by Anahad Kaur Khangura
The continual transformation of terrorism demands an equally changing methodology of Counter-Terrorism (CT). In the 21st Century, CT strategies embraced both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power instruments. More holistic approaches to understanding terrorism now directly engage with the ideological driving agents. The adoption of deradicalisation programmes, a constituent of the soft power approach, is being popularised to replace the ‘war on terror’ with the ‘war on ideas.’ Such programmes are significant components of CT policy, focusing on the use of non-coercive methods to disengage individuals from violent ideology and its operational slaughter.
Before 9/11, an active debate in the CT realm criticised the ‘kinetic approach’ towards terrorism, which treated terrorism as an immediate phenomenon and undermined the significance of socio-economic and political underpinnings. The primary challenge with the hard power approach of containment is that it only allows the disruption of the physical process of terrorism, but completely ignores the urgent need to dismantle the ideology which usually serves as the foundation of terrorist organisations. Consequently, deradicalisation programmes, which directly engage with the ideological substructures of terrorism, are now being incorporated as significant aspects of counterterrorism initiatives.
Deradicalisation can be defined as ‘the social and psychological process whereby an individual’s commitment to…violent radicalisation is reduced to the extent that they are no longer at risk of involvement and engagement in violent activity.’ Therefore, the primary aim of deradicalisation programmes is to bring about a cognitive modification in the mindset of terrorists with consideration of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. The former drivers might make an individual quit the group due to adverse reasons (disillusionment with the agenda and the leadership of the organisation); the latter are relatively positive factors such as the establishment of new social relationships and financial incentives.
This piece will identify the fundamental elements of deradicalisation programmes, evaluate and identify their limitations, and assess initiatives adopted in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
A variety of CT programmes
Even though deradicalisation programmes are being widely adopted by countries, there is a lack of formal conceptualisation about the framework and scope of such programmes. Most programmes engage with risk reduction by focusing on different methods such as deradicalisation, counter-radicalisation, and anti-radicalisation. The aim of deradicalisation programmes is ‘reverse radicalisation’ which implies that it is only applicable to individuals where the process of radicalisation has been completed. The adoption of a particular programme completely depends upon the exclusive elements and the socio-political setting of the terrorist organisation. Before such programmes can be assimilated into a counterterrorism strategy, the structure should be precisely demarcated in accordance with the problem at hand.
Deradicalisation programmes gained momentum in their function of acknowledging the critical grievances of the society which might have been abused by terrorist groups to bolster recruitment. As a part of the soft power approach, deradicalisation programmes deem the ideology of terrorist organisations as illegitimate and distorted. Additionally, they can also engage with the sense of alienation, perpetuated by an ‘in-group versus out-group’ ideology, which in turn is utilised by terrorist organisations to expand their network. Deradicalisation programmes can address the issues of a fragmented society and subsequently encourage social cohesion and unification.
Broadly speaking, deradicalisation programmes are tailored to ensure the smooth return of the incarcerated terrorists to mainstream society, reconfiguring to the societal norm their extreme mentality, dissociating them from their violent behaviourism, and providing them with a stable network of support. Deradicalisation programmes also heavily rely on the significance of personal relationships of former terrorists to convince detainees to rectifying their extremist behaviour. Deradicalisation programmes are therefore an amalgamation of religious re-education, cultivation of personal relationships, and vocational training to ensure the smooth reintegration of released terrorists into society.
Case study 1: Saudi Arabia
In 2004, a deradicalisation programme was adopted in Saudi Arabia in response to the escalation of terrorist-related activities in the period between 2003 and 2004. The programme originated with the government’s realisation that deviant interpretations of Islam cannot be combated by conventional security methods alone. The Kingdom adopted a soft power approach to tackle and mitigate the consequences of violent extremism. The programme requires dialogue between terrorists and religious clerics to impart educational discourse which can alter and subsequently replace the perception of their distorted ideology with the correct fundamentals of Islam.
The first phase of the programme is the al-Munasah (information) stage, which includes dialogue between credible religious clerics and prisoners. During this initial stage, the clerics attempt to initiate debate regarding the prisoner’s perceptions of Islam and his justifications for the same. The chief aim of the dialogue is to impart information on topics such as ‘takfir (apostasy), walaah (loyalty), bayat (allegiance), terrorism, the legal rules of jihad, and psychological courses on self-esteem.’ The second stage of the programme is the transfer, of those detainees who cooperate and renounce violence, to the Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Care. In this part of the programme, detainees engage in recreational activities which could ease the transition of prisoners back into society. This aspect of the programme is critical, as such activities could contribute to the deradicalisation process because they promote teamwork, which in turn encourages the notions of acceptance and inclusion.
