Rehabilitating Returning Fighters: Counter Terrorism with Compassion

Exploring Alternatives to Incarceration for Returning Terrorists.

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Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd) served in the Indian Army, Armoured Corps, 65 Armoured Regiment, 27 August 83- 07 April 2007. Operational experience in the Indian Army includes Sri Lanka – OP PAWAN, Nagaland and Manipur – OP HIFAZAT, and Bhalra - Bhaderwah, District Doda Jammu and Kashmir, including setting up of a counter-insurgency school – OP RAKSHAK. He regularly contributes to Defence and Security issues in the Financial Express online, Defence and Strategy, Fauji India Magazine and Salute Magazine. *Views are personal.

In the complex landscape of modern conflicts, a significant challenge for nations is addressing the issue of individuals who have taken up arms against the state or participated in foreign insurgencies. Transforming these individuals from combatants into constructive members of society is a matter of security but also of social justice and long-term stability. The journey from the battleground to the heart of the community is fraught with obstacles, but it offers a path towards lasting peace and reconciliation. This paper explores the multifaceted approach required for the effective rehabilitation of former insurgents, focusing on the balance between legal accountability, psychological and ideological deradicalisation, and the socio-economic reintegration of these individuals. It emphasises the importance of community involvement, addressing the root causes of radicalisation, and the critical role of tailored rehabilitation programs in fostering a successful transition from conflict to community.

Youth joining foreign terrorist outfits is a complex and multifaceted issue, often driven by a combination of personal, social, political, and ideological factors. 

Ideological Belief. Many youths are drawn to extremist ideologies that promise a sense of purpose, belonging, and identity. These ideologies often provide a simplistic worldview, offering clear distinctions between “good” and “evil.”

Social and Peer Influence. Their social networks, including friends, family, or online communities, can influence young people. The desire to belong and be accepted by a group can lead some to adopt the group’s extremist beliefs and behaviours.

Grievances and Perceived Injustices. Personal experiences or perceptions of injustice, discrimination, and oppression (whether real or perceived) can lead to radicalisation. This is especially true if ongoing conflicts or tensions exist in their home countries or regions.

Adventure and Heroism. The allure of adventure or the desire to be seen as a hero can be appealing, especially to younger individuals. Terrorist organisations often promote a romanticised image of life as a fighter, which can be enticing to those seeking excitement or a sense of purpose.

Economic and Social Marginalization. Lack of economic opportunities, poverty, and social marginalisation can make extremist groups appealing, as they often offer financial incentives, employment, or a sense of community and support.

Psychological Factors. Personal vulnerabilities, such as a history of trauma, mental health issues, or a search for identity, can make individuals more susceptible to radicalisation.

Propaganda and Online Recruitment. Extremist groups use social media and online platforms to spread their propaganda and recruit members. They often target vulnerable youths with tailored messages that exploit their grievances and desires.

Political and Religious Factors. Political instability, repressive regimes, or religious motivations can also play a role. Some individuals are motivated by a desire to establish or defend a particular political or religious order.

Efforts to prevent radicalisation and recruitment need to address these various motivations and provide support and alternatives to vulnerable youths.

Precedence of Groups Used in CI Operations

NSCN(K) in India. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) is a Naga nationalist militant group in Northeast India and Myanmar. In some instances, factions of such groups have been known to collaborate with the Indian government to counter other insurgent factions. 

Ikhwanis in Kashmir. The Ikhwanis were former militants in Jammu and Kashmir who switched sides and started supporting the Indian security forces against separatist militants in the 1990s. They played a significant role in counter-insurgency operations but were also controversial due to allegations of human rights abuses.

SULFA in Assam. Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam (SULFA) members are former militants of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an insurgent group in Assam, who surrendered and assisted the Indian government in counter-insurgency efforts. Similar to the Ikhwanis, their role has been both significant and controversial.

Anti-LTTE Tamil Groups in Sri Lanka. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the government used Tamil groups opposed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as part of their counter-insurgency strategy. These groups, often former LTTE factions or other Tamil militant organisations, provided intelligence and participated in military operations against the LTTE.

