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Turning the Radicalised !

May 4, 2018


In recent years more than 5000 people from European countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight along ISIS, a violent extremist group seeking an Islamic caliphate. From the UK alone, more than 850 young Muslims have joined the foreign fighters out of which, up until October 2017, 425 have already returned (Barrett, 2017). It has triggered political concerns and public fears of what would be the outcome of these jihadists returning home, with developed skills to potentially undertake terrorist attacks on Western soil. Another issue is preventing the spread of radicalisation in prisons should they be incarcerated for their violent extremist acts (Veldhuis, 2016, p. 175).


In 2014, the United Nation’s security council pointed out the need for adequate rehabilitation and reintegration programmes in the resolution 2178 regarding the foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. The result is the De-radicalisation and Disengagement Programme (DDP) which focuses on a series of initiatives that help ex-extremists reintegrate into their community, re-evaluate their ideology, and prevent their involvement in the terrorist groups in the future (Koehler, 2017).


De-radicalisation as a concept explains the processes of cognitive transformation from radical extremist identity towards a non-criminal moderate psychological state (Koehler, 2017). However, there is a difference between de-radicalisation and disengagement. Braddock (2014) defines de-radicalisation as abandoning the radical ideology through a psychological process. The result would be either elimination or decrease in the threat of the individual re-joining the extremist group. Conversely, disengagement does not follow the same attitudinal-focused process. It happens following the experiences of change in role or the function of the group. As a result, the individual might leave the violent movement temporarily or permanently, while still keeping the radical ideology (Horgan & Braddock, Rehabilitating the Terrorists? Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-Radicalization Programs, 2010). In the following, some of the events that result in the individual leaving the terrorist groups as well as the importance in addressing them prior to the process of policy-making are discussed.


The theories around terrorism are increasingly abstract and lack transparency and reliability. In order to reverse the process of extremism, policy-makers should assess the underlying causes more closely to determine how to eliminate violent extremism, at what level, and by whom (Horgan, 2014). Particular events and especially traumatic ones can create a cognitive opening for some people to either consider, or re-evaluate their involvement in a group with extreme or radical values (Rabasa, Pettyjohn, Ghez, & Boucek, 2010).These incidents can include loss of a family member, or close friend, which in turn may disturb the person’s sense of belonging, and increase the feeling of insecurity. The mental disturbance that follows may cause the person to reach out to previously disregarded groups or sources of information. This mechanism does not only apply to the radicalisation process but has been seen in de-radicalised extremists, too.


Kohler (2017) points out that many former terrorists have expressed their gradual reconsideration leading to growing doubts about their commitment to the group. He explains that continuous education in prison and expanding personal relationships with outside sources are empirical factors in deteriorating the basis of the ideology behind joining extremist groups. In the following, the rationale behind the idea of educating the ex-extremists in prison is described by the former foreign fighter, Hanif Qadir, and research by Kings College London.


The extensive media coverage of terrorist activities in Western countries has led to the faulty perception that terrorist groups like ISIS are primarily at war with non-Muslim people (Qadir, 2016). However, research (Neumann, 2014) has shown that terrorist activities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan kill around 180 Muslims daily- which is more than the equivalent of the 7/7 London bombing- either through Al Qaeda, Buku Haram, ISIS, or other terrorist groups. Therefore, so-called Islamic terrorist groups are the very first enemy of Islam. Their primary motivation is wealth, land, power and politics. They have merely used religion as a cover through which they pursue their interests (Qadir, 2016). It is not the Islamic ideology that is the primary drive for joining extremist groups but the distorted language, opinion, and words (Horgan, 2014) that mislead the individuals into the trap of radicalisation. This highlights the importance of focusing on helping the inmates re-evaluating the distorted ideas through education in prison as well as establishing reliable connections to credible information resources for the returning foreign fighters to counter the stream of radicalisation through media (Koehler, 2017).


