Since 9/11, increasingly sophisticated counter-extremism initiatives have spawned across the world to prevent and reverse Islamist indoctrination but have delivered limited results.
Faced with copious evidence of radicalisation in prisons, a British government report from August recommended that particularly extremist prisoners be “held in specialist units and given effective deradicalisation interventions”.
Asked whether deradicalisation initiatives are worth pursuing, Sir Ivor Roberts, a member of the European Advisory Board of the Counter Extremism Project, said: “Yes, deradicalisation is a vital element in a larger counter-radicalisation strategy.”
Schemes vary greatly in approach. In Muslim countries, for example, the onus is on replacing violent Islamism with “correct” teachings of Islam, while in Denmark candidates are treated as victims of brainwashing rather than criminals and psychological welfare is prioritised.
All local councils in Britain are employing the voluntary Channel process, launched in 2005 following the London 7/7 bombings. About 4,000 people were referred to Channel last year; 70% of them were Muslims at risk of extremism.
It begins through a cooperative effort between police, local authorities (councils, schools) and community members identifying people at risk of indoctrination and then supplying them with tailored support. Of those deemed potentially dangerous, about one-fifth were deemed to require entering an intensive deradicalisation scheme.
“From 2007 to 2012, the UK claimed that 500 out of the 2,500 people referred to Channel had been successfully deradicalised, with many cases determined not to necessitate an intervention,” Roberts said.
France has taken a tougher approach. Dozens of people have been imprisoned since the Charlie Hebdo and November 13th Paris attacks of 2015, despite several of the attackers learning their creed while in prison. After briefly adopting the Danish model, the initiative was scrapped and replaced with solitary confinement.
In Berlin, Palestinian-born Ahmad Mansour, a psychologist, runs the Hayat programme. It works closely with Salafist families on reintegrating returnee fighters into German society.
Mansour has voiced concern over what he called “scaremongering” by Western politicians over returnees, many of whom he said were disillusioned victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rather than genuine threats.
Despite Hayat’s approach proving successful with neo-Nazi extremists, it is less clear how well it fares against Islamists in a country where Salafism is on the rise, and dangerously little attention is paid to prison radicalisation, a report by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle stated.
Perhaps the best-known deradicalisation initiative is the one begun in 2004 by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, which, similarly to recent Pakistani efforts, has a relatively good reputation. Saudi authorities said in 2007 that their success rate approached 90%, although this has since been questioned.
“Both countries use individually tailored combinations of religious engagement and instruction, psychological-emotional therapies and material incentives, aimed at judiciously reintegrating convicted jihadists back into society,” Roberts said.
“Islamic clerics focus particularly on changing ideas regarding takfir (apostasy), used by jihadists as justification for committing violent acts against anyone deemed kafir (unbeliever),” he said.
Post-release programmes, such as material incentives and employment, appear to be generally effective at changing behaviour. In Saudi Arabia, this involves supplying released candidates with a car, house and, in some cases, a wife.
Despite reports of recidivism in Saudi Arabia being small, several that were made public were high-profile cases. Said al-Shihri passed the kingdom’s programme, yet became the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen and ringleader of the planned 2008 bombing of the US embassy in Sana’a. The programme will not be effective against participants such as Shihri, who view the kingdom’s clerics as West-aligned apostates.
Saudi Arabia is not the only example of a state bragging about its success, with Malaysia recently announcing a 97.5% success rate and a willingness to share its deradicalisation programme with Europe. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said 240 Malaysian detainees had been deradicalised in the past decade.
German academic Peter Neumann, author of Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Treat to the West, said: “You can’t deradicalise everyone.” The programmes, he said, “typically work when people already have doubts, which you try to leverage and facilitate some type of exit”.
Deradicalisation expert Daniel Koehler said programmes need to tailor themselves to individual cases such as the Channel and Saudi processes aim to do, beginning with an assessment of driving factors.
Neumann concurred. Among foreign fighters, he said, “a lot of people are seekers. They are lost, looking for a strong identity… They come from marginalised backgrounds where they don’t see the opportunity to achieve this. The theology then provides them with an anchor, but that comes later. The fundamental drivers are other things: Personal, emotional needs.”
This implies that rehabilitation for an extremist militant fighting against Sunni oppression should differ from the approach towards someone who became a terrorist for lack of employment, for example.
However, despite what some countries say, deradicalisation has not proved successful on its own and any efficient counter-extremist programme must be multifaceted.
“The answer lies in finding the optimal mix of context-specific strategies, including deradicalisation, in partnership with law enforcement and community-based programmes, in order to provide a holistic approach to addressing the dangers of violent radicals,” Roberts said.
Ibraheem Juburi is an Arab Weekly contributor based in London
This article was first published in The Arab Weekly
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