Wednesday, June 24, 2015

De-radicalization programs offer hope in countering terrorism

By John G. Horgan
Feb. 13, 2015

The director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday that the number of men and women joining Islamic State is on the rise. Of the 20,000 foreign fighters, he said, at least 3,400 have come from Western countries, including approximately 150 Americans who have either gone or tried to go to Syria.

Most of those will die fighting someone else's battle. Some will survive, and possibly become more dangerous. But there also will be those who — broken, disillusioned and traumatized by what they have done or seen — will want to come home. What is to be done with them?

I've traveled to Pakistan for the last two years to learn how the country rehabilitates and re-integrates former Taliban fighters. I've witnessed remarkable progress there, especially in the efforts to re-integrate former child militants. From seeing that and other programs in action, I have come to believe that de-radicalization can work. It is not a silver-bullet solution, nor can it ensure 100% success, but there is no doubt that de-radicalization programs can be tremendously effective in countering terrorism.


These programs are diverse, but "de-radicalization" is a useful shorthand because most seek to change how former terrorists think. Do that, the assumption goes, and the risk of reengagement with terrorist activities goes way down.

It might sound like cult deprogramming, but the reality is closer to halfway houses. Most programs are conducted in prisons with Islamist militants who have been apprehended by security forces or surrendered — but their actual crimes vary widely. Some have killed, while others have provided material support, but they are all classified as terrorists. Many of those undergoing rehabilitation in Pakistan are young boys, a few barely 10 years old. The goal is to resocialize them all, preparing them for re-integration into their communities. Programs I've looked at employ a combination of psychological therapies, counseling, religious instruction and activities aimed at promoting civic engagement.


Some of the former terrorists I've interviewed told me they were deeply disillusioned with their groups long before they took steps to leave. Their reluctance to walk away was, in large part, because they saw no way out. In many countries, de-radicalization is a true second chance at life — the only real alternative to a lifetime in prison or a life on the run.


Several officers I met had lifelong friends and colleagues killed by the same people now being rehabilitated. And yet, when I ask those officers how they feel about that, they say, we have no choice, we must try.

The Pakistan programs also illustrate that de-radicalization isn't simply about ideological retraining. Programs must provide opportunities for young boys and adolescents if they are to stay disengaged from terrorism long term. Vocational training leading to a job is a vital factor in preventing recidivism. The programs also build trust between the army and the communities from which the militants were recruited.


No de-radicalization program should offer blanket amnesty, and we should put measures in place to evaluate their effectiveness. But it is time to get creative. The U.S. Department of Justice has begun to recognize this and just recently funded two academic research projects on de-radicalization. There are enormous benefits to be gained. After all, it is only by understanding the motivations and experiences of those who have gone to fight abroad that we can prevent the recruitment of another generation of militants.

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