At no time in the past 50 years has there been as much interest in the idea of deradicalizing terrorists as today.[1] Programs to deradicalize those linked to al-Qa`ida have been established in multiple countries, with the hope that reforming these extremists is possible.[2] Nevertheless, doubts remain over the effectiveness of these programs. This uncertainty is only heightened by the chronic lack of proper evaluations on almost any of the programs involved. Adding to the difficulty is confusion over how to define the goals of the programs. Should they seek to merely disengage subjects from violence and other illegal activity? Or should they actually “deradicalize” a subject, which would mean a complete shift in the prisoner’s mindset, sympathies and attitudes?

This article assesses the differences between disengagement and deradicalization. It suggests that deradicalizing prisoners—which requires changing their mindset and ideological beliefs—is exceedingly difficult, and it finds that disengagement is likely a more realistic outcome.

Past Precedents
In protracted terrorist conflicts, many states eventually come to recognize the value of giving active terrorists a third option. The first option is continued involvement in the terrorist group and in terrorist activity. Option two is death or incarceration at the hands of the state. The third option is effectively a “get out” clause that allows individuals to put their involvement in a conflict behind them without having to face the severe penalties normally meted out by the state.

The third option is usually not completely pain free. Some jail time is normal, but it is not as prolonged or austere as that for detained terrorists who do not join the program. The classic example of this approach is the highly successful dissociati scheme introduced in Italy.[3] As the 1980s progressed, it was clear that the terrorist campaigns in Italy were in terminal decline. In 1987, a new dissociation law was introduced to help bring closure to the conflict. Prisoners were not immediately released under the scheme, but were instead allowed to work outside prison while serving their sentence. The prisoners were thus allowed to put their pasts behind them and move to a less restricted prison regime that also allowed them to begin to lay the foundations for life after release. The dissociated prisoners were expected to express genuine remorse for their actions, and to sever their links with the terrorist organization. The prisoners also had to make a full and frank confession of the crimes in which they had been involved—including crimes for which they had not been convicted. The scheme proved so successful that many terrorists who were still at large surrendered themselves to authorities so that they could enter the program and close the chapter on their terrorist lives.[4]

In 1982, Spain introduced a similar policy termed “social reinsertion.”[5] The policy was first introduced when the ETA Político-Militar (ETA-PM) split into two factions, with one advocating non-violence while the other promoted a continuation of the terrorist campaign. Prisoners who identified with the non-violent faction could apply through the courts for early release. The prisoners were essentially offered an amnesty for their crimes, although this was not officially acknowledged.[6]

“Social reinsertion” quickly became one of the key elements of Spanish counterterrorism policy. Prisoners who had not been convicted of crimes involving serious injury or death were offered early release in exchange for three conditions: 1) the renunciation of violence and the breaking of links with the terrorist organization; 2) a declaration that the prisoner would respect the law and acknowledge that they could be reimprisoned if they did not; 3) recognition of the suffering that they had caused. These three conditions were met through the signing of a legal document that was presented to a judicial tribunal, allowing their reintegration into normal society.

Both programs operated in different political contexts. Dissociati occurred when the wider terrorist campaign in Italy was in serious decline, whereas “social reinsertion” was introduced in a context where the terrorist violence in Spain ultimately endured although the policy still facilitated the exit of hundreds of prisoners from terrorist groups.

Disengagement vs. Deradicalization
Dissociati and “social reinsertion” were probably the two most successful disengagement programs introduced in prison settings during the past 50 years. Yet despite their success, both are largely overlooked when designing current “deradicalization” programs aimed at jihadist prisoners. Crucially, neither program was a deradicalization scheme in the contemporary understanding of the term. The programs were not designed to change a prisoner’s attitudes or opinions. On the contrary, the terrorists who took part had already made the decision to change before they applied for the program. The program did not convince them that continued life as a terrorist was wrong or unjustified; rather, it allowed them access to a third way once they had already reached that decision for themselves.

In stark contrast, modern deradicalization programs take as the starting point that the individual still believes in the terrorist ideology and remains committed to the “cause.” The modern programs aim to convince the individual that these beliefs are mistaken and flawed. This approach underlies the programs run in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Yemen and Singapore. Once the individual is convinced of the flaws in the ideology, they are then supposedly “deradicalized.” Yet how realistic is the assumption that individuals can actually be deradicalized?

Is Deradicalization Even Possible?
Claims of success vary, but the general assessment is that current jihadist deradicalization programs generally only “work” with “soft core” militant jihadists, while usually having little impact with hardcore members. Crucially, no thorough evaluations of any of these programs are available yet in the open literature and claims about their effectiveness need to be treated with caution.

