Caught Between "Deradicalization" and "Disengagement:" Clarifying Terms in the Discourse of Terrorism

By T M
2013, Vol. 5 No. 11 | pg. 2/4 |

2. Deconstructing Disengagement

Hogan criticizes that many deradicalization programs - while suggesting to address the radical mind-sets of actors - focus solely on leading former 'terrorists' away from violence and reintegrating them into society.51 This section argues that the more appropriate term for such programs may be 'disengagement program'. Following the definitions at the beginning of section two, engagement is defined as strictly referring to acts of violence and their direct preparation. This fits into Fink's notions of disengagement, who clarifies that “[d]isengagement refers to a behavioral change, such as leaving a group or changing one's role within it. It does not necessitate a change in values or ideals, but requires relinquishing the objective of achieving change through violence.”52

The strict differentiation is necessary in order for future analyses to clearly identify whether factors such as government repression lead to an increase in radical thinking, an increase in violence or both.53 Authors have suggested that even though the level of radicalization remains the same, the public climate in a country or a region may prove more or less prone to the rise of violence.54 “The combination of political exclusion and [...] repression is both necessary and sufficient to explain the timing and scale of Islamist rebellions.”55 This quote by Hafez exemplifies the necessity for political inclusion, which, as the following section suggests, may be insufficiently covered in government programs. It also challenges counterterrorism's indiscriminate repression against a broad range of actors instead of a strategic approach towards individuals.56

As previously stressed, we need to insist on strict definitions in order to set goals against which to measure a program's effectiveness and in order to implement comprehensive responses to hand fundamentalist ideology on the one hand and violent actions on the other. Therefore, it is problematic when definitions blur borders. According to the Princeton Dictionary 'to engage' means to “carry out … an activity” or to “carry on wars, battles, or campaigns”57. The last part of the definition suggests the implication of violence which also dominates the aforementioned definitions.


Violence may occur for various reasons, ranging from opposition to repression and previous frustrations and humiliations58 to economic gains59 in the perpetration of . Additionally, for marginalized young citizens violence may be “an easy way out”60 or a group's means to distinguish themselves from other actors involved in the same struggle, and a means to gain popular support while avoiding becoming “just another intellectual trend”61.

is a form of violence62 and plays a central role in the discussion of Islamist disengagement. Due to its common misuse and the almost inherent implication of referring to Islamist perpetrators in today's media landscape, further definitions are required as a basis for the analysis of soft counter-terrorism approaches: Definitions of terrorism mostly highlight two dimensions: the actors involved, and the type and purpose of an action. Considering the first dimension, perpetrators of terrorism are of a non-state kind.63 Likewise, some authors highlight the non-combatant nature of the targets of attacks.64 Different from most military operations these actions on the other hand are not necessarily set out to destroy buildings or to kill opposing forces. Instead, they seek to emotionally influence an audience towards a political objective using fear65 and to “break [the opposing side's] will”66. Laqueur neatly sums this up by outlining four key attributes of terrorism: Firstly, collective instead of individual action; secondly, political not criminal aims; thirdly, using covert instead of conventional warfare and fourthly, violence.67 Similarly, Oberschall sees "terrorism [as] an extreme, violent response to a failed political process engaging political regimes and ethnic and ideological adversaries over fundamental issues"68. By acknowledging this political aspect, one can put e.g. suicide attacks in a broader perspective and recognize their strategic logic aimed at coercion towards political goals instead of seeing them as isolated acts of pure fanaticism.69

Although violence is observed in symbolical (e.g. violent language) and structural (e.g. discrimination of minorities) manifestations, we tend to focus on physical violence when discussing terrorism.70 The aforementioned definitions of terrorism mostly discussed violence, whereas definitions of so called “Islamist terrorism” imply a religious background and a radicalized mind-set, which differs from the mainstream state-supported ideology. These previous definitions suggest the importance of a two-pronged response, both addressing radical mind-sets through deradicalization efforts as well as promoting disengagement from violent behavior.

Most interesting to researchers and practitioners is the question of why certain movements turn to violence, while others do not and instead pursue their goals by non-violent means.71 It remains difficult to pinpoint which reasons specifically lead into this, but the analysis often includes economic, social and political circumstances of a group or individual, and especially the much quoted repressiveness of the political environment. Furthermore, certain objectives may be more prone to lead to violence, whereas normative restraints may decrease violence.72 Kepel, however, highlights that the aforementioned normative restraints may be challenged in extreme circumstances. He demonstrates this by referring to the example of Afghan refugees dispelled from their home in rural, tribal societies and hierarchies. On losing their land and becoming refugees and thereby losing the applicability of customary, tribal and Islamic law, violent and self-destructive behavior gained acceptance. According to Kepel this sentiment was further strengthened by financial support from General ul-Haq's government and the Jamaat-e-Islami party73 with the “defensive jihad” in initiated by transnational religious networks such as the Muslim World League.74

This demonstrates the influence of outside actors who each pursue their own agenda, and of ideologies linking back to section two. At the same time, once violence is employed - similarly to von Clausewitz's notion of violence leading to more violence and finally to total war75 - this leads towards escalation in protecting a cause against potential infiltrators and against opposition which may weaken the of the movement and its leaders.76 Additionally, suicide attacks and the increasing use thereof demonstrate that violent groups adapt to external circumstances, and adjust according to which techniques were successful in the targeting of the opponent or successful in having a strong symbolic impact and thereby attracting support.77

Whereas violence is generally not accepted, it may be acceptable if used by state actors e.g. the military or by the police who hold a “monopoly on the use of force” within a state. Violence may also become legitimatized when entitled “national self-determination” or “humanitarian intervention.”78 To sum up, neither a strong and repressive, nor a weak position of the state seems to be a definite indicator for violence considering historical cases79.

3. Deradicalization and Disengagement in Practice

By deconstructing the terms deradicalization and disengagement, the previous two sections provide a strong basis on which to establish future analysis. Due to the general agreement that deradicalization refers to changing a radical or fundamentalist mind-set, it may be necessary to revise the labeling of some government and civil society programs, and to rigorously set goals according to the desired outcome. As a result, some initiatives may be more appropriately called 'disengagement' or, as is already the case in a joint International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) and UN program80, 'reintegration programs'.

To provide a graphic framework under which to evaluate programs under observation, I suggest the following 'Fundamentalism-Violence matrix', consisting of the two axes 'Degree of Fundamentalism', referring to the cognitive, and 'Degree of Violence', referring to the behavioral dimension.

Figure 2: Fundamentalism-Violence Matrix

Figure 2

This is not meant to quantify findings but rather to guide one's analysis of a given program and its stated goals. While deradicalization aims to reduce fundamentalist thinking, disengagement aims to reduce violent behavior without necessarily addressing fundamentalist mind-sets. Counter-radicalization efforts target mainly non-radicals and aim to provide the circumstances which prevent individuals from adopting intolerant and fundamentalist ideas. In order to test the usefulness of the graph and the definitions established in the previous two sections, this section aims to exemplary align both government and civil society programs within the four quadrants.

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