“You cannot kill your way out of a terrorist problem”. This was the message from John Kirby, retired US Navy Rear Admiral, in a 2017 CNN interview critiquing US President Donald Trump’s counter-terrorism strategy. Kirby’s comments echo similar statements made by a dozen former CIA directors interviewed for a 2015 documentary: the struggle against terror is not a conventional war. It is a battle for hearts and minds, and cannot be won with military might alone.
During the Debating Security Plus (DS+) online brainstorm (the report of which will be published on 20 September 2018 at Friends of Europe’s annual Policy Security Summit), participants were asked to come up with innovative solutions to the challenge of terrorism. One of the issues discussed was how to counter extremist propaganda (especially online), and how to deradicalise and reintegrate former extremists. After all, if there is no way to leave a terrorist organisation and return to society, then members of extremist groups will be forced to stay even if they have doubts or are disillusioned with the group.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Catherine, who is highly sceptical about this whole deradicalisation and reintegration thing. She argues that, in reality, deradicalisation programmes don’t actually work. Is she right?
To get a reaction we spoke to Daniel Koehler, Director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS). What would he say to Catherine’s scepticism?
One cannot say that [deradicalisation programmes don’t work] so generally. Of course success, however defined, depends on the individual case (client’s personal background, stage of radicalisation, potential crimes and convictions, trauma, threats from the terrorist group, family involvement, friends or maybe even own kids within the group etc.) on the one hand and the quality of the programme on the other. How well is the staff trained, are there emergency protocols, how well is the programme financed etc.? These and numerous external factors (e.g. how strong positive emotional support for the client is or if there are any spoiling events and influences) determine if a deradicalisation programme might work (meaning: if they are successful in bringing a client out of extremism and terrorism for good).
To say that these programmes generally don’t actually work would mean that we also should never attempt trying to help persons to leave violence and terrorism behind even if they would want us to. Using that logic, we would have to abandon almost all social work programmes, where success also depends on a lot of individual and contextual factors.
To get another perspective, we also put the question to David Toube, Director of Policy at Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism organisation.
The practice of deradicalisation is, if not quite in its infancy, at least in adolescence. It is important that goverments and NGOs review their practice and learn from the inevitable process of trial and error.
It is not true that deradicalisation programmes never work. People do change their minds. Certainly, different individuals may be receptive to varying approaches. We should be cautious of embracing a “one size fits all” approach to deradicalisation. However, a well-run programme should be capable of promoting a diverse approach which best fits the needs of the individual.
Certain programmes have proved extremely successful in leading individuals off the path of extremism. Quilliam’s paper ‘In and Out of Extremism’ documents the successful testimonies of 5 right wing and 5 Islamic extremists who tribute their deradicalisation to the work of Quilliam. Both groups acknowledged the impacts of positive counter-speech initiatives, as well as accessing stories of individuals who had faced similar experiences. Experts in theology who are able to open up a positive dialogue were also instrumental in contributing to the journey out of extremism.
As a footnote, there are certainly some who argue that deradicalisation programmes do not work because they do not want them to work. There are critics of deradicalisation programmes whose chief objection is that they do not want those who have fallen into jihadist politics to be dissuaded from their path.
Are there examples of successful deradicalisation programmes anywhere in the world? We had a comment from Sophie, for example, who cites Saudi Arabia’s approach as “very successful”. How would Daniel Koehler respond?
‘Successful’ is a very difficult concept among deradicalisation programmes. There are no generally accepted definitions of what it means for such a programme to be ‘successful’. Is it enough if the clients abandon violence? Or do they also have to abandon extremist beliefs? Do they have to disavow violence for the future or also within their own pasts? What about police and military? Do they have to become 100 percent pacifists or is it acceptable that former extremists and terrorists still support the use of violence in some situations (e.g. self-defense)? How far do clients have to go to prove that they have been successfully ‘deradicalised’ and for how long? What about if a former neo-Nazi becomes a left-wing activist and wants to protest against the extreme right? Is that a case of re-radicalisation?
Practitioners and academics alike do not agree on what it means to be ‘successful’ in deradicalisation and so most societies do not either. Regarding knowing if a programme achieves its own goals, we would need to evaluate them and have access to internal data. The vast majority of programmes has never been scientifically evaluated. Especially the programme in Saudi Arabia [that Sophie referred to] rarely grants access (and if so only on a very limited basis) to researchers to actually find out what they are doing and if this helps the clients in any way. Hence, it is simply impossible to say that the programme has been ‘very successful’, if one is not inclined to take the Saudi government’s response at face value.
