Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Debates across the world are raging, discussing the issues pertaining to the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs] who left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] or live under their so-called Caliphate. Some died in Syria and some have made their way back home, but nearly 10,000 male FTFs, approximately 2,000 of them from Europe, are currently being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] in prisons and camps in Northeast Syria. Likewise, thousands of women who brought or bore children into ISIS are now locked with their children in detention camps as well. It is unlikely that the SDF will be able to hold the FTFs forever, especially with frequent attacks by Turkey that pull guards away from their posts to assist in the fighting or with bombs that even hit the prisons and camps themselves, allowing the detainees to escape. Likewise given international challenges to holding trials in SDF territory these prisoners currently are being held without charges, except for those who were charged or tried in absentia at home. Ergo, it is crucial to determine if the FTFs will make it home, whether by entering stealthily, being extradited after crossing the border into Turkey, or being properly repatriated by their home countries, and then to decide what will happen with them. If they are successfully prosecuted – which is a challenge given that evidence from the battlefields so far away is hard to procure, as are legally acceptable statements from witnesses – they will likely be imprisoned and may take part in some sort of treatment program, begging the question: Can an ISIS terrorist be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society?
After a well-attended ICSVE Zoom panel featuring journalist Anthony Loyd and lawyer Tasnime Akunjee discussing the thorny issues concerning rights concerning citizenship and repatriation, particularly that of British-born Shamima Begum, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] hosted another panel moderated by director Dr. Anne Speckhard to discuss and debate the merits of terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration, specifically in Europe. Throughout the discussion, two schools of thought emerged, each linked to the concept of disengagement versus deradicalization, which arose numerous times throughout the comments posted by audience members as well as issues of treatment and evaluation. This paper is an attempt to capture the main points of the discussion hosted by ICSVE of four experts, all of which have been intimately involved with terrorist rehabilitation programs in the UK, Belgium, Austria and Iraq.
In regard to the theme of disengagement versus deradicalization as an end goal of a rehabilitation program it’s important to define the concepts. Terrorist disengagement refers to simply changing one’s behavior, refraining from violence, and removing the terrorist from the community or social network in which they were radicalized, while deradicalization refers to a change in attitude and ideology and a disavowal of one’s previously held beliefs endorsing violent extremism and terrorism and rejecting democratic societal values. All of the panelists held that listening to their clients and taking a holistic approach to treatment is necessary and that disengagement can happen far more quickly than deradicalization, and generally does, simply by virtue of being imprisoned. Some of the panelists argued that successful rehabilitation programs require a theological repudiation of ISIS’s ideology to ensure the individual does not return to terrorist actions upon release, and that deradicalization should be evaluated based on the person’s beliefs about militant jihad and Islamism in general, regardless of whether that person is still willing to act violently based on those beliefs. While they caution that holding extremist beliefs is not a crime in and of itself, those who have disengaged but not been deradicalized are more likely to return to violence given that their extremist beliefs support such behavior. Thus, the panelists aim for their clients to change their extremist beliefs and express acceptance and appreciation of democratic values and tolerance of other religions and behaviors decried as heretical by extremist groups.
Others see ideology as a secondary aspect of radicalization, with many terrorists not having been attracted into the group by its ideology nor being particularly ideologically committed at the point of imprisonment. These panelists therefore viewed addressing ideology as a secondary aspect of rehabilitation. Those in this camp see addressing grievances related to identity, belonging, and significance as paramount and place emphasis on a systems approach which treats the individual, but also takes into account the need to address the individual’s response to a rejecting society. Likewise, this systems approach also locates the problem both within the individual and society and thus calls for broader societal change to also occur to address the racism and discrimination that made these individuals feel marginalized and alienated and thus more vulnerable to radicalization and terrorist recruitment in the first place.
