Although there has been much research about the radicalization and recruitment of Islamist extremists, there has been little study until recently about how one deradicalizes those who have been recruited into the Islamist extremist movement.
A key question is whether the objective of counter-radicalization programs should be disengagement (a change in behavior) or deradicalization (a change in beliefs) of militants. A unique challenge posed by militant Islamist groups is that their ideology is rooted in a major world religion, Islam.
“Getting militants to refrain from violence is only part of the process,” said Angel Rabasa, lead author of the study and a senior political scientist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Ideally, the goal is to get the individual to change his belief system, reject the extremist ideology and embrace a moderate worldview. This is difficult with Islamist extremists, because the requirements of the ideology are regarded as religious obligations.”
But deradicalization may be necessary to permanently defuse the threat posed by these groups, Rabasa said. If a militant agrees to stop fighting purely for practical reasons—such as a condition for one’s release from prison—when the circumstances change, the person may once again return to terrorist acts.
The RAND study indentifies and analyzes the processes through which militants leave Islamist extreme groups, assesses the effectiveness of deradicalization programs and summarizes the policies that could help to promote and accelerate the processes of deradicalization.
The best-designed deradicalization and counter-radicalization programs in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe leverage local cultural patterns to achieve their objectives, Rabasa said. For that reason, these programs cannot simply be transplanted from one country to another.
Deradicalization programs have two other important goals. One is to obtain intelligence on extremist organizations and the second is to discredit the extremist ideology. Challenging the extremist ideology with an alternative interpretation of Islam is not only likely to effect a more permanent change in the militant’s worldview and to reduce the risk of recidivism, but it also helps to weaken the appeal of radical Islamism. An important indicator of success is convincing rehabilitated militants to speak out against extremist groups and ideology.
Because counter-radicalization or deradicalization programs are embedded in a war of ideas, the counter-ideological component of these programs is extremely important. Most Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian programs use a form of theological dialogue in which mainstream scholars and sometimes even former radicals engage extremists in discussions of Islamic theology in an effort to convince the militants that their interpretation of Islam is wrong.
However, because many of these programs are focused on eliminating the domestic terrorism threat, they may forbid terrorism in the home state because the government is Islamic, but condone it elsewhere.
Rabasa said he and his colleagues found that there isn’t enough reliable data to reach definitive conclusions about either the short-term or long-term effectiveness of these programs. Many state-sponsored programs guard their statistics and some programs target terrorist sympathizers more than hardcore radicals.
While the United States does not have these kinds of programs in place now, the study notes that Islamist extremism and terrorism is a global threat, and the lessons learned from the research has policy implications for the United States.
Researchers say programs that aim to rehabilitate radical Islamists should focus on influencing participants by offering material incentives, practical assistance and alternative support networks. A counter-ideological component designed to induce militants to question their radical ideology is another crucial element.
The study, “Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists,” can be found at www.rand.org. The study was supported by a grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation, with supplemental funding from the RAND Corporation’s Rockwell Policy Analysis Prize. The prize fund provides seed money for innovative research in service of the public good that promises to advance what is currently known about a policy issue, technology or methodology.
Other authors of the study are Stacie Pettyjohn of RAND, former RAND analyst Jeremy J. Ghez, and Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division. The division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities, and foundations and other non-governmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.
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