Deradicalisation efforts around the world are being tested on an unprecedented scale. The case of Usman Khan, the perpetrator of the recent London Bridge terror attack, has the brought the value and efficacy of deradicalisation efforts into sharp focus. While there is increased awareness and understanding about such programmes, many questions remain. One such question that often comes up in policy circles is whether deradicalisation is even possible.
Based on my personal experience and work in this area for over a decade, my answer is an emphatic: Yes! But we need to recognise how deradicalisation fits into wider rehabilitation programmes for violent extremists. Learning from both the successes and failures of these programmes, policymakers need to be clear about distinctions between desistance, disengagement and deradicalisation, and the importance of tailoring these approaches according to the risk-level posed by participants (current or former violent extremists). Deradicalisation and the effective undermining of extremist ideology will be a major challenge for governments over the next decade.
But first, we should be clear on what we mean by these terms, since they are often disputed or confused. Radicalisation is the process of an individual developing a mindset, consciously or subconsciously, underpinned by an ideology or worldview, that legitimises terrorist actions for himself or herself. Radicalisation often happens in stages, and the same is true of its reverse. We often speak of three stages of the reverse process: desistance, disengagement and deradicalisation.
Desistance is when a person chooses not to carry out any violent or other illegal acts. This may be because of a lack of courage to defy the law, or because of effective deterrence by the criminal justice system. Doubts about the permissibility or viability of violence to achieve ideological aims may also lead someone to abstain from taking action, however sufficing with desistance is problematic as an individual still subscribes to an extremist worldview.
Disengagement is when a person, in addition to desisting, withdraws from group activities and begins to move away from the extremist ideology and worldview, whether due to disillusionment or practical reasons. This might be because they become busy with a career or supporting their family, become disillusioned with the strategy and/or tactics of their terrorist group, or develop serious personal differences with group members. For example, I am familiar with the cases of a number of individuals in the UK who fully adhere to a pro-ISIS worldview, but have desisted or disengaged for these reasons. Some may even disengage if the economic gains they joined for are no longer available, e.g. the “Ten-Dollar Taliban” or, to coin a phrase, the “Sixty-Shilling Shabaab.”
Deradicalisation is when a person fundamentally renounces the extremist ideology or mindset and embraces ‘mainstream values’ or accepts the basic ‘social contract.’ Fundamentally, deradicalisation is not simply the absence of an extremist mindset, but rather the replacement of such thinking with a positive, constructive and alternative worldview. Thus, deradicalisation is clearly a very difficult challenge, but also a highly-prized goal, for states, communities and societies dealing with extremist individuals and groups. It is the ‘gold standard’ that policymakers and practitioners should keep in mind as their ideal. Once this has been achieved, rehabilitation and reintegration efforts can be pursued.
Violent extremists who have desisted but not disengaged or deradicalised will continue to pose a security risk as they retain their extremist aims, while those who have desisted and disengaged but not deradicalised remain a source of concern as they have not entirely disowned the extremist ideology. To varying degrees, individuals in both of these categories remain ideologically committed to an extremist worldview. As they desist and disengage on the path towards deradicalisation, the security risk posed decreases. Rehabilitation and reintegration can only be achieved after deradicalisation because continued adherence to a violent, extremist ideology serves as a barrier to being reintroduced into society as an active citizen.
We need to pay far more attention to understanding, eliminating and replacing the dangerous thinking and mindsets that underpin violent extremism. Deradicalisation is changing the thinking of violent extremists, going further than simply advocating desistance and disengagement. The latter are security-based measures which focus on actions and behaviours, they do not address the ideas or ideologies behind violent extremism.
A possible failure of the desistance and disengagement approach was the London Bridge terrorist attack in December 2019, when a convicted British terrorist with known loyalties to Al-Qaeda and ISIS preachers murdered two of his mentors after spending many years going along with official prison-system rehabilitation programmes. According to sources close to his case, Khan had seemingly desisted and disengaged for years but had clearly not been deradicalised. For similar cases in the future, authorities should consider introducing a mechanism akin to a “deradicalisation parole board” that would require recognised experts to establish whether a terrorist offender has been adequately deradicalised before their release.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of documented cases around the world of people’s journeys through radicalisation, desistance, disengagement and deradicalisation. These cases include my own journey into and out of Salafi-jihadism. The Against Violent Extremism network, founded in 2011, includes over 300 former violent extremists who have collectively, worked to deradicalise many hundreds of others. Many of the most effective deradicalisation practitioners around the world are themselves former extremists, given their knowledge of the extremist mindset and experience of both radicalisation and deradicalisation.
The Serendi programme in Somalia rehabilitates former Al-Shabaab fighters who are deemed to be “low-risk” and have already desisted, disengaged and deradicalised. In Nigeria, Operation Safe Corridor is a deradicalisation programme for former Boko Haram fighters that focuses on religious ideology, structural grievances and post-exit trauma. Reintegration efforts are limited or non-existent, due to the difficulty in convincing communities that might host former terrorists of individuals’ deradicalisation. The work includes helping the men to move from closed- to open-minded worldviews.
The preventative strand of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, which houses the government’s Disengagement and Desistence Programme (DDP), mandates the promotion of “fundamental British values,” as these values are considered the basis of community cohesion, and ultimately a bulwark against extremism.
The UK approach of promoting its fundamental values ties in with the need of making sure that former terrorists embrace mainstream values and the local social contract. This is essential for deradicalisation and rehabilitation, and must not be ignored by governments, as it has been in the past. Its importance is clear from the fact that a striking feature of all violent, extremist ideological movements is that they reject modern, pluralist nation-states that are based on shared values and equal citizenship. Extremist movements offer their followers a pure utopia, whether religious or ethnic. This utopian vision automatically creates in-groups and out-groups with justifications for “othering” followed by the demonisation of, and violence against, “the other.” Such utopias advocated by violent extremists are not only incompatible with modern, pluralist nation-states but also a serious threat to their social contract and to the fabric of society.
Therefore, over the next decade, nation-states must do more to assert their basic values and effectively answer extremist narratives that aim to undermine these. From liberté, égalité, fraternité in France to unity, faith, discipline in Pakistan to fundamental British values in the UK, states should encourage a national conversation about citizens’ shared values. One aim of such national conversations would be to increase citizens’ buy-in, and to show that such shared values are built upon basic religious and ethnic aspirations and are not meant to undermine them; to be inclusive, not exclusive.
To deliver successful deradicalisation programmes for violent extremists that can eventually lead to successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society, policymakers must focus on tackling the underlying extremist ideological beliefs, not just engagements and activities. Deradicalisation programmes must allow for healthy debate to flourish as much as possible, but also be used to champion inclusive, societal values and a shared national identity. Nation-states must promote initiatives to assert their basic, inclusive values and effectively answer extremist narratives that aim to undermine the very fabric of society.
Just as radicalisation pathways are highly complex and individualised, so too are the journeys towards deradicalisation. There is no quick fix or silver bullet. Reservations about the efficacy of deradicalisation programmes will undoubtedly come to the fore following tragic incidents such as the recent London Bridge attack, however the question policymakers should be asking is not if deradicalisation is possible, but rather how do we achieve this.