While criminologists like Andrew Silke have argued that ideological deradicalization is not a necessary component of rehabilitation and that many terrorists have been released and successfully reintegrated into society, his research refers to terrorist groups that are not following a militant jihadist ideology. Likewise, those experts that argue that ideology is not the driving force for joining a terrorist group and that view significance, purpose, belonging, friendship, and material rewards as the far more important reasons for joining also do not place significant value on addressing ideology in rehabilitation. While these are important points, it behooves one to consider how ISIS themselves viewed ideological indoctrination. After declaring their Caliphate, ISIS required every new male member to attend a two-week shariah training program in which the underpinnings of the ISIS ideology were taught, with no dissent allowed. ISIS men were then expected to teach their wives and children these lessons at home. All ISIS men were taught that only ISIS were the true believers, that even other Muslims could be takfired – that is, condemned to death for failing to pledge their allegiance to ISIS; that jihad is a mandatory obligation of all Muslims; that suicide terrorism is a honorable type of Islamic martyrdom with rewards for the “martyr” including instant access to Paradise; that punishments of beheading and other brutally gruesome practices carried out by ISIS are legitimate; and that all Muslims are obligated to move to and serve the Caliphate. They were taught that absolute obedience is necessary, and failure to follow ISIS rules would end in worldly punishments in addition to damnation to eternal hellfire. ISIS cadres that have been interviewed by ICSVE often describe the ISIS shariah trainers as extremely charismatic and that the indoctrination was strong and, in many cases long-lasting, taking over a year to shake after an ISIS member defected or left the group. Given this intense and effective indoctrination process, it is likely that ideological evaluation and treatment should at least be considered in the case of ISIS members who lived in Syria and Iraq.
Redouan Safdi, an imam who works in the main terrorism prison in Belgium with Belgians convicted of terrorism offenses, including FTFs who have traveled to Somalia, Libya, and Syria and have chosen to return to Belgium states that when he is designing an individualized rehabilitation program for an individual terrorist returnee, “The first question I always asked was, ‘Why did this person go?’” In this first statement at the outset of his presentation, Safdi invokes an important aspect of working with people who have been radicalized: Recognizing the push and pull factors, wherein the latter refers to the benefits, material, spiritual, psychosocial, or otherwise, that person was promised by the terrorist group while he or she was being recruited, and the former refers to the aspects of the person’s home society, in this case Belgium, that were painful or unacceptable to that person and contributed to his decision to leave. When Safdi asks the people with whom he works why they would leave the safety and security of Belgium to go to a country marked by chaos and death, he says they usually begin by talking about their love for Islam. But when the conversations become deeper and more meaningful, he explains, “I would hardly hear them talk about an Islamic State or the implementation of shariah. All I would hear is the injustices they have experienced in the past: Racism, discrimination, poverty, lack of opportunity.” Many of the people in the prison who left from Belgium to Syria, he says, are very young people who felt “frustrated and alienated by society […] and were searching for an identity […] young people who did not feel at home in the countries where they were born.” ISIS, reflects Safdi, was able to almost perfectly respond to these grievances through their propaganda, especially on social media, and cater to the needs of these “lonely, alienated, frustrated young people.” Spiritually, politically, and socially, ISIS gave them “hope, a new identity […] a sense of belonging. They showed them appreciation.”
Indeed, in an ICSVE study of 220 ISIS recruits in-depth interviewed in prison or after having defected or returned home, we found that nearly a third of the interviewees from Europe were convinced to travel to ISIS by Internet-based propaganda and recruitment alone, without any face-to-face interactions. ISIS’s online recruitment and propaganda alone gave them a sense of purpose, meaning, significance, dignity, identity and hope for their future in Syria. The other two-thirds of the sample were recruited by family members, friends and actual face-to-face recruiters, all promising a better and more Islamic future in Syria. By beginning with these issues, Safdi gets to the heart of the matter, that no one joins a terrorist group except that the group purports to meet some of their needs, materially, spiritually or psychosocially, and that when leaving the terrorist group these needs don’t simply evaporate. They likely still exist, and may be exacerbated upon return, and need to be addressed by redirecting the individual to healthier and more prosocial answers than joining or staying attached to a terrorist group and its virulent ideology. Other researchers have agreed that because many people join terrorist groups in an effort to find an identity, disengagement may cause one to feel a profound loss of identity, meaning, and purpose, all of which were previously provided by and centered around the terrorist group. Thus, replacing the social support once given by the terrorist group is a critical aspect of both deradicalization and disengagement.
