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

By Tobias Metzger
2013, Vol. 5 No. 11 | pg. 3/4 |

3.1. Government programs

Academic research focuses largely on government deradicalization programs, with only limited in-depth research available on civil society initiatives.82 This subsection mainly revolves around the Saudi Arabian and the Indonesian national programs, given the abundance of research followed by suggestions for future case studies.

An interesting case is that of Indonesia: Although Ali Imron, an ex-Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader involved in the 2002 Bali bombings, is an official patron of Indonesia's prison-based 'deradicalization program', and denounces violence, he continues to uphold radical thoughts83, demanding of the government to “fully implement sharia” and to prohibit “deviant teachings, secularism and idolatry”84 much in the tradition of Sayyid Qutb. This indicates that the program is, although labelled 'deradicalization program', less focused on changing fundamentalist ideologies, than on disengagement from violent activities (cf. the two quadrants on the right-hand side of Figure 2).85

The current structure of the program does not correlate with the desired results of deradicalizing individuals, because amongst other things economic aid given to the prisoners is more important than religious arguments, and because amongst prison guards reinforces the “jihadi assumption that government officials are by definition thought (anti-Islamic)”86. This example leads to what has been stated by Horgan: “Often there can be physical disengagement from terrorist activity, but no concomitant change or reduction in ideological support, or indeed, the social and psychological control that the particular ideology exerts on the individual.”87 This is especially dangerous when - following the time in prison - a 'role migration'88 takes place and individuals move from perpetrating violence to e.g. buying weapons or providing logistical support.89 Similarly, the US-led deradicalization program in Iraq provides financial support and training in occupational skills90, but largely neglects the underlying motivations for violence91 and thereby creates the risk of fostering the 'revolving door effect', meaning that an individual partakes in the paid program during the day while engaging in acts of 'terrorism' at night.

The deradicalization program of Saudi Arabia is both the most researched and the most replicated92. It was created in the mid-1990s in response to the 1995 and 1996 attacks and more generally the growing discontent with the Kingdom's pro-American attitudes following the Gulf War.93 The program was supported by a general increase of political participation and changes to the school curricula and media regulations.94 The program itself consists of a “Counter-Radicalization Program”95 with the purpose of combating “the spread and appeal of extremist ideologies among the general populous” and to “instill the true values of the Islamic faith … tolerance and moderation” and a “Rehabilitation Program” with the purpose of reintegrating “deviants … back into society, change their behavior … and change their beliefs”96.

While the first component fits our definitions of counter-radicalization (located in the bottom two quadrants of Figure 2), the second component seems to contain elements of both deradicalization and disengagement. The Embassy announcement continues to state that the program involves “intensive religious debates and psychological counseling” with the goal of renouncing fundamentalist ideologies.97 Although the success rates98 stated by Saudi Arabia and measured by rates of recidivism are difficult to verify, the program is generally thought of as successful. However, its components require significant amounts of funding and therefore make replication difficult.

The current program is overseen by a special Advisory Committee and therefore independent from the government adding credibility99. An important component is the humane treatment of prisoners, who are called 'beneficiaries' and who are considered to have been misled rather than being common criminals who require punishment.100 The prison program consists of six week courses during which the 'beneficiaries' receive courses led by religious authorities on Islamic texts promoting 'the middle way of Islam', but also on , self-esteem and loyalty.101 This stage is followed by the 'half-way house', which contains religious, psychological and historical programs to counsel the individual prior to release, and surveillance, financial and administrative assistance (including the facilitation of marriages or job assistance) following the release.102 Leveraging family ties and taking the family into responsibility, which happens throughout the prison sentence, is a crucial factor of the program's PRAC strategy (Prevention, Rehabilitation, After-Care)103. However, the strong financial component makes the program difficult to import in other, financially weaker, countries such as Yemen.104

Considering the Fundamentalism-Violence matrix, the program does not include perpetrators of violent attacks, but limits itself to low-violence crimes such as the possession of radical literature or fundamentalist discourse, and is therefore a prime example for a deradicalization program. It also contains elements of counter-radicalization given the financial and social backing provided to former prisoners, which are meant to prevent re-radicalization or violent engagement after their release.

