Some real questions on ‘deradicalisation’

This post is a little longer than normal.  It is my contribution to a forthcoming paper to be written collectively and coordinated by a friend of mine in Singapore.

With the apparent increasing popularity of deradicalisation programmes for convicted terrorists and (perhaps) those on the pathway to violent extremism in a number of countries what has been surprising is the general acceptance that these initiatives are worthwhile and effective.  There are several problems with this approach, as seen through the eyes of a practitioner in the field of counter terrorism (i.e. security intelligence or law enforcement) rather than through those of an academic, a religious authority or a policy planner within government.

The bulk of these objections stem from the very simple reality that spies and cops are not allowed to make mistakes.  If an attack is successful they are accused of failure (inability to ‘connect the dots’) and at least indirectly responsible for death, injury and/or destruction.  No such blame is usually left at the feet of academics, religious figures or other government officials.  Many countries spend many hundreds of millions on national security and the public expects 100% success at having all plots detected and foiled.  This places tremendous pressure on these agencies to ‘get it right’ and carry out often very long-term and labour intensive investigations against terrorists and terrorist cells.

At the same time, these organisations are criticised for ‘getting it wrong’ by targeting individuals believed by the public to have nothing to do with terrorism.  Canada and other nations have been forced to pay out tens of millions of dollars/euros to those incorrectly accused or subject to security attention.

What does this have to do with deradicalisation?    Quite a lot as I will attempt to show in the following paragraphs.  I am not advocating NO deradicalisation or prevention programming but rather reminding readers that it is usually (always?) more complicated than it appears at first blush.

The most important challenge facing these initiatives is one of credibility.  Does deradicalisation work?  Unfortunately no one really has any idea.  There are few (no?) long-term scientific studies carried out on those subjected to deradicalisation ‘therapy’.  Part of the difficulty in doing so lies with the unethical nature of running only some terrorists through the programme while having a control group remain outside such attention.   If the state or a non-state body sincerely believes that deradicalisation is both necessary and effective than it cannot choose not to offer this type of treatment to some while giving it to others.  States want to prevent acts of terrorism and having a percentage of terrorists act as a control would be seen as subjecting the public to unnecessary risk.  Without a control group it is impossible to determine whether any changes in behaviour or attitude are attributable solely (or largely) to the deradicalisation programme itself and not to some other factor.  The absence of a scientifically accepted methodology renders any claim of success dubious.

Secondly, do those who administer these programmes distinguish between true deradicalisation and disengagement?  Do they care?  Or is the apparent absence of interest in continuing to belong to a terrorist group or engage in terrorist activity seen as sufficient?   A person who is assessed as having disengaged but not deradicalised can of course opt to ‘re-engage’ at a future point.  Security intelligence and law enforcement agencies must naturally be very wary of re-engagement.

Thirdly, what are deradicalisation strategies actually trying (and claiming) to achieve and how can we measure the effectiveness of the approach applied?  Do we really know what a person believes?  How?  On what evidence do we base our conclusions?  On a person’s statements?  How do we determine that they are truthful? We can observe and document changes in behaviour since these are overt.  With respect to terrorist activity these would include changes in Internet and social media activity, changes in social group belonging, and changes in interests as seen through one’s movements. Then again, any changes of this nature are signs of disengagement and not necessarily ones of deradicalisation.

Fourthly, what constitutes true disavowal of terrorist beliefs? Complete rejection of a violent cause or merely the use of violence?  If someone states that s/he no longer supports the Taliban’s use of violence but still supports the Taliban’s social agenda is that person no longer to be considered a terrorist in light of the fact that the Taliban are a listed terrorist entity in many countries?

Fifthly, perhaps the greatest obstacle from a practitioner standpoint is the lack of any guarantee that deradicalisation works.  If a person convicted of a terrorism offence or someone still on the pathway to violent extremism is subject to deradicalisation this does not infer that the individual no longer poses a threat.  In other words, ‘graduating’ from a programme cannot and must not lead an investigating agency to automatically terminate an investigation or more general interest in that individual. Security intelligence and law enforcement agencies make decisions on whom to follow for a variety of reasons and are constantly forced to make decisions on priorities in light of limited resources and high workloads.  It is very difficult to see how or whether the ‘successful’ completion of a deradicalisation course would be the determining factor in deciding on action taken or not taken.  It would, of course, enter into the calculus but it cannot, and must not, be the sole consideration.

People do change their minds and their positions all the time, but the serious nature of terrorism means that, for security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the working assumption must be ‘once a terrorist always a terrorist’ unless there is a tremendous amount of evidence to the contrary is present.  The fear of failure alluded to above is the primary driver behind this position.  There have been enough cases of ‘deradicalised’ terrorists in countries such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia who have returned to violent extremism to clearly show that these programmes are not perfect.  There are also allegations that success rates are lower than advertised.  Again, there is a critical need for independent, outside, empirical evaluation of these initiatives’ methodology and effectiveness before they can be taken at face value as maintained by their creators and administrators.

Another challenge is the confidentiality of the programmes themselves. Do programme officials share their findings with security intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the event of failure or as a matter of course in all cases?  There are clear privacy issues at stake here but it is also irresponsible to ask security intelligence and law enforcement agencies to suspend investigations on potentially (and in fact) dangerous individuals just to allow deradicalisation efforts to unfold. Precious time and the collection of intelligence/evidence/information on future plots is lost if an agency is asked to ‘down tools’ and give the deradicalisation process a chance for fear that continued investigation may prejudice the process.

There are more questions than answers on the effectiveness of deradicalisation strategies at this time. It may be that they are nevertheless worth developing and rolling out since they ‘do no harm’ (primum non nocere).  But are we certain of even that?  Is it not possible that for some terrorists (a few?) the actual delivery of the deradicalisation approach makes matters worse and actually deepens commitment to terrorist ideology?  This needs to be studied as well.

It may also be true that not everyone is a good candidate for deradicalisation.  How are ‘clients’ processed?  Are security intelligence and law enforcement agencies consulted?  If not perhaps they should be since they have good and relevant information. Here, though, there are obstacles with respect to the sharing of classified information.

In the end, these programmes will continue to be delivered and more will be developed, regardless of the positions of security intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  They are undoubtedly a much cheaper option than (open-ended) investigation and move away from the much-criticised ‘securitisation’ of the problem.  It would nevertheless be advantageous for both sides to enter into dialogue, or continue such dialogue where it has already commenced.  Terrorism is too dangerous a threat to be reduced to one approach, including deradicalisation.

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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