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The Disengagement and Deradicalization Debate: Both Are Needed for True Rehabilitation

It is worthwhile to examine more closely the barriers and aids to disengagement and deradicalization that can inform practitioners and policy makers.

counterTheoretical debates abound regarding the relative utility and practicality of deradicalization, which includes a cognitive and attitudinal shift away from extremist ideologies and violence, and disengagement, which includes physically refraining from violence but not necessarily a disavowal of the overarching goals of a violent extremist group. Recently, these debates have become less theoretical and more urgent, given the crisis of ISIS foreign fighters and their families detained in prisons and camps in Northeast Syria. Despite being held without charge in a foreign country, ISIS detainees held by the Kurdish SDF and AANES government in Syria have been denied repatriation to their home countries primarily due to fears that they will conduct terrorist attacks upon return. Notably, although there have been high-profile cases of ISIS returnees being trained and sent back to attack their home countries, returning foreign fighters who were not specifically sent by the ISIS emni (intelligence arm) have generally not done so.

Additionally, far-right and white supremacist violent extremism is on the rise in the West, exemplified in the United States by the January 6 Capitol Hill attack, which some have characterized as a coup attempt and which was certainly aimed at disrupting the electoral process, alongside the significant increases in hate crimes committed over the last five years. Deradicalization for white supremacists in prison settings as well as in more informal contexts has therefore been a regular topic of conversation among scholars as well as policymakers and media pundits.

Some experts have argued that the bar for deradicalization is too high or too difficult to measure or is impossible to achieve, advocating for programs that prioritize disengagement instead. While some may see disengagement as a milestone on the road to deradicalization, the two are in reality independent processes. Presently, we will delve into the differences and relationships between these two processes, analyzing the factors which contribute to disengagement and deradicalization among samples of 261 militant jihadists and 51 white supremacist violent extremists.

When Disengagement Comes First

Often, disengagement can occur long before deradicalization. Ibn Omar, a 14-year-old would-be suicide bomber who willingly disengaged by escaping to Turkey at his parents’ insistence, admitted, “I was still believing it all – that ISIS was good – for about seven months while I was here in Turkey.” Ibn Omar spent over a year disengaged from ISIS, at least six months of which he no longer believed that ISIS was a positive force. Unfortunately, months after the interview, he was contacted by ISIS operatives in Turkey who convinced him to re-engage and help them liberate his home from the Kurdish forces. Ibn Omar agreed and was killed by a land mine while returning with ISIS to Syria.

Watch Ibn Omar’s story here.

Ryan, a former member of the Hammerskins, recounts, “When I was in jail, I had a bunch of these guys staring at me. Others in there were part of hate groups. Some were waiting to go back up for another trial. I started seeing Black guys. Next thing I know I get jumped. I’m getting hit from everywhere. I got one guy in a submission hold. I remember looking over at the guys in the hate groups. [They] didn’t come to help, but [the] one guy who did was my cellmate. He was Black. He was swinging on them. He went down in the hole. I went to medical. We were still in the same cell, [and] from there we started to build a relationship. He called himself a radical Christian. He was all about the Bible, he was [a] leftist. He said, ‘You don’t seem like the guy that would be part of a hate group.’ He talked to me about certain Bible verses. He had a strict workout routine that we did. He taught me how to ‘jail,’ wash my socks and hang [them] under the lights. He talked to me about [my] kids. He gave me a list, He read books all the time. He told me, ‘I’m going to give you a list of people, you need to read their books.’ […] I self-educated like crazy. I filled myself with books […] I started to listen to [Dr. Cornel West], Angela Davis, Malcolm X, JFK, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.”

Watch Ryan’s story here.

Not all disengaged white supremacists deradicalized so quickly, or at all. TM, for example, once a leader of the German branch of the KKK, was visited by the German intelligence services who told him that “if there is a violent act, you will go to prison, you will be responsible, you are the leader.” TM explains that he was thinking of his children: “I was so proud of my three blonde, blue-eyed, little Aryans. I’m doing my duty to save the white race. [That] pushed me even further, but I didn’t want to go to prison. How good would that be for my kids, for the movement? And I was afraid of prison […] I had to remove myself from the situation.” Thus, TM “retired” in 2002, but admits that he did not fully deradicalize and truly reckon with his past until 2012. Janet Louise, who stated that she was no longer an “active member” of the NSM but nevertheless continued to express white supremacist views, explained that she disengaged from the group after the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville in order to lessen the stress in her life: “Because of the doxxing and the stalking and the harassment, my career, my life is in jeopardy, in the city. If anyone finds out what I’m trying to do or who I am, then it can turn pretty ugly and I just kind of want to stay low key and on the down low.”

Watch TM’s story here.

When Deradicalization Comes First

Thus, some interviewees physically left their groups long before leaving the ideology behind, if ever. Others, meanwhile, had been growing disillusioned with the militant jihadist or white supremacist ideology for months or even years before leaving their groups. For the ISIS interviewees, this was often due to physical threats and movement restrictions that prevented them from being able to leave ISIS territory. Additionally, ISIS had reportedly spread rumors that led ISIS members to believe that should they try to leave ISIS, they would be tortured, and the women (and possibly even the men) raped by the Syrians, Iraqis, and even SDF and Americans. Said Jaffar Abu Idriz, a Swede, “They kill you. They say it’s better for you to die here in ISIS than to leave.” Others said that they were essentially “stuck between a rock and a hard place” – they feared being tortured by ISIS if they tried to leave and tortured by the SDF or others if they succeeded. Rafiq, from the Netherlands, explains of his prospective options, “I thought I’d go to prison if I go home and if I don’t get caught by Dawlah [ISIS] or the Syrian Regime or FSA [Free Syrian Army]. [By them, I would be] tortured or killed.”

