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Terrorist recidivism: ‘deradicalisation’ and reintegration


What is the threat from terrorist recidivism? And how do we interpret whether those who have been involved in terrorism are likely to return to violence? The fact that a number of recent attacks have been carried out by those with a history of militancy, lends added urgency to these questions. From the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, to the Sydney siege, and the murder of Lee Rigby on the streets of London, we appear to be witnessing repeated cases of terrorist recidivism.

REUTERS/Kieran DohertyGovernments have implemented a range of measures in response to the perceived threat from those who have been involved in political violence. In the UK, legislation has recently been passed enabling the temporary banning of returnees from foreign conflicts, alongside stronger measures to control those suspected of involvement in terrorism at home. Whilst in America, the ongoing saga of what to do with those still being held at Guantanamo Bay has been framed in light of the threat they pose if released. A recent report suggesting up to 28% of former detainees had reengaged in terrorism has been used in some quarters to justify tougher penalties. At the core of these issues is whether it is possible to know, with enough certainty, that those believed to have been involved in terrorism no longer pose a threat to the public. The trouble is, currently, we don’t.

What do we know about ‘deradicalisation’?

Several issues lie at the root of our limited understanding of disengagement from terrorism. Most obviously, terrorism is not a common occurrence, and efforts to support disengagement from terrorism are a relatively recent phenomenon, which means data are sparse. Added to which, valuable information can often be classified, and it can be difficult to gain access to prisoners to learn, first hand, what has influenced them. Together, this means we don’t have a strong evidence base from which to work.

Beyond such practical challenges, there are conceptual difficulties. A number of terms recur in the literature: deradicalisation, disengagement, desistance, demobilisation, deprogramming, rehabilitation, resettlement, reintegration and reconciliation have all been used to try and conceptualise the move away from terrorism. Most commonly, a distinction is made between deradicalisation and disengagement, the former denoting attitudinal change, the latter referring to behavioural change.

However, significant doubts have been raised about the relationship between attitude and behaviour in relation to terrorism, a concern rooted in the wider psychological literature, which demonstrates the link between attitude and behaviour is somewhat weaker than might be expected. Moreover, a convincing argument has been made that not all radicals are terrorists and not all terrorists are radicals. That is, not all those who use violence necessarily hold radical beliefs, and certainly, not all those who cleave to radical or ‘extreme’ ideas resort to terrorism. Together, these issues raise questions about the idea that by addressing ideological and attitudinal factors, we are liable to reduce the risk of terrorist recidivism. Indeed, if attitudes do not have a strong influence on behaviour, trying to deconstruct radical ideas held by militants may be misdirecting limited resources.

Despite these difficulties, governments across the world have implemented schemes to try and reduce the risk of militants reengaging in terrorism. Commonly described as ‘deradicalisation’ programmes, they attempt to facilitate long-term disengagement from political violence. A range of models exist, incorporating, to varying degrees, psychological and counselling services, help with employment, education or housing, religious education, and support for prisoners’ families. Similarly, a variety of actors are involved in providing such services, from statutory agents working in prisons, rehabilitation centres and in the community, to religious scholars and community leaders, psychologists, psychiatrists, and in some cases, former militants.

Does ‘deradicalisation’ work?

Despite the promise of ‘deradicalisation’ programmes, we still have only a limited understanding of whether they are effective or not. Whilst we know that some individuals have returned to terrorism, even the least nuanced measure –of reoffending rates – has not been clearly quantified. More fundamentally, we are only just beginning to interpret what such programmes should be trying to achieve. In the words of two prominent researchers in the field: “it has been practically impossible to ascertain what is implied by or expected from programs that claim to be able to de-radicalize terrorists”.

