In its 188th monthly book, released August 2022 and titled Evaluation of De-Radicalization and Removing Extremism Programs: Civil and Government Initiatives, the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center continues to explore means of combating extremism and erecting barriers to terrorist radicalization and recruitment. It explores a range of models developed by Arab, European and Asian countries, as well as those of Lebanese and American NGOs which have designed special de-radicalization programs.
The book is intended to complement a close study of programs used to combat extremism, and evaluates the role of repentant former extremists in reaching an accurate understanding of the “extremist psychology”. It addresses the urgent need for developing a subtle understanding of the underlying root causes of extremism, while also establishing psychologically and intellectually open channels of dialogue.
The book also evaluates various programs in other countries which combined the use of deterrent tools with programs aimed primarily at addressing psychological and religious lodestars of radicalization. It touches upon programs of a third category; i.e. those which focus on the methods of motivation and enticement used on rank-and-file members of terrorist groups.
The book begins with a study that clarifies the conceptual framework governing deradicalization practices. It summarizes the most prominent rehabilitation strategies, and presents the lessons learned from various deradicalization programs and techniques, with a special focus on the pressing issue of foreign fighters. The study also evaluates the principle of “reintegration” itself, and quantifies the risks of recidivism, relying on statistical studies which assess the scale of this problem.
One study examines “the manufacture of a counter-narrative” in the pursuit of developing projects organically tied to the surrounding society, and which seek to defend it against extremist encroachment. In particular, this effort takes aim at the media ecosystems that extremist organizations create and rely upon. This study takes as a model the campaign against ISIS, while also examining the models of a number of countries, including the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
This book also contains a study which lists the biography of 270 defectors, returnees, and prisoners, all of whom had previously belonged to ISIS. The study identified the paths they followed to enter-into and leave-out the organization. The study discusses the strategy and results of the project known as “Prevention of Online Extremism”, which operated by posting counter-narrative videos showing members of ISIS speaking out against their former organization, both on Facebook and other social media platforms.
Another field study examines the feasibility of cooperation among those who are successfully rehabilitated from extremism, considering the role of civil society organizations which aim to erect barriers to radicalization. This study began by evaluating the role of former extremists who were involved in efforts to combat the ideologies they themselves had once embraced. Despite the value of such efforts, the study sounds a cautionary note that “some former extremists showed no signs of deradicalization, despite [now] claiming that they do not believe the use of violence is justified.”
The book also highlights the “Parents for Peace” Foundation, which provides a broad definition of extremism. It includes elements that have been implicated in some right-wing supremacist ideologies alongside others that have been associated with ISIS. The Foundation has been working with U.S. law enforcement agencies in a number of prisons since 2016, and it has already developed intervention protocols that are being implemented in both prisons and public life. It has shown promise in tackling some behaviors that increase the chances of deradicalization among willing convicts.
As for the government programs that directly employ trainees who participated in rehabilitating former terrorists, the Indonesian experience comes in for special scrutiny. One study details the characteristic traits of the trainers in these programs. While surveying the details of the topic, the study evaluates the nature of de-extremism itself, highlighting the difference between genuine repudiation of extremist ideology and mere disengagement. Specifically, it differentiates between “changing the underlying belief system regarding extremism”, and “changing public behavior”. The Indonesian model was keen to provide a religious toolkit for stimulating ideological transformation.
Another study highlights ISIS-affiliated extremists’ presence in India, with an emphasis on proactive efforts to counter them. This study focuses on the case of Maharashtra which since 2016 has launched a de-radicalization program with a flexible approach consisting of small programs targeting individuals and communities. Through this program, India has succeeded in reintegrating 114 men and six women. The study ends by presenting a number of proposals, the most important of which are relying on the authenticity of traditional Indian Islam to confront imported extremist tendencies.
In the Arab world, the Egyptian model of de-radicalization stands out most prominently. Consequently, the book devotes extensive study to this model, tracing the ideological transformations undergone by the Islamic Group (known as the Gamaa Islamiyya) and the programs which aim to confront the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. This study focuses on the changes in the Egyptian strategy in combating terrorism, and their circumstances. The study evaluates the current of Islamist ideological moderation, their seriousness, and their procedural success. It also attempts to answer questions raised about recidivism in the wake of the June 30 revolution, which brought down the Brotherhood’s regime in 2013.
In Tunisia, where the phenomenon of returning ISIS fighters is a burning issue, the book dedicates a study to evaluating the readiness of State institutions to reintegrate them. Among the relevant institutions in this regard are the National Committee for Combating Terrorism, security and judicial institutions, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Each address a facet of this issue. The study presents a “communication initiative” designed to safeguard against the spread of extremism in prisons. In particular, it focuses on dealing with the special situations of children and adolescents, especially those detained so far in the Al-Hol and Al-Rouj camps in northeastern Syria.
Elsewhere in North Africa, Morocco’s “Reconciliation program” is one of the most important programs specializing in deradicalization on the continent. One study lays out the context and factors that led to its adoption — especially managing the phenomenon of returnees from conflict areas such as Syria and Iraq. This program is an extension of important work which began in the Moroccan penal system, and a coterie of well-known institutions are vested in its work. Among these are the Mohammadan League of Religious Scholars, the Mohammed VI Foundation for the Reintegration of Prisoners, and others. The study notes that of 1,531 extremists to enroll in the program, only four were professional imams. This further highlights the wide gulf between authentic, traditional forms of religious devotion, and the highly politicized, extremist variants which seek to supplant them. The study relies on official data and statistics, documenting the number of the program beneficiaries, the recipients of the Royal Pardon in Morocco, and recidivism rates.
Among the book’s testimonials is one written by a figure who — prior to recanting — was one of the most influential extremists in Morocco and the Moroccan prison network. He offers an assessment of the individual and collective recantations offered by others.
Another field study sheds light on regnant theories concerning how patriarchal systems and religious clergy can drive women to embrace extremism by conducting numerous interviews with female convicts, particularly in the notorious Roumieh and Berber al-Khazen prisons in Lebanon. The study divides those women into three groups: those who remain fully supportive of extremist ideas and beliefs, those who are affiliated with extremist groups primarily due to family ties rather than ideological conviction, and those victimized by extremist groups. The authors reject the view that extremism is primarily correlated with poverty and religiosity, and highlight models for successful rehabilitation experiments, yielding several fruitful recommendations.
In the Yemeni case, one study addresses the challenges that prevent the optimal implementation of integrating armed groups into a post-conflict Yemen. These come into sharp relief when compared with the Colombian example. There, the peace agreement which ended fifty years of conflict with FARC relied upon clearly defined mechanisms. In contrast, all seven Yemeni peace agreements have lacked any such clarity. Moreover, Yemen’s political class suffers from a lack of vision and ability to implement comparable mechanisms. The study draws these conclusions through a close reading of the relevant agreements, beginning with the “Unity Agreement” in 1990, to the “Declaration of Transfer of Power” in April 2022.
In conclusion, the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center would like to thank the researchers participating in the book, as well as those who worked to facilitate its release. Special thanks and appreciation go to our colleague Maha Ghazi, who worked on coordinating the issue. We hope that this book will fill an important gap in the Arabic library.
Omar al-Bashir al-Turabi