Despite the strong draw of groups like ISIS, however, Safdi nevertheless believes rehabilitation and reintegration is possible for most people, under one condition: “We have to be able and we have to be ready to listen to these people.” This is not an easy task, as listening to their grievances requires addressing racism and discrimination that contributed to them feeling alienated enough from Belgian society to go join ISIS in Syria, and which are issues that are ongoing today, despite a great deal of mainstream societal denial. All of the social alienation these convicted terrorists felt before joining ISIS is likely to exist once again when they are released. Issues of racism and discrimination are not easily addressed social problems, so Safdi states that it is important to work with the individual to find ways to live within society while giving them a “feeling that they are wanted […] that they are needed. We have to make sure that these people feel at home.” Unfortunately, Safdi admits that strong societal issues in regard to rejecting many Muslim minorities and converts as well as widespread denial about the reality of this issue still exists in Belgium, stating, “This is the one thing that no one is ready to do: To listen and deal with the needs of their own citizens.” This aspect of Safdi’s assessment is a clear rebuke of those who claim that violent behavior, extremist or otherwise, is a simple choice made by people who are claimed to be not held accountable for their actions. The truth is that the choice to join a terrorist group and believe in an Islamic utopia in Syria came about while living inside a social system that was actively rejecting the individual so the choice occurs within a societal context which also bears some responsibility. As one audience member comments, “Choice also needs to be contextualized. Choices aren’t always clear and opportunities to make choices aren’t always equal across the board.” Indeed, this is why we argue that one cannot see radicalization as a problem solely residing within an individual. It also involves systemic racism, discrimination, marginalization which are frustrating to the individual and which create many cognitive openings to respond to the claims of groups like ISIS.
Beyond listening to grievances, Safdi explains that Belgium’s approach to rehabilitation is holistic, covering not only the ideological symptoms of the person’s radicalization, but the multiple reasons behind radicalization. Indeed, radicalization into terrorism is never univariate. The first author, after studying hundreds of terrorists over many years, identified at least 50 motivations and vulnerabilities operating on the level of the individual that resonate to the terrorist group, its ideology and the level of social support present in society for joining the group. There are always multiple reasons why an individual joins a terrorist group, requiring a holistic approach and often using multiple professionals, most often psychologists as well as religious scholars.
Safdi participates in a program that involves both imams and psychologists and notes that most Belgian FTFs are not knowledgeable enough about Islam to need only a purely theological deradicalization program. That said, even with those who lack strong ideological indoctrination and the ability to defend that indoctrination, he does offer Islamic guidance to address the poorly supported hadiths and cherry-picked Quranic verses that terrorists use to justify and promote terroristic violence. The holistic approach works, Safdi says, because everyone on the team “is there to help. They are not there to judge or punish him.” As for evaluating the success of the deradicalization program, Safdi does not use concrete evaluation tools, but continually watches to see if and how the individual undergoes a process of changing his core identity from rejecting Belgian society and endorsing terrorism to becoming one who embraces living in Belgian society. Safdi looks for how the prisoner slowly begins to disavow his former harsh, judgmental and violence-endorsing self and no longer “wants to be associated with the person he was in the past.” Also, Safdi looks for behaviors demonstrating an openness to new ideas, such as enrolling in courses at a university, which are also good indicators of a change in attitude and embracing finding his place in Belgian society according to Safdi. Moreover, he says, when his clients are released from prison, they are kept under surveillance. Only one person with whom he has worked has recidivated.
