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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

SPECIAL: De-Radicalization: Shared Practices of Taming Jihadists

SPECIAL: De-Radicalization: Shared Practices of Taming Jihadists Homeland Security TodayWhy terrorists do what they do and what motivates them to engage in their radical behavior was the focus at the recent world summit of the International Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel. Experts shared methods of de-radicalization in their countries.

“Deradicalization programs have taken a number of various forms in different parts of the world, but tend to share the fundamental principle that would-be terrorists must be cognitively dissuaded from radical belief systems” argued John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“In the UK, there is a statutory duty to de-radicalize,” said Michael Whine, Government and International Affairs Director at Community Security Trust (the defense agency of the UK Jewish community), and UK member of the European Commission Against Racism & Intolerance. Whine spoke on current de-radicalization practices in the United Kingdom and Denmark. “The Terrorism Act of 2015 places a statutory duty on specified authorities to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism,’” he stated.

To help achieve this goal, the government established a counterterrorism strategy called Prevent, which is a key part of CONTEST. It works with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalization and aims to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism or support of terrorism.

The program includes disrupting extremist speakers, removing material online, intervening to stop people being radicalized, dissuading people from travelling to Syria and Iraq and intervening when they return.

The most current significant terrorist threat is from Al Qaeda-associated groups and jihadi organizations in Syria and Iraq, including ISIS. Those associated with the ‘extreme right’ also pose a potential threat, authorities stated.

“It seems that the successful de-radicalization strategies adopt a holistic approach, involving intelligence gathering, educators, social services and families,” Whine said.

A European Commission program in which he participated funded a program several years ago in which it initially brought together police and security services representatives from around Europe, but after nearly two years the final report pointed towards a multi-agency approach, with social services taking the lead.

The initiative is called the Scientific Approach to Finding Indicators of and Responses to Radicalization, or SAFIRE, and was stood up in JUNE 2010 to explore this issue. The scope of SAFIRE primarily involves groups and individuals on the extreme and violent end of the radicalization spectrum.

As part of this project, two innovations in this field of research are focused on:

  • Developing a non-linear model of the radicalization process based on typologies of radical groups, cultural aspects of radicalization, observable indicators of radicalization, interventions designed to reverse, halt or prevent the radicalization process.
  • The collection of qualitative and quantitative empirical data to test hypotheses about radicalization and principles of effective interventions.


Denmark’s welfare services and police have teamed to create a rehabilitation program in its second largest city, Aarhus. The program supports returning fighters and their families by offering them a wide range of services that include treating psychological trauma and wounds sustained from shrapnel and gunshots. Families also are put in touch with intelligence agencies and government officials tasked with bringing their loved ones home. De-radicalized fighters also receive help to find jobs and continue with their education.

Thirteen men from Aarhus went to Syria in 2013. Five were killed and 10 remain, but 16 returned. Approximately 250 people – including local teachers, social workers, police and local community leaders — work to spot young Muslims who are becoming radicalized. Once identified, they are approached by authorities in conjunction with a local imam, in the hope of dissuading them from jihad.

“Although the program is reported to work, it fails to recognize that many are radicalized in prison,” Whine pointed out. He mentioned, as an example, Omar Hussein, the Copenhagen gunman who Danish intelligence services suggested was behind the fatal Copenhagen shooting of a film-maker at a freedom-of-speech debate and a Jewish security guard at a synagogue.

“He was most certainly radicalized in prison, although witnesses also say he suffered psychiatric problems as well,” Whine said. An Afghani-born lawyer who works in the suburb where Hussein came from, described him as a violence-prone, delusional loner. This illustrates two of the key triggers: people who are disoriented, and those who suffer from psychological problems.”

The strategy appears to work because it is based on early recognition, cordiality (i.e. no force) and integration. It’s a bottom-up strategy which involves street workers, teachers and parents, all of whom are provided with some psychological training.

Perspective from America

“The United States has taken a somewhat different approach from the European countries,” explained Brian Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation. “The numbers of individuals in the US who have been arrested since 9/11 for either joining, attempting to join a jihadist front or who were plotting to carry out an attack, are very small.”

Jenkins was referring to those who are planning to join Islamist groups like ISIS. He emphasized that the number in question is only about 200 or 300 people over a fourteen year period. “Out of an estimated Muslim population of 3-4 million, it’s a small number. I’m not saying that jihadist-inspired groups are not a threat,” he said, “but there is no evidence that this ideology has gained much traction among America’s Muslim population, despite continued exhortation from Al Qaeda and ISIS.”

Among the reasons, Jenkins explained, is America’s Muslim community includes those who have lived there a long time and assimilated. In addition, America tends to attract a higher caliber of person from among the refugees from Syria, Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East. Such as doctors and business people.

Homeland Security Today asked Jenkins why the jihadist groups are not gaining much traction.  He stated that, “Comparing the income level of the Muslim American community to the population at large, they are doing quite well.”

There is no large marginalized community in the United States such as in France or Belgium or the United Kingdom, and the intelligence efforts in the US have been very effective. Most of the jihadist homegrown terrorist plots have been uncovered by authorities.

Jenkins noted the US has not seen significant numbers of home-grown terrorist attacks as Europe has experienced, because, when examining the motives of individuals who have been arrested and convicted, the key ingredient appears to be personal crisis — individuals who are psychologically troubled or abused.

The US takes a much firmer hand towards those attempting to go to Syria or Iraq to join a jihadist group, which is treated as a serious crime. When individuals are arrested, they face much longer prison sentences than terrorist offenders in Europe. This seems to have acted as a deterrent. As a consequence, there hasn’t been much notion that deradicalization should be a key component of the post conviction process.

Testimonies by former radicalists

A short survey was published several weeks ago in London by Quilliam, the counter-radicalization organization which was founded by former radical Islamists. They took the testimonies of 10 former far right and Islamist activists, and grouped their testimony into a number of conclusions:

  • Shame and guilt is a driver for radicalization. Identity grievances, both real and imagined, can create the breeding ground for a number of psychological consequences, and the events that trigger these feelings often take place during times of transition. Support through outreach programs can help develop resilience.
  • Discrimination is central to the experiences of those who are radicalized, and the failure of many Muslim communities to integrate into their host society in turn lays the foundation for additional radicalization.
  • The Internet plays both a positive and a negative role. Online radicalization merely complements offline processes and very often presents the line of least resistance.

These testimonies reinforce the importance of counter-speech and positive measures to tackle all forms of extremism.

They concluded that the absence of critical thinking skills may increase vulnerability to radicalization. Many participants in the project acknowledge that they were unable to critically engage with the underlying arguments which supported the extremist narrative to which they subscribed, a point which has been reiterated by other former jihadists who’ve converted to Christianity or abandoned their ingrained jihadist ideology.

“The capacity to think critically is something that jihadists seem incapable of,” one of the former jihadists told Homeland Security Today, “even though many of the leaders are doctors, engineers and trained in professions that require critical thinking. Apparently, the ideology of jihad has an overpowering power over them.”

Senior Contributing Editor Joe Charlaff is a journalist based in Jerusalem. His work has been published in Jane’s Homeland Security Review, Jane’s Defense Weekly and Jane’s International Defence Review. Charlaff also worked for The Jerusalem Post and served in the Israel Defense Force (IDF).

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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