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Are de-radicalisation programmes the future?

Forensic psychologist John Horgan argues that we are "genuinely unprepared" for the Islamic State. The author of "The Psychology of Terrorism", who has just returned to the US from Pakistan where he conducted research on children and radicalisation, believes that ISIS is "one step ahead".

Speaking to me during a detailed Skype interview, he suggests that we have a "multitude of challenges" ahead of us. After years of research on terrorist behaviour he knows what he is talking about. According to him there is a combination of factors that signify a radical mind but the social and psychological processes leading to the use of violence and terrorism remain more or less the same. "Most people who get involved in terrorism say that they don't believe in conventional forms of protests," explains Hogan. "Their views are that nothing else works and that this is actually something that is required, that is necessary. It is the only language that 'the enemy' will understand."

Despite that, the jihadi profile is complex; there are push and pull factors, he says. There are the big issues and the smaller, more individual ones. The bigger picture tends to include Western foreign policy in the Middle East or national injustices; for example, conceptions about the West's inaction in Syria. The so-called pull factors on the other hand are individual, such as expectations, a feeling of purpose and the thrill of adventure. Religion is often considered an important factor but, according to Horgan, it shouldn't be overestimated. "Social ties tend to be far more powerful than religious affiliation."

As ISIS has gained ground during recent months, the US and a broad coalition of allies have carried out airstrikes on Iraq since last August, and Syria since September. Despite questions regarding the campaign's efficiency, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement last week that the strikes are working. According to Horgan, though, the hard approach to this phenomenon can only be one aspect of the response. "I know that there are a lot of policy makers who view de-radicalisation and re-integration as going soft on terrorism," he says, "but we will not be able to kill ourselves out of this."

Preventative measures such as education, increasing the amount of information available about the early signs of radicalism and stricter border controls are all measures discussed in countries with a large number of foreign fighters. Even though there are a lot of initiatives trying to prevent people from becoming radicalised that can certainly be efficient, on a larger scale it is already too late; Horton is convinced that "we have really, really lost this battle".

ISIS has enlisted members easily, not only through aggressive, slick, propaganda campaigns, using social media, videos and magazines; Twitter, Facebook and Skype have also been utilised widely to communicate with potential recruits. While it is easy to overestimate the capacities of ISIS, he argues, the movement continues to surprise us. "They are ahead of us, especially in terms of messaging and the counter-narrative game."

The focus now should be on how to deal with the returnees. A record high of somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 foreign fighters are believed to have joined combat groups in Syria and Iraq, according to recent estimates by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. That is more than any other conflict since 1945. Almost 4,000 of them are from Western Europe. The growing concern is what should be done when they return. Sooner or later these fighters will become disillusioned, explains Horgan, and then, if they can, they will want to return to their home countries. Left up to him, he says, de-radicalisation and re-integration would be explored more deeply.

Are de-radicalisation programmes the future?

John Horgan is conducting a lot of research on de-radicalisation. At the same time as being sceptical about de-radicalisation programmes, he is one of their biggest supporters. "I don't think we have a choice today; we can't keep people locked up forever, so what do you do with them?" Answering his own question, he says that for some the answer lies within such programmes.

There are at least 15 de-radicalisation programmes that are known publicly, but Horgan suspects there to be as many as 45. The theory behind these programmes across the world is that individuals can be dissuaded from fundamentalism by changing their beliefs. However, Horgan says that what they all have in common is the unified goal of reducing the risk of re-engagement in terrorism. Not all individuals need to have their beliefs "re-oriented" in order to reduce that risk.

Furthermore, in his opinion, the claim that radicalisation creates terrorists is maybe the greatest myth in terrorism research. "I think a far more realistic objective is to think about reintegration, which may or may not require de-radicalisation," he argues. "Each individual will require different measures; it will vary from person to person. Any terrorist risk assessment will have to factor in the person's initial motivation for going out there in the first place."

Recommendations for European countries

The forensic psychologist thinks that re-integration is key to the process. "Some European countries, Denmark in particular, are doing some really cool initiatives." The Scandinavian country has, in relation to its population, the largest number of jihadists in Europe but has, unlike some of its European counterparts, adopted a re-integrationist approach, providing returnees with jobs, a roof over their heads and psychiatric support.

Denmark's second largest city, Aarhus, is home to one of these somewhat controversial programmes, which aims to rehabilitate jihadis. The returning fighters are entitled to a job, a house, an education and psychological treatment. "It is not illegal according to Danish law to go to Syria," explained Aarhus Police Commissioner Jorgen Ilum to CNN, "but we could try to persuade the young people not to go." Before being accepted to the programme the returnees are screened by the police and any crimes committed are judged by a court in accordance with Danish law.

However, the result of prevention policies and counter-extremism measures are hard to measure. "It works well for small scale and local strategies," notes Hogan, but he remains uncertain about the effect on a national level. "I think we will have to consider different measures and be flexible in changing those options as we go along because the phenomenon is changing on a continuous basis."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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