Moussa Al-Hassan Diaw, who runs DERAD, a prison deradicalization organization in Austria, also spoke in the panel about rehabilitating and reintegrating militant jihadist terrorists who have been convicted on terrorism charges. His organization also works with far-right and far-left terrorists. Diaw’s program, like Safdi’s, is holistic, focusing on “culture, religion, democracy, pluralism, civic education, and history.” His stated goal, however, is for the person being treated to come to an “acceptance of a pluralistic, democratic society and to avoid polarization.” In contrast with Safdi’s methods of addressing the reasons behind one’s radicalization and helping in the formation of a new identity, Diaw addresses the ideological beliefs that support endorsing violence and as a religious scholar he is well equipped to guide a person out of the ISIS ideology. In keeping with this goal, while Safdi measures success through behavioral change demonstrating a newfound positive identity, Diaw requires a rejection of the extremist ideology and acceptance of democratic values as evidence of deradicalization. Diaw points out that much of his work takes place outside of the prison system. As such he is free to address radicalized belief systems, which are legal to hold as long as the individual does not engage in criminal behavior. He believes that those underlying beliefs that support violent behaviors need to be addressed in order to have confidence that the individual will not return to violence. Of course, the determination of at what point one can be considered “moderate” as opposed to “extreme,” is subject to debate. For example, Moskalenko and McCauley (2009) hold that non-violent, legal political activism should not be a target of deradicalization, even if one’s beliefs are extreme or fundamentalist. Diaw obviously disagrees when it comes to ISIS and we would also point to ICSVE reports on cases of ISIS defectors returning to a commitment to the group when there has been no treatment and also the ideology has not been successfully addressed. Therefore it appears that this is a thorny judgment issue but that addressing ideology within a holistic approach likely makes recidivism less likely.
At the outset of his program, Diaw aims to establish himself to his clients in a positive way and to prove that rather than being “part of a power structure,” he is a sympathetic, understanding community member. After addressing the aspects of rehabilitation, many of which are similar to those discussed by Safdi, though he emphasizes a heavier focus on disputing the ideology of ISIS and other similar groups, Diaw moves on to the challenges of reintegration. First, he says, the people need to find a job, but their reputations are often beyond repair, so they have to change their names or somehow overcome the social barriers to finding employment. It should be noted that in Europe it is normal for employers to require potential hires to show a police certificate demonstrating that one has not been in trouble with the law, an impossibility for former terrorist convicts. Others worry they will not be accepted back into their communities from which they left or that they will not be able to rebuild relationships with their families and regain custody of children who may have been put into the welfare system. Some audience members commented that mainstream Muslim communities may be wary to welcome these people back for fear of being surveilled themselves once the former terrorist lives among them, or even be harassed by law enforcement due to their association with someone convicted on terrorism charges. All of these roadblocks to reintegration can drive the person back to their old radical community, even if they no longer hold radical beliefs, and once finding comfort and belonging with their former community they are at risk for re-radicalizing. Relocation may address many of these concerns in removing the stigma people may feel in the job market after release from prison and also physically distancing them from their old negative influences. However, having to show a clean police record is a significant barrier for many to gain employment. An example of failed reintegration is seen in the case of Younes Delefortrie, an ISIS returnee in Belgium. Younes returned to Antwerp after being convicted on terrorism charges but freed on a stay of sentence to open a bakery and try to reinvent himself. Far-right politician Geert Wilders publicly denounced him, telling the public that his baked goods had blood on them due to his terrorist past. The bakery failed as a result and Younes, who did not receive good treatment and support, never found his way and was later returned to prison.
Omar Shariff, a therapist and former extremist now working in the United Kingdom comments on how powerful ISIS’s brand is; that its marketing strategy seduced so many young people all over the world. For this reason, Shariff states that he regularly uses videos produced through ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project in his work, using insiders from ISIS to denounce the group on video with those with whom he is working. In his view, people countering ISIS are fighting “a giant,” and therefore young people need far more than just “youth work.” He echoes the previous two speakers in emphasizing a holistic approach that addresses all aspects of radicalization, including but not limited to the theological aspects. For Shariff, evaluation of a deradicalization process should be individualistic and tailor-made and should focus on the individual’s acceptance of Islam as a religion that values life above all else, as well as moderation, as evidenced in the Islamic concept of “the balanced nation.” He actively confronts those who do not hold such views from a scholarly Islamic perspective and also examines the person’s mental health.