There are two main reasons for this. First, re-offending by terrorist prisoners is traditionally generally low to begin with. Based on available reviews, on average probably less than five percent of all terrorist prisoners will be re-convicted for involvement in terrorist-related activity.[7] For some groups, the figure is even lower. In England and Wales from September 11, 2001 to March 31, 2008, there were 196 convictions for terrorist-related offenses, most of which were connected to al-Qa`ida-related extremism.[8] Many of these individuals received relatively short prison sentences, and by early 2009 nearly 100 had already been released back into society; to date, none have been re-arrested or convicted for subsequent involvement in terrorist activity (or apparently any other illegal activity).[9] There is no evidence that any have attempted to engage in terrorist activity overseas.

If this is what can occur in absence of a deradicalization program, it should not be surprising that when countries do run such programs they are able to announce re-offending rates that also appear remarkably low. For example, the much-discussed Saudi program has an alleged re-offending rate of less than three percent, while the Indonesian program claims a re-offending rate of less than one percent.[10]

The recent UK experience, however, suggests that in the vast majority of cases, disengagement from terrorism will occur in the absence of any participation in a prison deradicalization program. Indeed, recent research has highlighted that many prisoners (if indeed not most) remain highly sympathetic to the cause but either no longer believe that violence is the most effective way to achieve the movement’s aims or else are no longer willing to break the law themselves on behalf of the movement.[11] As one prisoner interviewed in a UK jail explained, “the cause is a moral cause,” while adding that he no longer believed that violence was the best way to achieve it.[12]

A vital issue to consider is that many members of terrorist groups will eventually leave that group even if they never experience a deradicalization program. Psychologically speaking, this is not surprising. In the U.S. military, for comparison, an annual turnover of at least 15% is normal.[13] Some 80,000 people who are in the U.S. military today will leave within the next 12 months.[14] In the vast majority of cases, the decision to leave is a voluntary one taken by the individual in a context where the organization itself would prefer them to stay. The average length of service for new recruits is just seven years. Few stay as long as 15 years.

Individuals join volunteer militaries for a range of motives—not all of which relate to ideology—and a similar set of motives explains why individuals join terrorist groups. The processes that push and pull individuals into joining both types of organizations can be similar.[15] In making the decision to leave a conventional military such as the U.S. Army, departing members do not go through a deradicalization program. On the contrary, the U.S. military runs several programs designed to persuade members to stay for longer, but every year some 80,000 still make the call to end their commitment.

Significantly, while these departed are no longer willing to continue to be part of the military (i.e. they have disengaged), that does not necessarily mean that their attitude toward the military is generally a negative one. On the contrary, most still have a positive regard for their prior organization and have tremendous respect and goodwill for the comrades they have left behind. In short, the fact that they left does not mean that they are now opponents of the military. They are disengaged, not deradicalized.

Similar levels of turnover seem to exist with many terrorist groups. It is a myth that “once a terrorist, always a terrorist,” or that terrorist groups always ruthlessly punish members who try to leave. Most terrorist groups explicitly recognize that membership will be transitory and have processes to allow members to “retire.”[16] A natural drop-out rate of at least 15% per year is probably conservative given the high levels of stress associated with being an active terrorist. Dropping-out means that these individuals are no longer a direct threat to society, but does not necessarily mean that they could or should be described as deradicalized.

Some skepticism is also needed with regard to the right vectors for deradicalization. In most of the deradicalization programs focused on militant jihadists, a key role is assigned to conversations, dialogue and interaction with moderate Muslims. Yet how realistic is it to expect individuals set in their ways to switch their support based on conversations with moderate imams? Indeed, the more “successful” programs do not just involve dialogue. They also involve several benefits for prisoners who graduate from the deradicalization program. Graduates are moved to more lenient prison regimes, are released early, and in some cases receive special support with employment, housing and family. Realistically, these benefits, rather than the much hyped ideological dialogue, likely play the key role in successful disengagement. If it means getting out of prison early, many individuals are prepared to tell the authorities that they have been convinced of their previous errors.

Disengagement a More Realistic Outcome
This reveals the heart of the issue. Which course of action is better? Disengagement or deradicalization? Is the priority to change people’s behavior or is it to change their psychology? In the end, acts of violence require behavior, and changing this behavior should be the number one focus.