Using such groups can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, these groups can provide valuable intelligence, local knowledge, and additional manpower. They can also be more effective in certain operations due to their understanding of the local terrain and population. On the other hand, this strategy can lead to human rights abuses, further violence, and long-term instability. These groups may operate with less oversight and discipline than regular military forces, and their motivations can be complex, sometimes driven by personal vendettas or criminal interests.

Furthermore, aligning with such groups can complicate post-conflict reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts. It can deepen divisions within societies and hinder lasting peace and stability.

While using friendly underground groups can be a tactical advantage in counter-insurgency operations, it also comes with significant risks and potential long-term consequences. 

Naga Insurgency 

The historical precedent of enrolling surrendered Naga insurgents into the Border Security Force (BSF) and engaging them in areas like Jessami in Nagaland exemplifies a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) strategy. DDR strategies are often used in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction efforts to encourage combatants to lay down arms and reintegrate into civilian life or formal security structures. In the case of the Naga insurgency, this approach had several implications.

Disarmament and Demobilisation. Encouraging insurgents to surrender their arms and leave their militant organisations is a critical first step in reducing violence and stabilising the region. It helps to break the cycle of conflict and create an environment conducive to peace talks and reconciliation.

Reintegration into Security Forces. Enrolling former insurgents on the BSF serves several purposes. It provides them employment and a stable livelihood, which can be a significant incentive for leaving an insurgent group. Their experience and knowledge of local conditions can also be valuable in security operations.

Building Trust and Local Support. Integrating former insurgents into government security forces can help build trust between the government and local communities, especially in areas where the insurgency had significant support. It can be seen as a gesture of reconciliation and a willingness to include former adversaries in the state apparatus.

Challenges and Risks. This approach also carries risks and challenges. There can be issues of loyalty and discipline, as former insurgents might retain their old allegiances or need help to adapt to the structure and rules of a formal security force. There is also the potential for human rights abuses if these individuals use their new positions to settle old scores or engage in corrupt practices.

Long-term Peace and Stability. The successful reintegration of former insurgents is crucial for long-term peace and stability. It requires not just their enrolment in security forces but also efforts to address the underlying political, social, and economic issues that led to the insurgency in the first place.

Community Involvement. The local community must be involved in reintegration. Community acceptance and support can significantly enhance the chances of successfully reintegrating former combatants.

The integration of surrendered Naga insurgents into the BSF and their deployment in areas like Jessami represents a practical approach to dealing with the aftermath of an insurgency. While it has potential benefits regarding disarmament, security, and reconciliation, it also requires careful implementation and ongoing support to ensure that it contributes to long-term peace and stability in the region.

Punjab Insurgency 

The use of friendly overground workers during the Punjab insurgency in India is an example of a counter-insurgency strategy where local collaborators or informants are used to combat insurgent or terrorist activities. This approach has been observed in various conflicts worldwide, including in Punjab during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the region experienced significant violence and unrest due to separatist movements, primarily the Khalistan movement.

Intelligence Gathering. Friendly overground workers can provide critical intelligence about insurgent activities, including their locations, plans, and identities. This information is invaluable for security forces planning and executing operations against insurgents.

Local Knowledge and Access. These individuals often have deep knowledge of the local area, culture, and social networks. This local insight can be crucial for identifying and targeting insurgents who are otherwise difficult to distinguish from the civilian population.

Psychological Impact. The presence and activities of friendly, overground workers can have a psychological impact on insurgents, creating mistrust and paranoia within their ranks. It can also deter potential sympathisers from joining the insurgent cause.

Human Rights Concerns. Using such collaborators can lead to human rights abuses. There are risks of extrajudicial actions, false accusations, and abuses of power, mainly if these workers operate with limited oversight and accountability.

Long-term Stability and Reconciliation. Relying on local collaborators can complicate post-conflict reconciliation efforts. It can create community divisions and hinder rebuilding trust and social cohesion after the conflict.

