Are Program Personnel Trained to Counter Violent Radicalization?

  • There has been rapid growth in counter- and deradicalization programs training people to turn the tide of extremism
  • There is a gap between the empirical data and what the programs teach
  • Key findings from academic study must be made more relevant and accessible

The number of counter-radicalization and deradicalization programs has surged in recent years. These are aimed both at prevention among communities and individuals, and at dealing with the fallout from Syria and other events in the Middle East. Who is delivering these programs and how are they being trained? And are they tackling the right issues?

Daniel Koehler is a leading deradicalization scholar, a member of the editorial board of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, and a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Together with Verena Fiebig, another deradicalization expert, he looked into what the empirical evidence on deradicalization shows us and compared it to an international sample of counter-radicalization programs – the results of their study showed up a substantial gap between the two.

Koehler and Fiebig began by reviewing all the recent empirical data and academic study into countering violent extremism (CVE). While everybody, and most governments, agree on the importance of the area, it is a complex matter. There is a world of difference between early-stage prevention of radicalization in communities not yet affected and extracting and rehabilitating an active terrorist fighter.

Koehler and Fiebig identified 14 areas of study or expertise that anyone being trained for work in this field needs:

  1. Basic legal knowledge, particularly of the criminal justice system
  2. Basic knowledge about the form of extremism to be targeted
  3. Key motivational factors in radicalization and deradicalization
  4. Key psychological factors
  5. Group psychology and dynamics
  6. Certain mental health issues
  7. Case management skills (intake procedures risk/need assessment, etc.)
  8. Communication skills and argumentation techniques
  9. Counseling methods and approaches
  10. The available social, educational and psychological support services
  11. Potential impact of creative arts and sports
  12. Delivery of practical support, e.g. vocational education or treatment for addiction
  13. Methods to develop the subject’s sense of identity and self-worth
  14. Handling family and social network support issues

They compared this to the content of training courses. As a rapidly growing and diverse field, this proved to be difficult to assess. In the end 12 courses, across more than one country, were identified and analyzed. They varied enormously from a 45-minute online government course, to a 24-day classroom experience. Few of these courses were subject to external certification or quality control.  Nine of the 14 elements listed above appeared either not at all, or only once or twice. Koehler and Fiebig concluded that counter-radicalization courses are significantly disconnected from the current knowledge base.

There may be good or bad reasons for this, and it may not all be the fault of the programs.

“It appears that existing courses are significantly disconnected from the academic state-of-the-art but also that research in this area does not address the practical realities and needs of the intervention providers,” state the authors.

The rapid growth in the number of programs means there is probably a shortage of experienced course preparers and deliverers. Many of the courses in this complex area are short – an average of 8.2 days.

The authors found that program staff training must be grounded in evidence-based content as much as possible. Academics must make their research outputs more relevant and accessible for practitioners and provide more evidence for strategy and policy choices.

Koehler and Feibig conclude that the current state of professionalization and quality assurance in the field is “inadequate and worrying.” But they add that the way forward is “to ground program staff training in evidence-based content as far as possible without compromising on the practical relevance for the course audiences.”

Read the full report

Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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