Debunking deradicalisation programs for terrorists

Will it ever be possible for us to determine to any degree of certainty that a terrorist has fully abandoned the violent ideology that made him one?

As we continue to struggle with our efforts to understand and counter terrorism, let alone define it, we have been witness to all kinds of approaches, each of which claims to be THE solution. Alas, as in most things in life, nothing is resolved that easily.

What we need to acknowledge is that terrorism is devilishly complicated and that the best way to tackle it – notice that I deliberately said ‘tackle’ it, not ‘defeat’ it as the latter is not, at least to my mind, a viable reality – depends critically on several factors, some of which include:

  • a better grasp of the local and international conditions that feed terrorist movements and individual terrorists;
  • the realisation that terrorists are made, not born, and that each terrorist comes to that end via an incredibly complex individualised pathway;
  • the acceptance that history and ideology, perhaps more so that current socioeconomic conditions or perceptions of ‘marginalisation’, are so very important (and are usually dismissed); and
  • the maturity to recognise that many of our efforts to date have failed and to subject those efforts to post-mortems to determine why they failed and what we could have done differently.

One part of the counter terrorism struggle occurs at the pointy end of the stick, or to be more precise, past the pointy end. Here I am referring to programs that aim to ‘de-radicalise‘ those who have already embraced terrorist ideologies and may have translated those ideologies into violent action. In other words, we are talking here about hardened terrorists who saw nothing wrong with killing and maiming.

Assuming that these individuals did not take their own lives in the process, what we call ‘suicide attacks’, we are left with several choices: execute them for their crimes; lock them up forever; or endeavour to ‘de-radicalise’ or ‘rehabilitate’ them with a view to reintroduce them into society. This latter option assumes that some kind of reliable assessment has been carried out to ensure, to the extent where this is indeed possible, that these people no longer pose a threat to us and are deemed to have dropped whatever ideology landed them in the terrorist universe to begin with.

Many nations have created or adopted such deradicalisation programs and to date some actually seem to work – so far (there is never such thing as a 100% guarantee that a given individual will not re-embrace terrorist motives at some point). These programs should be celebrated and congratulated. One that springs to mind is Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) which, as the name suggests, starts from the premise that it is crucial to address religion and ideology first and foremost.

Then there are those that fail. A recent incident in Vienna wherein a terrorist lied to a prison-based deradicalisation program that he no longer believed in his cause only to be released and kill four people underscores how tenuous these efforts may be. Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing about what aspects of terrorism were covered in the Austrian plan. A similar attack in the UK in 2019 also cast doubt on deradicalisation efforts.

The bottom line is that if these programs, which I do believe are developed and delivered by those with the best intentions, do not address what is fundamentally at the core of radicalisation to violence then they will fail.

A case in Indonesia should serve as a lesson for all of us.

The Eastern Indonesian Mujahideen (known as MIT for its Indonesian name Mujahiddin Indonesia Timur) is a very small terrorist group believed to be tied to Islamic State (ISIS) that is active in the South Asian country. How small? According to one source the MIT may now have a mere 11 members, compared with more than 40 in its early years in the 2010s: since 2016, many militants have been killed in joint operations by government security forces.

Despite its small size, however, the group recently carried out an attack in central Sulawesi province in which they killed four people (one man was beheaded in front of his wife). Members who have been arrested and sent to prison have been put through a government-led deradicalisation program.

It is not working.

One criticism is that the focus to date has been “neither holistic nor well thought out” and has centred on instilling loyalty to the Indonesian state and providing terrorists with financial assistance. This is the wrong approach.

When a de-radicalization project focuses on economics without paying attention to the issue of how to change people’s mindset using theological approaches, [softening someone’s radicalism] is a long shot.

Harits Abu Ulya, a terrorism observer at the Community of Ideological Islamic Analysts

As one critic of Indonesian government plans put it: “all sections of society, including religious bodies, must play a role, not just the government.” Over the decades I have found a strange reluctance to admit that when it comes to this particular brand of terrorism, i.e. Islamist extremism, religion is important. I am frankly getting tired of hearing that jihadism has ‘nothing to do’ with Islam.

In essence, what the Indonesians seem to think is that the primary reason why MIT terrorists opt for violence is economic: the classic poverty or disenfranchisement argument. If we do not know by now that most terrorists are NOT poor and ‘marginalised’ then we have failed to learn anything. Yes, poverty may play a role in some cases but it is neither necessary nor sufficient, as I hope I amply demonstrated in my very first book The Threat from Within.

We cannot resolve a problem we fail to honestly evaluate.

As long as we continue to concentrate on peripheral drivers for terrorism we will never make much progress on combating it. So-called de-radicalisation programmers should take note.

We must also be humble enough to accept that some individuals will never reject violent extremist ideologies and that even those who appear to do so can re-enter this world view. As with most things in life there are no guarantees.

Let’s stop pretending that there are.

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.

Leave a Reply