Courtesy Reuters

Getting Deradicalization Right

By Marisa L. Porges, Jessica Stern

To the Editor:

In "Mind Over Martyr" (January/February 2010), Jessica Stern suggests various ways to rehabilitate terrorists and combat the ideological influence of terrorist movements.

To determine whether these tactics are effective and worthy of support, the U.S. government should consider deradicalization programs (which aim to reform terrorists in custody) separately from counter-radicalization efforts (which help prevent the radicalization of vulnerable populations in the first place). Deradicalization can thus be distinguished as a tool that supports broader counterterrorism and counter-radicalization strategies. Only then will policymakers appreciate why highly individualized programs that focus on rehabilitation and behavioral modification are the best approach for mitigating the potential future threat of detained terrorists.

Deradicalizing terrorists in custody requires not only identifying how they became radicalized. It entails determining whether the process can be reversed and how government-led initiatives can help ensure that committed terrorists will avoid illicit activity after they are released from custody. To date, established deradicalization strategies used in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and elsewhere address this challenge through a combination of education, vocational training, religious dialogue, and postrelease programs that help detainees reintegrate into society. Involving family members in the process also plays a role, depending on the cultural norms and the particular detainees involved. Religious engagement, one of the more contentious elements of deradicalization programs, may be effective in reforming radical Islamists -- but primarily because it provides an environment conducive to behavioral reform, not necessarily because it encourages ideological reform. This is an important point for programs run by non-Muslim or secular countries, such as Singapore and the United States, where limited capability and credibility constrain authorities' ability to influence ideology.

Focusing on rehabilitation, as opposed to ideological change, is particularly sensible if it is acknowledged that committed ideologues may never give up their beliefs but might change their behavior. Even the Saudi rehabilitation program, which historically treated religious dialogue as primary, has gradually adopted more behavior-focused components, such as education, vocational instruction, and postrelease reintegration efforts. Riyadh thus offers a noteworthy example of
how lessons learned can help refine a program's focus.

Perhaps the most critical element of deradicalization initiatives is the amount of individual
attention given to each detainee. Anecdotal evidence from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore suggests that fostering mentoring relationships between detainees and program officials -- including guards, psychologists, and teachers -- greatly increases the likelihood that the detainees will successfully reintegrate into society and avoid returning to terrorism. Such one-on-one relationships have also been shown to encourage detainees to reconsider the negative opinions of government officials that, in many cases, contributed to their initial radicalization. Furthermore, individual attention of this sort allows officials better insights into each detainee's history and into how each is progressing through rehabilitation. This, in turn, helps address the weakest part of current deradicalization efforts: measuring their effectiveness.

The most common way to measure effectiveness is by the rate of recidivism: how many graduates of a particular deradicalization program returned to terrorism. But recidivism rates can be misleading. They are often inaccurate, reflecting only what is known to intelligence services, which is limited. The Saudi deradicalization program, for example, was considered a complete success until just last year, when the terrorist activities of 11 graduates were discovered. Furthermore, most deradicalization programs have not been around long enough for observers to judge which strategies have the most lasting impact on behavior. This will take years -- which, of course, does not help U.S. officials wondering what deradicalization program may be suitable for the detainees currently held in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Since recidivism cannot be identified until well after a detainee's release, it is important to consider whether it is possible to gauge detainees' progress while they are still in custody. Some programs evaluate those in custody through psychological assessments, evaluations of their participation in various classes and activities, and input from less traditional sources, including family members. This complicated procedure requires significant resources and individualized attention, a particularly difficult proposition when working with large numbers of detainees. But although refining such assessment tools is crucial, they will never provide a perfect real-time measurement of a program's success.

Deradicalization efforts must therefore be considered important not just for their effect on detainees but also for their secondary benefits beyond the walls of detention facilities. Saudi Arabia's rehabilitation program, for example, contributes to broader counter-radicalization efforts by facilitating government contact with those who are vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment, including detainees' friends and families. The same is true in Afghanistan, where deradicalization efforts in U.S. detention facilities have become a key component of General Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy. Another secondary benefit of deradicalization programs is that they may indirectly prevent graduates from rejoining terrorist groups even when the detainees have not personally been reformed: since some governments have used deradicalization programs for counterintelligence purposes, all graduates are potential government informants. Former detainees may therefore find their ability to regain the trust of old colleagues inhibited. Secondary results like these help deradicalization programs serve larger, long-term counterterrorism goals and may be the most significant outcome of such efforts.

International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Stern replies:

Marisa Porges raises important points about the significance of deradicalization efforts and the
difficulty of assessing their quality.

The list of difficulties is long, indeed. For example, since terrorism is generally a young man's profession, some ex-detainees might appear deradicalized when in fact they have simply chosen to retire from violent activity. In such cases, deradicalization programs may get credit they do not deserve. Similarly, since some rehabilitation programs involve extensive postrelease surveillance, some of their apparent success may result not from effective jailhouse deradicalization but from the deterrent quality of this monitoring. These factors are hard to parse, but researchers must do so.

Researchers would be helped if the Saudi government, among others, gave outsiders greater access to its program's methods and statistics. It is not clear, for example, how the Saudis define and measure recidivism, which for an ex-detainee can mean many different things, including being arrested for a new crime, being convicted of that crime, being sentenced to prison for that crime, or returning to prison for any technical violation.