All of the speakers emphasized the voluntary aspects of prison-based terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration treatment programs, stating that no one is forced to take part. Each one noted that active listening, visiting, repeatedly inviting and caring for those who refuse to take part often wins them over. In describing his evaluation process, Omar Shariff emphasizes evaluating his own efficacy to create a strong enough rapport with the client to succeed in beginning and continuing to move them along a deradicalization process. Safdi concurs, explaining that people in Belgium convicted on terrorism charges are not required to undergo treatment, but he nevertheless continues to visit them in prison, allowing them time to think and decide on their own to talk with him. We would also note that prison is a very lonely and can be a harsh place where kindnesses can go a long way in reaching a person who might otherwise be unreachable and that by extending simple acts of care, a prisoner may make a change of heart. The first author recalls a high-value terrorist ideologue in Camp Cropper in Iraq who he refused to confess or talk with any prison interrogator, always pointing out that he had been injured during his capture and needed a doctor. The first series of interrogators ignored his request for a doctor, but a particularly caring one dropped his demands for answers and took the prisoner for medical treatment, an act which completely turned the prisoner to not only cooperating with his interrogator but ultimately becoming an ideologue fighting militant jihadi terrorism in the prisons in Iraq.
While the time to go deep into how treatment of prisoners convicted on terrorism charges actually takes place was limited and not all audience questions could be fielded, the written comments from audience members, many of whom are also experienced in this type of work, made throughout the event were numerous and insightful, many related to the different paths toward rehabilitation and reintegration, focusing on either psychosocial problems or on religious arguments. Many asked for common Islamic arguments against ISIS’s ideology and were pointed to the Quilliam guide entitled, “Tackling Terror: A Response to Takfiri Terrorist Theology.” Others asked whether there were empirically based assessments for deradicalization. Many programs utilize the Violent Extremist Risk Assessment [VERA], which is informed by the operator, although there are many other assessment and evaluation checklists other than the VERA and some prison programs make their own. No matter what assessment measures are used, it is important to assess repeatedly throughout a rehabilitation program, observing both positive changes and falling back into old behaviors and ideological points of view. Likewise, it is important to have a global assessment, from both psychological and religious points of view, and when possible to have feedback from other prisoners and guards as well. All of the panelists stressed the importance of tailoring their assessments to the individual, based on his or her specific risk factors and reasons for having joined a terrorist group initially. They also emphasized the difficulty in ensuring that individuals have truly deradicalized, not simply learned how to say the right things in order to be released.
The diversity of viewpoints among the panelists as well as the comments demonstrate the beginning of an answer to whether an ISIS terrorist can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. Yes, rehabilitation is possible, the panelists agree, but programs must be holistic, individually tailored, culturally sensitive, trauma informed and continuously evaluated for positive growth as well as setbacks over time. The consensus appears to be that reintegration is as difficult as rehabilitation with its own challenges and that the difficulties of remaining deradicalized and disengaged after release from prison are many. Reintegration is likely supported by the individual’s acceptance of the benefits of a democratic and pluralistic society in which he or she lives and determination to live as a productive, law-abiding citizen within that society and a reciprocal expectation of societal acceptance of the individual once he or she has served their time. Acceptance of societal benefits is difficult to achieve if the person did not formerly and does not expect to experience these benefits upon release. Thus, broader societal reform surrounding racism and discrimination is also critical in order to work toward truly ensuring that militant jihadi prisoners released after serving under terrorism charges do not revert to their old ways upon finding that the same grievances that drove them to violent extremism initially are still present, alongside the terrorist groups that promised them an alternative form of governance, albeit one that is achieved via terrorist actions.
 The ICSVE Zoom Panels are sponsored by grants from the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C., and from the European Commission’s Civil Society Empowerment Programme.
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 Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC.
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Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today