From de-radicalisation to re-radicalisation

Luc Opdebeeck is a man with boundless energy.  He is the leader and artistic director of Formaat, a participatory theatre group in Rotterdam, an initiative I have had the honour of working alongside a bit over the past few months.  I attended a typical ‘evening’ last night and witnessed the important and groundbreaking work Formaat is doing in communities in the Netherlands’ second largest city.

While driving through Rotterdam with Luc, the talk turned to what we (collectively) are trying to accomplish with respect to people who radicalise to violence (NB Formaat is not solely concerned with this phenomenon although violent radicalisation is sometimes an end state of other processes Formaat is trying to shed light on and debate, such as marginalisation, discrimination and hatred).  We agreed that those who embrace violent ideologies have an underlying passion to do something about grievances, real or perceived, and to make a difference.  The question remains, what should we do about this?

The standard approach to this problem has been to devise a ‘deradicalisation’ programme.  Examples of countries that have taken this path include Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Germany and a few others.  A few other programmes have been called ‘deradicalisation’ (e.g. the Montreal Centre for the Prevention of Radicalisation Leading to Violence) which are not, such is the confusion surrounding the issue.

Deradicalisation suggests that it is possible to devise a strategy to convince a violent extremist to abandon the ideology underlying a terrorist group.  In addition, some may come to the decision to reject such ideas independently.  Whatever the mechanism, there remains a serious uncertainty: what does ‘deradicalisation’ really mean and how is it possible to determine whether a given individual is indeed a ‘former terrorist’?  This is a big challenge and I have yet to see anything that provides guarantees that success has been achieved in this regard.  Disengagement is quite a different goal and one that is more easily observable, although that is a matter for another time.

What if a more feasible approach were to redirect radicalisation rather than try to extract it?  In other words, to ‘re-radicalise’ them (NB I want to also thank David Kenning for giving me some ideas on this).  If those drawn into violent extremism are seriously intent on bringing about change in areas where things are not going well, should we not draw upon that?  After all, there is not a surfeit of people willing to dedicate themselves to worthy causes.  Imagine the contribution that can be made by those keen on giving their time and energy.

No this is not a panacea and nor is it an answer for every situation.  Some will hang on to violent causes for long periods of time and we need to ensure that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies can deal with those. Others will relapse into violence eventually, and those too must be handled appropriately.  Still others will see little benefit in joining non-violent efforts.  And yet there are probably a good number that could be redirected to socially beneficial action.

How can we get to this point?  Simply stated, we have to acknowledge that some of the grievances and inequalities that terrorist groups use to support and enhance their messages are true.  People are suffering all over the world in a variety of conflicts and societal breakd0wns and something needs to be done to address these. So, while I am obviously not coming out in support of terrorism, I do agree that some of their causes are valid and it is those causes towards which we can perhaps redirect some individuals. We need to use those who are passionate about these grievances.

Besides, what is the downside to all of this?  If someone pretends to be now interested in a legitimate issue but is in fact still a violent extremist, that will likely soon become obvious and we can use existing tools to manage that. What is the upside? Tremendous, in theory. Not only do we prevent people from joining the dark side, but we save families and friends from the pain of seeing loved ones lost to them.  And maybe we get some progress on difficult issues.

I am not sure how exactly to go about this re-radicalisation, but I do think it is worth trying. Current methods are not as successful as advertised, so perhaps we should try something new.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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