Through the involvement of educational discourse and vocational training, the Care Centre aims to maintain low levels of recidivism by directly engaging with the grievances of the detainees. Once a detainee displays modification in his extremist mindset, assistance is provided to find a job and acquire accommodation. A successful element of the programme is the involvement of family networks in the deradicalisation process of the individual. By relying on traditional family networks and broader notions of social responsibility, the programme enhances its legitimacy and credibility.
The deradicalisation programme of Saudi fuelled debate about the efficacy and transferability of such programmes. The programme has reported that ninety per cent of its participants renounced their radical views at completion. Additionally, the recidivism rates remained low at just two per cent, in which none of the violent attacks was conducted within Saudi Arabia. However, this has raised criticism that the programme could only prove effective within the confines of Saudi territory and would not contribute to tackling the global escalation of terrorism.
Another issue with the effectiveness of the programme is that even though the percentage of deradicalised individuals is impressive, the remaining ten per cent of prisoners represent a gravity of these cases. These are the detainees who were ‘hardcore militants with entrenched deviant beliefs,’ who rejected cooperation with the rehabilitation process, and declared the clerics as illegitimate due to their allegiance to the ‘West-aligned Saudi government.’ Most of these detainees, who have been previously imprisoned in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, reached that stage of radicalisation which surpasses the extent of any deradicalisation programme. Therefore, the figures suggest that the programme is unable to reach the most intransigent extremists, from whom the highest risk emerges, which taints the overall success of the programme and limits its capacity to individuals who are minor offenders
Case study 2: Yemen
The deradicalisation programme in Yemen, called the Dialogue Committee (DC), was launched in the aftermath of the 9/11. Similar to the agenda of the Saudi programme, the primary objective of the DC was to convince the most extremist members of al-Qaeda to alter their perceptions of Islam. The agenda of the Yemeni programme was to dismantle the core ideology of the Base, which was identified as the root cause of terrorism. Therefore, this programme intended to reform the extremist outlooks of the hardcore terrorists which could eventually de-escalate potential recruitment. The organisation of the programme relied on three prominent religious clerics who engaged in dialogue with detainees on the principles of Islam, the responsibilities of a Muslim leader, the significance of jihad, and relations with Western states.
The Dialogue Committee relied on sacred texts such as the Quran to facilitate dialogue. The detainees, however, consistently criticised the Yemeni government as a tool of Western allies and therefore declared the state to be contradicting the interests of the Muslim populace. The lead cleric, judge al-Hitar, compared the texts of the Quran and the Yemeni constitution to prove their alignment and correspondence. The sole impetus of the programme was not only to mitigate radicalisation, but also to achieve political objectives such as increasing the legitimacy of the Yemeni government in the eyes of the people.
In addition to religious reorientation, the DC also encourages family participation in the process of deradicalisation of the detainee. The involvement of family was entrenched in the programme, as family members could exert social pressures on the detainees which could encourage them to denounce their radical values. Social and monetary incentives were also provided to detainees to ensure their smooth reintegration into mainstream society. The programme also encouraged the development of personal relationships and also provided aid to acquire employment.
The successful completion of the programme was followed by the decision regarding the early release of erstwhile extremists. If a detainee was released, then he was made to sign a pledge to ensure that he would refrain from participating in terrorist-related activities against the state. This aspect of the programme has been highly criticised. The drawback, which was intrinsic to the structure of the programme, was that this programme solely focused on containment of extremism within the borders of Yemen. Therefore, the Yemeni programme did not contribute to risk reduction at a global level. Another critical drawback of the Yemeni programme is that the programme digressed from its main agenda of deradicalisation to attaining narrow political objectives of expanding government credibility. The programme implicitly targeted ‘political expediency’ rather than altering the extremist mindsets of detainees.
The second part of this Strife Series’ contribution was published on Wednesday 18 November 2020.
Anahad Khangura has recently received her Master’s degree in International Peace and Security from the War Studies Department at KCL. Her academic interests are inclined towards types of political violence and counterterrorism strategies. For her Master’s dissertation, Anahad evaluated the adaptability of terrorist organisations in light of a comparative analysis between Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hezbollah. You can follow her on Twitter @Anahad15.