While a desire to try to rehabilitate should be applauded, the manner in which deradicalization programs are developing in the West raises serious concerns. Unlike those elsewhere in the world, the Western versions are often not supported by clear incentives such as early release from prison or increased financial support upon release. This is certainly the case with the United Kingdom’s program. Instead, heavy emphasis is placed on the dialogue element alone. Such a framework depends almost entirely on ideology being the key factor in explaining why people engage in terrorism, yet a wealth of research on the psychology of terrorists shows that ideology generally only plays a secondary role in explaining engagement, and that other factors tend to be more important.[17]

The language itself is also problematic. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were no claims of Irish Republican Army (IRA) members being “radicalized,” and there was no reference to a “radicalization process.” Such a terminology and framework has primarily been a post 9/11 phenomenon and it has been developed in regard to al-Qa`ida and its disparate affiliates. This is not to say that there is no value in the framework, but rather a warning that analysts must be careful in considering how useful and accurate an understanding the framework gives.

Since the IRA was not discussed in terms of “radicalization,” equally there was no discussion of dealing with its members in terms of “deradicalization.” Former IRA Chief of Staff Martin McGuinness, for example, has never been through a deradicalization program, yet nonetheless he is now clearly committed to conventional politics and occupies one of the most senior posts in Northern Ireland’s current regional government. Indeed, no one during the troubles suggested that a deradicalization program should or could be established in prisons for IRA prisoners. No one argued that the state should arrange for moderate Irish Republicans to enter prison and engage in dialogue with IRA members to convince them that their interpretation of Irish Republicanism was too extreme and too harsh and that they needed to adopt a more moderate version instead.

Almost certainly the principle reason no attempt like this was made was because no one believed that such an approach would actually work. Yet across the world today, this is a major principle on which most jihadist deradicalization programs are built.

A fundamental question facing these programs is what is it that they are trying to change? Most programs do not simply want to change the prisoner’s behavior, but a prisoner’s beliefs and mind-set. They want the prisoner to believe that a cause that was previously seen as good, worthy and justified is in fact bad, misguided and unwarranted. In the end, prioritizing deradicalization over disengagement is a dangerous gamble. It provides a distorted view of the real nature of both the problem and its solutions.

Dr. Andrew Silke holds a Chair in Criminology at the University of East London where he is also the Program Director for Terrorism Studies. He was appointed in 2009 as a Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee for its inquiry into the Government’s program for preventing violent extremism. He sits on the British Psychological Society’s working group on the Psychological Risk Assessment of those Convicted or Detained under Terrorist Related Offences.

[1] See, for example, Tore Bjorgo and John Horgan, Leaving Terrorism Behind (London: Routledge, 2008); Omar Ashour, The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (London: Routledge, 2010).

[2] This is the case regardless of whether these individuals are members of what has come to be called al-Qa`ida core or whether they belong to groups that are inspired by al-Qa`ida’s example and ideology.

[3] Michael von Tangen Page, Prisons, Peace and Terrorism: Penal Policy in the Reduction of Political Violence in Northern Ireland, Italy and the Spanish Basque Country, 1968-97 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998).

[4] Alison Jamieson, “Entry, Discipline and Exit in the Italian Red Brigades,” Terrorism and Political Violence 2:1 (1990).

[5] Marianne Heiberg, “ETA: Euskadi ’ta Askatasuna,” in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan O’Leary, and John Tirman eds., Terror, Insurgencies and States: Breaking the Cycle of Protracted Conflict (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

[6] Von Tangen Page.

[7] See, for example, John Horgan and Kurt Braddock, “Rehabilitating the Terrorists? Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-Radicalization Programmes,” Terrorism and Political Violence 22:2 (2010).

[8] Andrew Silke, “Terrorists and Extremists in Prison: Psychological Issues in Management and Reform,” in Andrew Silke ed., The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2010).

[9] Personal interviews, prison staff in the United Kingdom, 2009-2010.

[10] Horgan and Braddock.

[11] Neil Ferguson, “Disengaging from Terrorism,” in Andrew Silke ed., The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2010).

[12] Personal interview, anonymous prisoner, United Kingdom, 2006.

[13] “The All-Volunteer Military: Issues and Performance,” U.S. Congressional Budget Office, July 2007.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Andrew Silke, “Becoming a Terrorist,” in Andrew Silke ed., Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences (Chichester: Wiley, 2003).

[16] John Horgan, Walking Away from Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2009).

[17] See, for example, John Horgan, “From Profiles to Pathways and Roots to Routes: Perspectives from Psychology on Radicalization into Terrorism,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 618:1 (2008); Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, “Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence 20:3 (2008); Jeff Victoroff and Arie W. Kruglanski eds., Psychology of Terrorism: Classic and Contemporary Insights (New York: Psychology Press, 2009).

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up