Ethical and Legal Considerations. Using civilians in military or paramilitary roles raises ethical and legal questions, including adherence to the laws of war and international human rights standards.

Effectiveness and Risks. While this strategy can be effective in the short term by disrupting insurgent operations, it also carries risks of retaliation and escalation of violence. It can further alienate the local population if not managed carefully.

Overall, while friendly overground workers can play a role in counter-insurgency efforts, governments must balance short-term tactical gains with the long-term goals of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Ensuring accountability, respecting human rights, and engaging in political dialogue are essential components of a comprehensive approach to resolving insurgencies.

Rehabilitation of Indian Origin Foreign Returned Terrorists

The rehabilitation of Indian Origin Foreign Returned Terrorists who had taken up arms against the state and those who have fought against foreign governments involves complex considerations both in terms of security and ethical dimensions. Developing an appropriate policy for such individuals requires a careful balance between ensuring national security, upholding the rule of law, and facilitating rehabilitation and reintegration. 

Assessment of Threat and Intent. A thorough assessment should be made to determine the level of threat these individuals pose. This includes understanding their level of involvement in violent activities, their motivations, and their current stance towards violence and extremism.

Legal Accountability. Individuals who have committed crimes against the state or in foreign conflicts should be held accountable under the law. This ensures justice for their actions and upholds the rule of law, which is crucial for maintaining social order and public trust in the justice system.

Deradicalisation and Rehabilitation Programs. Effective deradicalisation and rehabilitation programs are essential for those who are willing to renounce violence. These programs should address ideological indoctrination, psychological needs, and social reintegration. They often include counselling, education, vocational training, and support for re-entering society.

Monitoring and Reintegration Support. Post-release monitoring can help ensure that individuals do not revert to violent activities. This should be coupled with support for reintegration, including assistance in finding employment, reconnecting with family, and integrating into the community.

Community Engagement. Community involvement is crucial in the reintegration process. Efforts should be made to foster a supportive environment that helps former combatants become productive members of society. This includes addressing stigma and encouraging community acceptance.

Addressing Root Causes. Policies should also address the underlying causes that lead individuals to join insurgent or terrorist groups. This includes tackling poverty, discrimination, political grievances, and lack of educational and economic opportunities.

International Cooperation. Cooperation with international agencies and governments is essential for information sharing, monitoring cross-border movements, and ensuring compliance with international laws and norms in foreign conflicts.

Case-by-Case Approach. Each individual’s case should be evaluated on its own merits, considering their specific circumstances, actions, and potential for rehabilitation.

Transparency and Oversight. The rehabilitation process should be transparent, with adequate oversight to ensure it is conducted fairly and effectively, respecting human rights and legal standards.

Preventive Measures. Alongside rehabilitation, preventive measures are essential to deter individuals from joining insurgent or terrorist groups in the first place. This includes counter-radicalisation initiatives, public awareness campaigns, and providing positive alternatives for youth.

In summary, a comprehensive policy for dealing with individuals who have fought against the state or foreign governments should combine legal accountability, effective rehabilitation, community engagement, and preventive measures. It should be flexible enough to cater to individual cases while ensuring public safety and upholding the principles of justice and human rights.


Whether insurgents have fought against their state or in foreign conflicts, rehabilitation is critical in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Effective rehabilitation strategies require a nuanced approach that balances the imperatives of national security and legal justice with the need for social reintegration and psychological healing. By implementing comprehensive deradicalisation and rehabilitation programs, engaging local communities in the reintegration process, and addressing the underlying causes of radicalisation, nations can pave the way for former combatants to become productive, peaceful members of society. This mitigates the immediate threat these individuals pose and contributes to the broader goal of creating a more stable, harmonious future. The successful transformation of former insurgents into contributing citizens is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of inclusive, compassionate governance. Through these concerted efforts, societies can move beyond the shadows of conflict and towards a brighter, more peaceful horizon.


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