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Taking the Terror out of the Terrorist: How’s That Working Out?

Muhammad Asad / ANADOLU AGENCY

Experts are finding better ways to fight terrorism than trying to kill every last one

In a recent article we looked at some of the reasons why “radical” Muslims switch from being passively aggrieved to being actively involved in terrorist groups. With new and increasingly savage acts of terrorism reported almost daily, the strategy advanced by some retired generals on FoxNews — the only solution is to kill them all — hardly seems feasible.

The view that “the-only-good-terrorist-is-a dead-terrorist” is wrong on many levels. To begin with, it has been shown that recently deceased terrorists may not be “good,” all things considered. While counterterrorist military actions reduce to zero the threat of violence from the deceased jihadis, according to many terrorism experts, military action also serves as a recruiting tool, a pretext and a trigger for nonviolent radicals to become open to embracing violence as legitimate political action. In other words, every death from counterterrorist action may give birth to an unknown number of jihadis who, up to that point, had been merely disaffected radicals.

It may commonly be thought that radicalization and the willingness to commit acts of terror walk hand-in-hand down a one-way street. As noted by terrorism expert John Horgan, PhD (a U.Mass. Lowell professor and director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies), people often assume that terrorist groups operate like the Mafia — the only way out is “feet first.” But by interviewing captured and former terrorists, he discovered that there are many individual paths out of terrorism and quite varied reasons for disengaging.

A number of terrorist groups have forsworn violence and kept to the bargain. Examples: The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) agreed to end “the Troubles” with a ceasefire and later decommissioning as a condition of the early release of prisoners in the Good Friday Agreement (1998). Colombia’s Reincorporation Program gives amnesty to most members of revolutionary and paramilitary groups, along with shelter, clothing, health care and vocational support after they turn in their weapons. In 2003 and 2007 two terrorist groups in Egypt renounced terrorism in separate deals with the Egyptian government, but it’s far more common for individuals to disengage, both before and after their capture.

There are at least fifteen known government-sponsored “de-radicalization” programs around the world and perhaps twice that many exist, according to Dr. Horgan. The best known programs are operating in Saudi Arabia, Britain, Singapore, Indonesia, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Malaysia, Morocco and Denmark. Some boast of remarkable success in terms of low recidivism rates. Saudi Arabia, for example, has claimed that only 10-20% of their “graduates” return to terrorism. Experts are skeptical about that figure, however, and no independent verification of the program’s approaches and successes is available. The lack of transparency in virtually all state-run programs has doomed efforts by researchers to learn what works and why and whether the approach could be successful in rehabilitating terrorists in another part of the world.

Horgan, who has studied more “de-radicalization” programs and probably interviewed more former terrorists (over 100) than any other psychologist, believes that de-radicalization is a misnomer. He explained that he never encountered a disengaged former terrorist who had ceased to hold radical beliefs, whether religious or political. A better way to describe the goal of these efforts is to reduce the risk of individuals committing terrorist acts in the future.

To understand why a former terrorist might re-engage and then develop strategies to reduce that risk, one first has to learn why he disengaged from taking part in violent acts. Very often the answer is

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