Deradicalisation doesn’t work – whoda thunk?

Do you get emails offering you massive amounts of money in exchange for a little personal information – say your bank account number?  I do, every day.  My spam folder is full of messages from Nigerian princes who have chosen me to share their wealth with.  I am flattered by their generosity but I politely decline to respond to this benevolent offer.

Why do I refuse such bounty?  The answer is simple. There is no data to back up the veracity of the information.  I don’t know these people, I don’t know why they chose me to divide their fortunes, and I’d be a pretty stupid Canadian to volunteer my financial coordinates with a complete stranger, wouldn’t I?

Here’s a question that will undoubtedly rankle some: are governments committing the same error with deradicalisation programmes?  In other words, are we, through our leaders, throwing money at those who claim they can rehabilitate terrorists despite the almost complete lack of confirming data that these efforts work?  The implications of this approach are huge: money spent – wisely or otherwise; expectations fulfilled or dashed; and the impact on the threat level to our society.

Those who follow me know that I am a healthy skeptic on deradicalisation for reasons that I will repeat.  The genesis of today’s blog is a story out of the UK that 95 % (!)  of that country’s deradicalisation programmes were ineffective (only 2 of 33 were deemed to work).  The analysis comes from something called the ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ (BIT), a so-called ‘social purpose company’ owned in part by the UK government.  I have never heard of the BIT so I cannot comment on their competence.

And yet this finding strikes me as intuitively correct.  ‘Deradicalisation’ is a poorly defined term that seems to get  used in all kinds of ways by all kinds of people.  When we talk of approaches to terrorism outside of investigation, arrest and incarceration it is vitally important to separate the apples from the oranges.  To put it simply, there are at least three levels of focus:

a) early intervention: this is appropriate when a person has not begun the ‘pathway’ (how I hate that word!) to violent extremism or has just taken a few tentative steps.  The goal to is to prevent the process from initiating or gaining ground.

b) counter radicalisation: this is an attempt to divert a person already well on the way but before any crime has been planned or committed.  In essence, interveners try to convince someone to turn back before it is too late.

c) deradicalisation proper: here the goal is to get someone to reject an ideological commitment that is already well established in order to facilitate their re-entry into normative society (whether or not this is conjunction with incarceration).

The main problem, as I see it, is that far too many people conflate all three as ‘deradicalisation’.  This is not helpful and muddies our understanding of what we are trying to achieve.

My principal criticism of true deradicalisation is multifold.  How does one accurately measure that a given individual has truly abandoned an ideological concept (this is in truth a mental construct and even if I am not a psychiatrist I know this is only indirectly observable)?  What is the recidivism rate of those deemed to have been ‘deradicalised’?  Who measures that?  For how long?  What should security intelligence and law enforcement agencies do with these individuals?  Ignore them?  Continue to monitor them?  So many questions, so few answers.

And yet governments seem to be falling over each other trying to fund ‘deradicalisation’.  The Saudis have a famous initiative that in all likelihood was vastly less successful than they claimed.  The Belgians are engaging  imams to do ‘deradicalisation’ in their prisons.  Even we here in Canada have those who say they are ‘doing’ deradicalisation.  Sorry to be flippant but these claims, in the absence of neutral, third-party empirical evaluation, and a $1.50 get you a cup of coffee at Tim Hortons (if you are not Canadian Google this).

Before proponents crucify me, hear me out.  I am, or rather would be under different circumstances, a big fan of real, effective deradicalisation.  If these methods can be shown to actually work of course they are a great idea. Not only do we get productive members of society back but we take away some of the workload from our overburdened protectors.  So, by all means, continue to work on these.  Just don’t sell them as what they are not and be honest of what they can and cannot do.  And devise a way to measure what you are doing!

Groups like Al Qaeda often talk about ‘cutting off the head of the snake’ in their propaganda campaigns.  Our response to these groups and their minions must not be snake oil.



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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