These initiatives have been recommended by the radicalisation awareness network that was formed through a series of events that is explained in the following.


Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent similar ones around the globe, Western and non-Western countries alike sought alternative solutions to global terrorism. In particular, the terrorist incidents in Madrid and Amsterdam in 2004, London in 2005, Stockholm in 2010, Brussels in 2014, and Paris in 2015 showed that violent extremism could not be stopped through bombing and arrests. A network of practitioners and government officials created the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) and introduced Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategies. CVE is designed to counter radicalisation by focusing on the social, work, and local environments in their home countries, as well as considering innovative solutions developed in the Middle Eastern region (Koehler, 2017). These programmes create the possibility for treating the returning foreign fighters in a way that ensures both the safety of the home country population and the returnees. In the following, the rational, as well as treatment policies for the ex-extremists in different countries, are discussed.


Having effective de-radicalisation programmes in place and opening pathways for returning foreign fighters are important from two perspectives. Firstly, the Middle Eastern justice system often deals with the terrorism-related prisoners in a brutal and harsh environment. It can, in turn, lead to further radicalisation in both the prisoners and their supporting organisations as a collective community. Secondly, the remaining ideology of the returning extremists can provoke increasing public fear regarding their potential in carrying further violent activities in their home countries (Koehler, 2017). The process of developing de-radicalisation programme needs to be rational and evidence-based. A panic response to a perceived threat that is heightened by public fear and pressure will lead to irrational policies that can lead to an increase in violent extremist threat.


For example, countries like the US, Australia, France, Philippines, and Netherland have created new terrorism prison wings with concentrated extremists, terrorists, and former foreign fighters. However, subjecting inmates to harsh treatment and confinement can have a radicalising effect on the collective prison population and their supporting communities which can lead to the increase in threats. Furthermore, these policies can achieve security in short-term but cannot guarantee sustainable effectiveness in reducing violent extremism (Veldhuis, 2016). One of the reasons for implementing such policies is the limited conceptual clarity in radicalisation (Bjorgo & Horgan, 2009) and lack of thorough theoretical framework in the process of disengagement that has resulted in creating inefficient and speculative policies (Gill, Bouhana, & Morrison, 2015).


Language, opinions, arguments, and words are too corruptible and terrorist groups often invest in the distortion of these elements in order to appeal to their protentional recruits (Horgan, 2014). Therefore, CVE processes should not be limited to the penal system but need to expand in order to change the individual’s values that can lead to a change in their violent behaviour (Bjorgo & Horgan, 2009; Koehler, 2017). Abandonment or change in the extremity of the ideology is shared in many of the de-radicalisation definitions. However, whether focusing merely on this matter should be a target in the process of de-radicalisation has created a fraction among experts. On one side, disengagement lets the offender keep the extremist ideology without participating in a terrorist group. Its results are feasible, and its process is both effective and cheap (Noricks, 2009). On the other side, the role of ideology is so important that leaving it unchanged can increase the chance of recidivism (Rabasa, Pettyjohn, Ghez, & Boucek, 2010). At this point, the argument enters the grey area of pre-crime space. The concern that arises from this issue is that whether an attempt to change someone’s political and religious ideology is both legally or ethically acceptable amongst international community (Koehler, 2017).


Albeit the growing concerns about the threat of the returning foreign fighters, the recidivism rates amongst the extremists and terrorists are much lower compared to the offenders of other types of crime (Koehler, 2017). In the United Kingdom, and in the absence of any rehabilitation programme, only five percent of the IRA and Al-Qaeda related prisoners have been re-arrested (Silke, 2014). However, Pluchinsky (2008) has argued that terrorists with religious motivation are more likely to re-offend. Furthermore, re-offending amongst Iraqi prisoners held by the US military following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was eighteen percent. However, in 2007, the US introduced a rehabilitation programme which reduced this rate to one percent (Stone, 2015).


