Trauma counselling enables the reintegration of former terrorists

Psychosocial support is needed for victims of extremist violence, former fighters and the communities they return to.

Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have been terrorising communities and radicalising individuals in Nigeria since 2009. Between 2011 and 2013 the group turned its attention to neighbouring Cameroon. From 2014 to 2016 Boko Haram launched 400 attacks on the country, including 50 suicide bombings, killing more than 1 300 civilians.

Now Cameroonian nationals who were members of Boko Haram are returning to their home country due to disillusionment and fear of being killed by military forces. Hostages are also returning home after military operations freed them from the group.

Humanitarian camps that receive victims of terror attacks often provide them with trauma care, but psychosocial support for returning extremists is limited. Research has shown that terror suspects are often detained for months or years without rehabilitation and reintegration.

It has become increasingly important that trauma counselling be provided for both community members who accept rehabilitated extremists back and for those who defect from violent extremist groups. Limited capacity however means that aid workers and psychologists would rather attend to the needs of victims than perpetrators. Counselling for former fighters is an important but neglected part of the overall response to terrorism.

Counselling for former fighters is an important but neglected part of terrorism responses

Another reason this aspect is neglected is that there’s a stigma attached to trauma counselling for affected communities. If an individual or community accepts psychosocial support, it suggests they’ve been ‘tainted’ by Boko Haram. Any ‘tainted’ parties are shunned and treated with hostility by other communities. Former Boko Haram members, regardless of the role they played while part of the group, are often rejected by their families and communities upon their return.

Due to the high number of internally displaced people, victims of terror attacks and returning fighters, the capacity to provide counselling services in the Lake Chad Basin area is limited. In Cameroon, local organisations have begun training community members to provide psychosocial support. Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor recognises what is called ‘post-exit trauma’ and has included psychosocial support as part of its strategy to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Both victims and members of terrorist groups need help to overcome the trauma caused by attacks, says Fidèle Djebba of Association Rayons de Soleil in Cameroon. She told Institute for Security Studies researchers that terrorists who defect or are freed from extremist groups need help to deal with their crimes and the violence they have witnessed. Counselling and rehabilitation are essential if they are to return to a normal life as contributing members of society.

Limited capacity means aid workers and psychologists focus on victims rather than perpetrators

Djebba believes that if a person’s trauma is not adequately addressed, the individual could return to violent activity or be incapacitated by post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims also need support to cope with the return of their attackers, as do former terrorists’ families. She says families and communities who aren’t helped to address their trauma will struggle to take back former perpetrators.

‘While Cameroon is engaged in a process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former extremists, it is important that the victims of violent extremism are adequately prepared for the return of former combatants,’ says Djebba. ‘This requires healing of internal wounds. If nothing is done, we see individuals executing acts of revenge against the returning combatants.’

In one case, 96 men at Gombe base undergoing Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor were too afraid to leave the camp and return to their communities in fear of retribution and revenge attacks.

Psychosocial support should be provided by psychologists, social workers and first responders. But Cameroon’s Ministry of Social Affairs doesn’t have sufficient staff to do this and most of the affected villages don’t have social centres or infrastructure. Psychologists deployed to communities also have time constraints, and can’t attend to everyone, especially in the Far North Region.

If an individual or community accepts counselling, it suggests they’ve been ‘tainted’ by Boko Haram

In an attempt to overcome this lack of infrastructure and qualified personnel, Djebba’s organisation started training community leaders in basic psychosocial support so they can identify and listen to those in need. The training also entails matching victims with appropriate counsellors. All information practitioners receive is kept confidential.

Apart from the benefits for individuals, families and communities directly affected by violent extremism, counselling can help prevent terrorism. But psychosocial support must be just one aspect of a holistic approach that includes comprehensive care of the individual.

‘Healing will promote forgiveness and reconciliation. However, this healing process must be accompanied by strategies for repairing, rebuilding or rehabilitating the victims,’ says Djebba. Psychosocial support should, for example, be accompanied by help with housing, food and medical services.

For communities affected by terrorism, the overwhelming focus is on the immediate need for food, medical help and water – not psychosocial support. Organisations like Association Rayons de Soleil face the dual challenge of raising awareness about why psychosocial support is essential, and then ensuring that this specialised service can be provided to those who need it.

Isel van Zyl, Junior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, Pretoria

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Picture credit: AMISOM Photo/Flickr

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