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


Muhammad Asad / ANADOLU AGENCY

Susan E. Wills - published on 02/05/15

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

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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

Recruits are often promised an exciting, glamorous adventure and a chance to change the world. But what they often find, Dr. Horgan said, is that the groups they join are rife with jealousies and personal competition. Also, the life is boring. You end up in a safe house drinking tea. For those who maintain an existence outside the group, the pressure of living a double life can be exhausting. Some may, as they grow older, find that their own priorities change — for example, they may want to start a family.

Another reason often given for disengaging from a terrorist group is that, while the individual was convinced that acts of terrorism against a state or against certain groups (police or military) was justified, his group committed acts that either violated Islamic law or his own “internal limits.” For example, an Al Qaeda recruit who “arrived to fight in Afghanistan, … was dismayed to find that children and the elderly were being forced into battles.” Another terrorist drew the line at bank robbery. One expected a sense of accomplishment from killing an oppressor for the first time, but the oppressor didn’t die with the first bullet. He screamed for his life to be spared while crawling across the floor and took seven or eight bullets to silence. The fledgling terrorist was horrified.

An adviser to Indonesia’s terrorism squad who has been instrumental in the disengagement of dozens of terrorists from the militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiah, was once a member of that group (and its predecessor) for 18 years, achieving a high rank before he wa arrested. According to TIME —

On Christmas Eve 2000, a wave of Jemaah Islamiah church bombings killed 19 in Indonesia. Nasir heard about it on the news, and he was distraught. “It was against the teachings of the Prophet, which bar Muslims from destroying places of worship.” Then in 2002, a massive bombing rocked a Bali nightclub, killing 202. Nasir had trained two of the men involved. “I felt really troubled,” he says.

His concerns were ignored. After his arrest, he was ready to disengage completely, and he assists counterterrorism efforts by speaking publicly against Jemaah Islamiah and by visiting imprisoned members of the group to speed up their process of disillusionment and disengagement. 

Saudi Arabia’s Retention, Rehabilitation and Aftercare program is possibly the first of its kind (founded in 2003) and has served as a model for other countries. The program is multifaceted. One office "is responsible for family social and logistical care while participants are detained." Another office coordinates a counseling (reintegration) program that has four components orchestrated by different subcommittees: religious, psychological and social, security and media. Moderate scholars and imams initially listen to the participants, who are treated as victims, and then explain in respectful dialogue how the participants’ interpretation of Islamic law was incorrect. A six-week workshop is also offered on topics related to jihad, followed by an exam and psychological evaluaion. Participants who pass are relocated to a more relaxed facility where they continue to receive psychological and social support, they are helped to find a job, transportation, a place to live and given funds to begin their new life. Participants are required to renounce terrorism as part of their rehabiitation.

The British model is an excellent example of what not to do, according to Natasha Lennard. David Cameron announced last September that any British citizens on the UK’s terror watch list would be required to attend a de-radicalization program and could have their passports seized at the border. He also suggested that they’d have to abandon Islamist values in favor of adopting unspecified "British values." Neither of these measures is likely to motivate former terrorists to embrace a culture they rightly find decadent and keeping their passports just confirms their desire to be a citizen of the caliphate.

To summarize: Successful disengagement is possible by exploiting former terrorist members’ disillusionment with the narrative that got them involved. It helps enormously to address them with respect, and to provide them with the tools needed to be productive members of society — financial assistance, vocational training, and empowering them to be leaders in their communities. Certainly, it’s not the entire solution to terrorism and much research remains to be done to validate claims of success and identify approaches that are most efficacious, but it can prove to be a very successful tool in counterterrorism efforts.

Susan Willsis a senior writer for Aleteia’s English language edition.

Islamist MilitantsTerrorism
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