The Russian efforts in the North Caucasus may provide a valuable future case study in evaluating the usefulness of the fundamentalism-violence matrix. This is due to the fact that in Chechnya the focus is on a broad range of measures to “eradicate the Salafi ideology, including through tough measure against fighters and often their support base” while in Dagestan a more inclusive model seeks to incorporate “mechanisms for safe return to peaceful life for fighters, greater religious freedom and dialogue … including the moderate Salafi communities”105.

Finally, Morocco is acknowledged for having the “most extensive counterradicalization measures”106 aiming at reconciling victims and perpetrators through direct interactions and “prevent the adoption of violent extremist ideas and behaviors before any crimes are committed”107. However, it lacks any civil society engagement108 and it is seen as not credible due to its use of repressive measures.

3.2. Civil Society programs

The preceding analysis has shown the dangers of only covering radical minds or radical behavior and demonstrated that a national concept should cover both components. The civil society and the government may thereby be complimentary actors, one focusing more on the deradicalization of mind-sets, and the other on disengaging individuals from violence. Due to the lack of credibility or skepticism towards government actors which may have previously experienced repression or even torture109, the civil society may be well-placed to pursue deradicalization. At the same time, this increases the outreach, and targets the prevalent restriction to prison inmates, i.e. radicals who have already committed acts of violence, another weakness of government deradicalization programs. The findings suggest that fundamentalists who have not yet engaged in violence may be insufficiently addressed through government programs which are often integrated in prison systems.

By mapping the desired and achieved goals of national deradicalization and disengagement programs to the Fundamentalism-Violence matrix of Figure 2, gaps may become apparent and civil society actors may be well-placed to address these. An especially innovative approach using the media is the soap opera “The Team” invented by the NGO 'Search for Common Ground'.110 This series revolving around a multi-national soccer team is published in 17 countries and has won various international awards.111 As this essay focuses on government initiatives and the aforementioned limited availability of research on civil society programs, the following only briefly highlights experiences in Bangladesh and describes lessons learned from shifting the responsibility to the civil society.

Bangladesh was subject to a number of attacks between 1999 and 2005112. In response, instead of implementing an expensive state program, the government decided to “promote a more moderate version of and expose violent extremist ideologies as misconceived”113 by facilitating the creation of new NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). Furthermore, existing NGOs, which already understood their local environments and were well-respected, were given funds to continue initiatives under their own autonomy.114 They implemented amongst other things interactive question-and-answer sessions inviting religious leaders, and engaged the population at the local level through workshops, seminars and conferences.115 The further analysis of this program, aiming at fundamentalist thoughts, and therefore the target of deradicalization according to the Fundamentalism-Violence matrix, may offer valuable insight and best-practices to be adopted in other locations, since strengthening the civil society initiatives is seen as crucial in ending or preventing the occurrence of violence. This was also recognized in the context of Algeria, where the “role of the community … was of strategic importance in defeating terrorism”116 following the of the 1990s.

The recent Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) policy briefing underlines the growing interest in civil society approaches towards deradicalization and disengagement. This document presented at a conference organized by the Danish Presidency of the Council of the briefly discusses various initiatives in order to derive lessons learned. Amongst the strongest advantages of civil society approaches are their credibility within communities, the local knowledge and the ability to involve and build trust across a broad range of actors, including former extremists.117 It is recognized that “addressing the social network is key” 118 in creating a long-term solution which reintegrates individuals into society.119 However, the civil society approach also entails risks. Most importantly, the reliance on external funding which puts the continuity of a program and its staff at risk, but also difficulties associated with being seen as too closely aligned to the government that supplies funding. Finally, the programs require competent and professional experts such as psychologists, moderators or workshop leaders, thus further increasing the financial burdens on these NGOs or CSOs.120

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