Watch Rafiq’s story here.

Among the white supremacist interviewees, many stayed not because of physical threats (although this was a fear for some), but rather because they had become completely isolated from the rest of the world during their time in their groups. These individuals had no system of support outside of those in their groups, who had indeed offered them a great deal of support over the years. As a result, 12 interviewees said that they remained with their groups after starting to deradicalize because they feared that in leaving they would be losing their closest friends and even family members. Lukas, a former member of the German group Die Rechte, explains, “The reason why I stayed so long in [the] far right after it, they give me a reason, an identity. I know where I belong. If you have an enemy, you know who are your friends. My comrades are my friends, we have the same enemy. From one day to another, you have so many friends, I like it […] Being told I have worth, Lukas, you are worthy, you are worthy by birth. I didn’t have to do something first, I’m just German.”

The Path from Disengagement to Deradicalization

Despite being clearly different and independent processes, for some interviewees, disengagement provided the interviewees with an opportunity to deradicalize. After he left his group, TM, quoted above, started renting an apartment from a Turkish man and his family, who lived on the first floor of the house. The landlord paid TM to fix his computer and invited him to dinner with his family. At dinner, TM was eager to “rip off the mask” and expose the man as a terrorist but was surprised that they shared customs and similar preferences when the landlord’s wife placed chicken and fries, his favorite meal, on the table: “I felt wrong, a lot of shame because I judged and expected something that wasn’t true. But what about other Muslims? Do they also eat chicken and fries, or little babies? My hate was laying in front of me, crumbled.”

Mohammed Khalifa, once a top ISIS propagandist, had been isolated from ISIS’s atrocities while working for its media department. It was not until he was separated from ISIS leaders and imprisoned with those who had been disillusioned with the group that he began to understand the truth of how badly ISIS had mistreated many of its own members. He explains that he had previously heard about injustices committed by ISIS, but that he had “sort of dismissed them as like baseless rumors.” But, talking to the other prisoners held by the SDF, “I realized, okay, these guys aren’t making it up. A lot of, like, injustices, especially at the hands of the emni, the security guys basically, especially in the prisons – torture even, false confessions and that sort of thing.”

Watch Mohammed Khalifa’s story here.

The Path from Deradicalization to Disengagement

For many ISIS members, these exact experiences were the accelerated the deradicalization process, albeit among those who had already begun to deradicalize, as indicated by their escape attempts and refusals to fight for ISIS, which resulted in their being imprisoned by ISIS. Abu Jason, a 25-year-old from Switzerland, remembers being tortured while imprisoned by ISIS: “They put me inside a tire, and chained my hands to poles… no water… under the sun […] I was perspiring, and they gave me a little food.” Among the white supremacists, it appears that just as exposure to minorities as a result of disengagement facilitated deradicalization for some, exposure to minorities while still active in their groups led some to deradicalize and subsequently disengage. Ed, a former member of the Church of Creativity, recalls, “I started having dialogue with an old Army buddy of my father, a Black man, I knew him my whole life. We started talking. I told him in prison I became a skinhead, and he was like, ‘Why?’ I couldn’t give him an honest answer. I honestly don’t know. That’s when I knew I can’t do this anymore. I’m not being honest to myself. This is pointless. Talking with him, dialogue back and forth everyday was the catalyst. That was the biggest one.”

Barriers and Aids to Disengagement and Deradicalization

In examining varying pathways and individual factors contributing to disengagement and deradicalization, it is worthwhile to examine more closely the barriers and aids to disengagement and deradicalization that can inform practitioners and policy makers in their work to rehabilitate terrorists and violent extremists. Among the ISIS interviewees, barriers to disengagement were primarily the fear and actuality of severe punishment if one was caught trying to leave the group and possibilities of falling into the hands and prisons of other militias, as well as the possibility of being harmed during the escape process. Among the white supremacist interviewees, barriers were related more so to losing one’s relationships, financial losses, and fears about their ability to re-enter society, which were greater for those with racist tattoos or who had been doxxed by groups like Antifa. Additionally, all of the interviewees, regardless of group, faced barriers to deradicalization related to cognitive dissonance and the psychological discomfort of having believed one had the truth and feeling ashamed of having fallen for such falsehoods, and thus feeling afraid to acknowledge that their beliefs were, indeed, falsehoods.

Given all of the evidence of potential but not guaranteed pathways to and between deradicalization and disengagement, as well as the plethora of barriers to both, we can conclude in the deradicalization/disengagement debate that focusing on one without the other is not sufficient for a successful rehabilitation program for violent extremists. Without a cognitive shift in ideology, the individual remains at risk for re-engaging or simply continuing to support their group, albeit non-violently or from afar. That said, the cognitive shift is also insufficient for promoting sustainable rehabilitation and reintegration. Without a support system that is unrelated to the violent extremist group, as well as opportunities to find fulfillment and meaning in mainstream society, and a means of resolving one’s grievances and meeting their needs, a deradicalized individual may remain in their group and even commit acts of violence on its behalf in order to continue to glean the non-ideological benefits of membership, whether those are employment, safety, belonging, purpose, or anything else.

Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard. Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.

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