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Deradicalization: Possible or Perilous?

By Samantha Plesser 

Rasheed Ogunlara said once, “How you look at it is pretty much how you'll see it.” There’s a new trend in counter-terrorism that advocates deradicalization. It seeks to “re-educate” violent jihadists so that they, in time, can resume a productive and useful role in society. 

Originally lauded for presenting a new and humane way to combat terrorism through reintroducing lost youth back into society, questions have now arisen as to the effectiveness of these deradicalization camps. There is still much uncertainty over just how effective these facilities are and, more importantly, the degree of transparency of the governments who ran these facilities in releasing information about the successes of their programs.

Even in the 21st century, “re-education camps” are not a new idea. In fact, the term arguably first appeared as a euphemism for mass prison camps operated by the Peoples Republic of China after the Vietnam War to both repress and indoctrinate citizens of China and war criminals to the ways of the Communist Party. These camps were actually labor and death camps and not really designed to “re-educate” those who were trapped inside.

The re-education of a terrorist, however, involves more than torturing a person into simply agreeing not to commit any violent acts. The minute he is let loose, he will revert back to his old ways, angrier now with the establishment that sought to “correct” behavior than he was before.

Deradicalization involves a real change in values—internalizing the understanding that, if terrorist acts are motivated by religion, one’s spiritual beliefs should not call for violence against others. These goals might seem impossible; however, the average Islamic terrorist does not always join a terrorist organization because he is a religious zealot. Many are young people who are disenfranchised, prejudiced by a system that has treated them poorly, and in desperate need to feel empowered by being part of a larger movement.

In other words, most Islamic terrorists are not experts on religious doctrine. This leaves open an opportunity to reteach young people that Islam and violence are not compatible and, in doing so, that violence is not the way to a better life.

Deradicalization in this context, while still experimental, is seen by many as far more productive than the alternatives. Since 2007, many areas in the Middle East and Europe have been experimenting with various types of “re-education” centers focusing on disassociating religion with violence in the hopes that such a tactic might work.

The first deradicalization center started in Egypt back in 1997. The country began allowing imprisoned members of a violent offshoot of an Islamic Group of the Muslim Brotherhood to meet safely and reevaluate their core ideology, hoping that it might renounce violence as a tenant. That year, leaders of the group and Islamic scholars released Tasha al-Magahi (“Corrections of Concepts”), stating that Islam does not permit the killing of civilians and that Al Qaeda was a dangerous organization. The group was also allowed—within the confines of prison walls, of course—to meet together with other Islamic leaders.

Saudi Arabia began the most innovative deradicalization center, The Care Rehabilitation Center (CARE), in 2007. The center’s professionals offer vocational training, involvement of the family of the terrorist, group therapy and group games, group prayer, debate with religious scholars, and study of the Quran. All activities reside under a mission statement that is emphasized every day: “jihadists are victims, not villains, and they need tailored assistance (that the program will provide to them).”

Care provides those in its program (many of which once resided at Guantanamo) with a car, housing, money, and job placements when necessary, as well as after-care program. Of course, after they graduate, these beneficiaries of so much Saudi government care spend the rest of their lives under constant surveillance by that same government. The hope being that, after Care, such surveillance is simply a precautionary measure.

Until recently, prisoners released from Care had only a 5 percent recidivism rate. When the United States released a list of Guantanamo detainees, at least prisoners were graduates of Care.  However, a number of ISIS leaders have been identified as graduates of Care, demonstrating that, despite claims by Saudi officials of a low recidivism rate, graduates of the program do indeed relapse and go on to positions of power in terrorist organizations. 

Europe has also experimented with deradicalization programs to tackle Islamic terrorism.  The United Kingdom developed the Channel Project in 2007, in which state police officers and the Muslim community work together to identify to the state police which people in their community they feel are “an issue,” or “those to watch out for,” or “vulnerable to extremist teachings.” Once such individuals are identified, they must attend mandatory rehabilitation sessions taught by Muslim community leaders.

In Denmark, instead of arresting jihadists, the Danish government’s plan is to reintegrate them back into society, offering them jobs, homes, and turning them (hopefully) into Danish citizens with an allegiance to Denmark, calling this “The Aarfus Model.” Out of 17 Danish jihadists who have returned to Denmark over the past two years, ten have remained in the program.

If rehabilitation programs are, in fact, a viable solution to even help in the problem of terror, as a country that has committed itself to a doctrine of human rights first and foremost, the U.S. would be obligated to explore this option with all of its resources. Yet we must not forgot that most of those who would be found in need of such a program would first need to be found guilty of attempting to kill innocents. Worse, if these programs are proven ineffective then it must be decided, sooner rather than later, how much money will be invested in trying to rehabilitate people that, under normal circumstances, would simply be put in prison. 

Justice and mercy are two different sides of the same coin. Proponents of deradicalization certainly have mercy both in mind and at heart, but justice demands the most efficient solution to the problem of violence and perhaps requires an equitable degree of punishment. 

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Samantha Plesser is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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