrorists to engage with customers from diverse backgrounds. They have to treat each customer with respect because revenue depends on it. Over time, such constant engagement can reduce stereotypes and moderate perceptions on both sides. Research scientists have long held that interaction with opponents and exposure to diversity can reduce tensions, foster empathy, and ultimately change the way people think.

Finally, entrepreneurship can help reintegrate extended communities of ex-terrorists. In 2008, Jalber, a former FARC member, started a sports clothing retail chain, supplying team uniforms to schools and sports clubs in Colombia. He also organizes local sports tournaments to turn at-risk youth away from drugs, crime, and gangs. He built 25 clothing workshops and employs ex-FARC members and their mothers in the production process. He also gave jobs to 40 single mothers in the community. In 2010, the Colombian government recognized Jalber for his peace efforts in helping to reintegrate former FARC members and at-risk individuals into society.

Many ex-terrorist entrepreneurs hire other ex-terrorists struggling to find jobs. In doing so, they help reduce the risk of recidivism among those who might otherwise return to their former groups. Some regular employers are willing to hire ex-terrorists, but there’s far less explaining to do when you’re hired by one of your own.

To be sure, entrepreneurship won’t be the best method to reintegrate all ex-terrorists. Supporting their ventures doesn’t discount the need to monitor their progress or ensure that their business profits aren’t used to fund the same illegal activities that led to their imprisonment. And supporting their reentry doesn’t negate the necessity to respect the pain and trauma of victims and communities who’ve been harmed by crime and violence.

Ultimately, lower recidivism rates increase public safety. And if economic reintegration can work for even ex-terrorists overseas, surely there are lessons that can be applied to people who were formerly incarcerated in the United States. The country should provide people who are released from prison a pathway out of crime, access to quality jobs, and a genuine opportunity to join the legal economy. That pathway must equip them with the tools to become economic assets in the communities to which they return.

According to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics study of 401,288 people released from state prison between 2005 and 2014, national prisoner recidivism rates are strikingly high: 44 percent of people were rearrested within one year, 68 percent within three years, 79 percent within six years, and 83 percent within nine years. The overall numbers contrast sharply with those from U.S.-based organizations like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Defy Ventures, which support the entrepreneurial businesses of people who were formerly incarcerated. Recidivism rates among participants of these programs hover below 10 percent.

No single solution will achieve perfect results. But in our efforts to address reentry challenges in the criminal justice system, entrepreneurship is one promising option that ought to be more deeply explored.

Aviva Feuerstein spent the past decade as a counterterrorism and security specialist with the New York Police Department, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the U.S. Navy SEALs, and the NBA. Her graduate thesis at the Harvard Kennedy School examined methods to reduce ex-combatant recidivism rates through private sector involvement. She also co-chairs the Innocence Project’s Advocates for Justice Committee.

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