How the U.S can Benefit from Deradicalization Programs
What’s next in the fight against terrorism? Over the past year, counter-terrorism forces have achieved a significant victory over ISIS. Dealt a sizable blow, ISIS has dramatically been reduced in size. However, the appeal of radical Islam is not disappearing with the defeat of ISIS, either domestically or abroad. While counter-terrorism forces often take the spotlight, we must be equally vigilant at home.
With ISIS’s decline, foreign fighters will begin returning to their home countries. Recruitment and propaganda will be focused on growing homegrown attacks rather than joining the physical fight in Syria and Iraq. The United States should build and support de-radicalization programs for nonviolent supporters of radical ideologies. This way, the United States will be able to disengage and deracialize nonviolent offenders, reintegrate them as productive members of society, and counter existing ISIS propaganda through the testimony of deracialized formed extremists.
Efforts within the United States have historically focused on strategies to prevent radicalization but rarely address mechanisms to de-radicalize those already involved in extremist ideology or activity, and instead rely on prosecution. The U.S. has tended to shy away from de-radicalization efforts, perhaps out of a desire to avoid being seen as “soft on terrorists.” But new data indicates ISIS has just as many supporters now as it did four years ago. Many of its foreign supporters are returning home or relocating. Around 300 Americans have left to join ISIS. As ISIS territory continues to shrink, they may be coming back. The FBI has arrested at least 125 people in the U.S. for links to ISIS between 2014 and 2017 and maintained over 900 active investigations in all 50 states in 2014.
De-radicalization and reintegration programs should be available to non-violent offenders. These programs can be extended to incorporate foreign fighter returnees, provided they are screened by a professional psychologist and have no history of violence, either domestically or abroad. Those who have engaged in violence should still be prosecuted. If the program is successful, it can eventually be extended to encompass prison-based de=radicalization.
The key goal of de-radicalization programs is to encourage and teach independent thought and critical analysis abilities and foster the ability to question collective assumptions. A good de-radicalization program teaches individuals to function as independent and productive members of society. This allows them to resist re-radicalization after release from the program. Criminology research on criminal rehabilitation often identifies indicators such as self-determination, freedom, autonomy, and personal growth as ways to measure an individual’s likelihood to return to criminal activity.
Reintegration programs not only help participants to function as productive members of society following their release, it also can prevent radicalization in the first place. Repentant and disengaged terrorists can help reduce the allure of terrorist groups and can help disrupt myths and narratives that feed into recruitment. Testimony from former foreign fighters is powerful because it has credibility with those listening to ISIS propaganda. Testimony from de-radicalized “formers” shatters ISIS images of unity and determination that ISIS portrays in its messaging. Hearing from “formers” encourages current members to leave and deters potential recruits from joining in the first place.
U.S. strategy towards individuals convicted of aiding terrorist plots or planning to join a terrorist network has largely been prosecution, which is an imperfect system, especially as prisons themselves can act as incubators of terrorism. A terrorist in prison may easily become a martyr for the movement, used as a rallying point for further recruitment by his colleagues, or may himself recruit his fellow prisoners who will be released before him. Those released prisoners can then commit terrorist acts of their own.
Any viable, long-term solution to radicalization must involve some prison stays for violent offenders. However, instead of blanket prosecution for everyone, violent or non-violent, we should offer an alternative. De-radicalization would improve our security, strengthen our society, and combat radicalization.
Abdullah Yusef, age 18, was one of five teens intercepted by the FBI on his way to Syria in 2014. U.S. District Judge Michael Davis wanted to explore ways to provide alternatives to prison stays for those who seemed truly repentant. After vetting by German de-radicalization expert Daniel Koehler, Judge Davis sentenced Yusuf to a year in a halfway house followed by twenty years of supervised release. Yusef describes his experiences, “The only reason I’m alive today is because I was stopped at the airport. I realize this is my second chance in life. I now see a future for my life in a way I didn’t see before.” Our prisons are already overly full, and some of these are misguided teens, drawn in by the promise of adventure. Some deserve a second chance.