David Toube also provided his own feedback on best practices worldwide.
Over the past decade, governments and NGOs have developed a range of contrasting approaches to deradicalisation, some of which at the very least have promise.
A Danish programme that pairs deradicalisation with reintegration opportunities has proved successful in many aspects. The Aarhus model does not punish certain individuals who want to join extremist groups, or returning fighters. Instead, Danish authorities provide them with facilities to finish education, find work, and integrate into the community. NBC News reports the number of people from Aarhus travelling as foreign fighters to be 31 in 2013, falling to just 1 in 2014.
The Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence has implemented a model that seeks to counter all forms of extremism, including the far right. Canada also has a successful host of non-governmental movements to counter extremism in the community, including Muslims Against Terrorism and the Council of Canadian Imams, who run deradicalisation clinics.
Canada and Denmark are liberal democratic countries. It is therefore only natural that the models which they have developed emphasise the standards and expectations of democratic societies, and emphasise community efforts and tolerance.
These western approaches contrast with that promoted in Saudi Arabia. The KSA operates rehabilitation centers for extremists who have been released from prison. The BBC states that officials estimate a success rate of around 85% in these units, and the center claims that people are not released if they have not been deradicalised. This method is arguably appropriate for the particular circumstances in Saudi Arabia. However, we should note that it has been reported that some militants released from this programme have returned to terrorism. Said al-Shihri underwent supposed deradicalisation at a rehabilitation centre, was discharged, and subsequently became deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Finally, Antonio sent us a comment arguing that radicalisation is hardly a new phenomenon. In the past, for example, states were worried about radical left-wing ideologies, including communism. Antonio implies a better alternative to deradicalisation programmes might be to strengthen European and international security cooperation. Is he right?
Of course, radicalisation is not a new phenomenon. [Nor] is leaving violence and extremism behind. People enter and leave terrorist and extremist groups all the time. However, to help them leave and find a new life is a rather new concept. This is not easy; on the contrary, delivering this help is highly complex and requires extensive training, as well as expertise in many fields. Nevertheless, deradicalisation is not an exclusive concept pushing aside security cooperation. In fact, deradicalisation supports or amends security cooperation and makes it more effective and efficient.
It is impossible to arrest or kill your way out of terrorism and extremism. Only if we can stop the flow of new recruits through soft measures (including helping members to leave) will we be able to really reduce the risk of terrorism. In addition, deradicalisation programmes can have very significant security effects: reducing the manpower and technical skills of terrorist groups, creating internal power struggles and gaps within hierarchies, deteriorate narratives of success etc.
On the other side of the coin, deradicalisation programmes do not make any sense if there is no effective law enforcement or cooperation between security agencies. If extremists and terrorists do not have to fear prosecution or any other negative consequence of their action for that matter, the motives to leave that environment drastically dwindle away. Some people still might want to leave for internal reasons (so called push factors like hypocrisy or disillusionment with the group) but many actually decide to leave initially because of burn out or the toll this lifestyle takes.
How would David Toube react to the same argument?
Addressing deradicalisation does not preclude improving international security cooperation. Both have their part to play.
We should start with a definition of extremism. Extremism is any ideology or political movement which seeks, in a militant and often violent way, to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy: equality between persons, democracy and respect for fundamental human rights. Jihadist and Islamist politics is only one of many ideologies which presents a challenge to liberal democracy, and is of comparatively recent vintage.
The battle against extremism, therefore, is essentially an ideological battle. It is a struggle of ideas. Any deradicalisation programme, stripped to its bare bones, constitutes persuading an individual that they are mistaken, and should think again. International security cooperation, by contrast, chiefly addresses the impact of bad ideas, where they motivate individuals to engage in terrorism. Quilliam believes that it is better to tackle those bad ideas, at source.
International security cooperation is invaluable in addressing the consequences of radicalisation, particularly where it transcends borders. Certain forms of radicalisation may be chiefly a domestic issue, where the need for international cooperation is less acute. That said, the internet has facilitated the transmission of ideas, cross border. As a result, domestic jihadist and ethno-nationalist movements have drawn upon both material and ideological support from those in other nations. Terrorists plan atrocities in one country which are executed in another jurisdiction. Transnational problems of this nature demand transnational solutions.
Should terrorists be reintegrated into society? Are deradicalisation programmes really effective? And are there successful examples anywhere in the world? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!