Recent work has begun to address this problem. My own research with those tasked with reintegrating extremists in the UK has yielded a framework for interpreting success in this context. This model demands further empirical exploration, and there is some way to go before we have a clear set of metrics that reflect what successful reintegration ‘looks like’. We also remain hampered by a limited understanding of why people renounce terrorism. A number of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors have been implicated in the move away from violence. For example, disillusion with the group, ‘burnout’, or losing faith in the ideology underpinning violence may be important in pushing the individual away from the group. Whilst the desire to marry and have a ‘normal life’, financial incentives, or new educational or employment opportunities may play a role in pulling them away. However, the complex ways in which these interact, and the process by which they affect long-term change remains poorly understood. Indeed, this shopping list of factors highlights one of the few things that does seem certain about the disengagement process: it is highly individualised and personal. Consequently, a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be effective.

Theorising ‘deradicalisation’

Despite our relatively weak empirical and theoretical knowledge base, practitioners are faced with the task of trying to positively influence those convicted of terrorism offences. Indeed, those at the front line have done important and innovative work in trying to reduce the risk that these individuals are deemed to pose. In the UK, a range of agencies have come together to better understand and deliver interventions. In my own research in this context I looked, not only at the practical efforts to reduce the risk of reoffending, but also at their theoretical underpinnings. Interestingly, there is evidence of two quite different theoretical approaches. The first relies on trying to reduce the risk of reoffending by addressing criminogenic needs, trying to plug deficits believed to contribute to an individual’s offending. Here, work might focus on addressing perceived misinterpretations of religion, or attempting to modify emotional responses to perceived injustice. The second seeks to support desistance, concentrating on developing a person’s strengths and realising goals. Underpinning this second model is the idea that we all seek to secure shared human goods, but that offenders do so in maladaptive ways that violate social norms. A corollary of this is that it is possible to encourage people to pursue those same goods in pro-social ways. Given the focus on personal agency and values that underpins what is commonly known as the Good Lives Model, it has particular relevance to terrorism offending.

Although both the risk-based and the strengths-based approach are reflected in practice, the risk model dominates. Indeed, considerable effort has gone into trying to identify measures of individual risk, whilst the framework of risk reduction has been advocated as a more appropriate conceptualisation of ‘deradicalisation’ efforts. Alongside these valuable contributions to interpreting risk, further gains seem likely if we supplement measures of reintegration based on the ‘Good Lives’ approach. Asking questions about the extent to which ex-prisoners are developing positive social networks or strengthening particular skills that may support employment seem as important as monitoring specific measures of risk.

Taking a more holistic approach, incorporating both measures of risk and progress towards particular goals may help with some of the challenges facing the field set out above. First, the strengths-based model takes an explicitly holistic approach; rather than trying to separate out attitudinal and behavioural measures through applying ideas of ‘deradicalisation’ and disengagement, the individual is approached in the round. Beyond this, the strengths-based approach brings an alternative conceptual framework to bear on the question of how to interpret progress and regress whilst offering a further empirical evidence base on which to draw. Taking this approach perhaps offers a way of interpreting push and pull factors, providing a theoretical account of what might underpin the motivation to move away from violent subcultures. Finally, given the focus on reintegration in the strengths-based approach, it draws attention to the importance of the community into which the individual is being resettled. One of the challenges facing the risk-based approach is that it focuses heavily on the individual and the need for internal change, neglecting the wider context within which reintegration happens. If an ex-prisoner is prepared to change, but finds it impossible to gain a job, or their family are stigmatised in the local community, the chances of long-term successful resettlement are likely to be reduced. By paying closer attention to the individual in their social and political context, we are perhaps more likely to secure better outcomes.

We have some way to go before we have a good understanding of what might mitigate against terrorist recidivism. Given the increasing number of returnees from conflict zones, and more and more people being released into the community after convictions for terrorism offences, the need for intervention programmes is only going to grow. Keeping an open mind, and taking a holistic approach to the study and the practice of working with militants is therefore as important as ever.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Dr Sarah Marsden, and not of Dr Marsden is Lecturer in Radicalisation and Protest in a Digital Age in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Her most recent paper: Conceptualising ‘success’ with those convicted of terrorism offences: Aims, methods and barriers to reintegration has just been published in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Violence.

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