Conversely, Barrelle (2015) mentions that many extremists have stopped their involvement in terrorist groups without the influence of any supporting programme. His argument leads to two questions. Firstly, whether rehabilitation is necessary and secondly if the low recidivism rate is a direct result of the supporting initiatives (Koehler, 2017). Therefore, the response to the threat of returning foreign fighters remains to be mixed, subjective to the underlying cause of radicalisation in the first place, relative to the rehabilitation policies, and finally under the influence of the penal response of the home country.


This article has discussed the concept of deradicalisation and have compared it to disengagement as an alternative and has evaluated the applications of each of them. It has then pointed out that the addressing the underlying causes of radicalisation is a crucial point in creating effecting policies and that fear-driven and irrational policies could increase the threat of radicalisation rather than eliminating it. Moreover, the psychological and environmental processes of deradicalisation have been discussed and have been compared to the experiences of a former foreign fighter. This essay then has addressed the problem of misconception for both the Western population and especially the ex-offenders of terrorism-related offences and have emphasised on the role of education in the process of deradicalisation. Furthermore, the responses to radicalisation in different countries have been discussed compared followed by pointing out the importance of practical alternative solutions to prevent further radicalisation. Finally, this essay has reviewed the rates of recidivism and the role of rehabilitation among terrorism-related offenders in different countries and has concluded that adequate deradicalisation policies that are rational and evidence-based can indeed produce the opportunity for radicalised individuals to be rehabilitated.





Barrelle, K. (2015). Pro-Integration: Disengagement From and Life After Extremism. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 7(2), 129-142.

Barrett, R. (2017). Beyong the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees. Retrieved from The Soufan Center:

Bjorgo, T., & Horgan, J. (2009). Leaving Terrosim Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement. London: Routhledge.

Braddock, K. (2014). The Talking Cure? Communication and Psycological Imapct in Prison De-Radicalisation Programmes. In A. Silke (Ed.), Prisons, Terrorism, and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform (pp. 60-74). London: Routledge.

Gill, P., Bouhana, N., & Morrison, J. (2015). Individual Disengagement From Terrorist Groups. In C. Kennedy-Pipe, G. Clubb, & S. Mabon (Eds.), Terrorism and Political Violence (pp. 243-257). London: Sage.

Horgan, J. (2014). The Psychology of Terrorism (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Horgan, J., & Braddock, K. (2010). Rehabilitating the Terrorists? Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-Radicalization Programs. Terrorism and Political Violence, 22(2), 267-291.

Koehler, D. (2017). Understanding Deradicalization: Methods, Tools and Programs for Countering Violent Extremism. Oxon: Routledge.

Neumann, P. R. (2014). The New Jihadism: A Global Snapshot. London: The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.

Noricks, D. (2009). Disengagement and Deradicalization: Processes and Programs. In P. Davis, & K. Cragin (Eds.), Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together (pp. 299-320). Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

Pluchinsky, D. (2008). Global Jihadist Recidivism: A Red Flag. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 31(3), 182-200.

Qadir, H. (2016). Preventing & Countering Extremism & Terrorist Recruitment: A Best Practice Guide. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Rabasa, A., Pettyjohn, S. L., Ghez, J. J., & Boucek, C. (2010). Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

Silke, A. (2014). Risk Assessment of Terrorist and Extremist Prisoners. In A. Silke (Ed.), Prisons, Terrorism, and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform (pp. 108-122). London: Routledge.

Stone, D. (2015). The Outcome of a Long Process: Tracking Terrorist Rehabilitation and the Beginning of a Longer One — Implementing Best Practices in Regional Contexts. In R. Gunaratna, & M. Bin Ali (Eds.), Terrorist Rehabilitation: A New Frontier in Counter-Terrorism (pp. 221-246). New Jersey: Imperial College Press.

Veldhuis, T. (2016). Prisoner Radicalization and Terrorism Detention Policy: Institutionalized Fear or Evidence-based Policy-making? Oxon: Routledge.



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