24 people have been killed by terrorists who went through government ‘deradicalization’ programs, showing why these efforts are crucially flawed

  • Three of the UK’s most recent terror attacks were conducted by people who were on “deradicalization” programs.
  • Deradicalization is a controversial counter-terror measure where terrorists, or those believed to be at risk of radicalization, get counselling to change or reject their extremist views.
  • “Hard” approaches focus on squashing extremist ideas, while “soft” approaches rely on community and grassroots methods to turn people away from extremist behaviour towards a meaningful civilian life.
  • Experts say “hard” deradicalization schemes do not work as well as “soft” tactics, and some critics say governments like the UK unfairly targets Islamic communities.
  • Countries like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Denmark have touted success with the “soft” approach.
  • Here’s why deradicalization can work as a counter-terror measure if it’s done in the right way.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The London Bridge terror attack has raised fresh questions over the controversial practice of government agencies trying to deradicalize terrorists.

Deradicalization programs are used by authorities the world over. In Germany there’s Exit for neo-Nazis, or Hayat for Islamic extremists, and in Minnesota there’s the Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program.

The field is split into “hard” and soft” approaches, the latter of which is more successful, according to academics and results from several experiments from countries who deployed the tactic.

“Soft” approaches focus on community-driven rehabilitation, including moral counselling from elders, developing hobbies, and mentoring. The “hard” approach focuses on trying to stamp-out the extremism using government facilities.

Under the UK’s Prevent scheme, public sector workers are legally obligated to report people they deem to be at risk of radicalization to the Home Office.

The UK also runs the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) to deradicalize those who have already carried out terror acts.An image taken from video shows three men on the ground after they were shot by police in Borough Market during an attack on London Bridge and the market, in London, Britain June 3, 2017.

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An image taken from video shows three men on the ground after they were shot by police in Borough Market during an attack on London Bridge and the market, in London, Britain June 3, 2017.
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Reuters/Gabriele Sciotto

They are both schemes which don’t rely on community methods to convert radicals, and they are often accused of racial profiling and surveillance.

Since 2017, three people enrolled in these schemes have gone on to commit terror attacks:

Between them, the men killed 24 people in total.

Deradicalization strategies, including Prevent and DDP, have been much criticized. But they can work, as some governments have found with a “soft” community-led method.

Critics say “hard” schemes like Prevent are an excuse to spy on Muslims, ends up profiling minorities, and curtailing freedom of speech.

On the other hand, the UK’s Home Office says Prevent has resulted in over 1,000 interventions, and that it doesn’t discriminate by religion or ethnicity. Data for DDP is not readily available.

From the bottom-up, not top-down

Experts Business Insider spoke to this week said that “hard” top-down government deradicalization tactics like DDP don’t work, but that “soft” community schemes yield better results.

Dr Imran Awan, a professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, told Business Insider that the “soft” tactic of using “local sports centers, boxing clubs, and football centers” to as spaces to realign the views of those vulnerable to radicalization is more successful.Flowers laid for the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena attack in central Manchester.

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Flowers laid for the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena attack in central Manchester.
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Thomson Reuters

These ventures involved mentoring those at risk, integrating them into normal life by building a social life, hobbies, and, in the case of Islam, reevaluating what the Qu’ran teaches about violence.

Actual data detailing the success of community-led approaches are not readily available.

That’s a big part of the problem: the effect of deradicalization programs is mostly poorly measured, or not measured at all. But experts like Awan say the indicators suggest the “soft” approach is more effective.

Police stand outside the Bataclan music hall a few days after the November 13, 2015, Paris terror attacks. Terrorists killed about 130 people inside.

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Police stand outside the Bataclan music hall a few days after the November 13, 2015, Paris terror attacks. Terrorists killed about 130 people inside.
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Greg Sandoval/Business Insider

A “soft” community approach to deradicalization in Denmark in 2013 saw startling results, Der Spiegel reported, one which led counter-terror experts the world over to visit and take notes.

Thirty-one residents of the slum of Brabrand in the town of Aarhus left to fight with ISIS in Syria in that time period. Sixteen returned and were paired off with senior Muslims figures who taught them resilience against radicalization, and social and life skills. Only one person from the entire town left for ISIS in the following two year period.

Not a one-off

Involving community development and life coaching in the deradicalization process also worked well in Malaysia.

Between 2001-2012, Malaysia put 154 extremists through deradicalization schemes. Of those, 148 had “successfully completed the de-radicalisation programme and were released, without later re-offending,” the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) wrote in a 2012 paper.

The radicals went through “religious and social counselling, moral education and self-esteem classes, and vocational training to enhance detainees’ skills,” ICSR said.Ahmed Hassan, who was found guilty of terror offences, in a police mugshot.

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Ahmed Hassan, who was found guilty of terror offences, in a police mugshot.
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Metropolitan Police

Saudi Arabia, too, has had success with a softer and community-driven approach to deradicalization.

Of the 1,400 radicals who underwent deradicalization counselling between 2003-2008, only 45 were later re-arrested, Christopher Boucek, a former associate at the Carnegie Middle East Program studying the Saudi model, wrote in 2008.

Saudi Arabia is therefore a “model for ‘soft’ counter-terrorism around the world,” he said. The Saudi system focused on arranging work and marriages between insurgents and women, so that a family life could give them renewed purpose.

Conclusive proof is thin on the ground

While the Danish, Saudi, and Malaysian examples show the “soft” approach works, some counter-terror experts say there is simply too little evidence to say for sure what works.

Indeed, it is extremely hard to find data for people who went through deradicalization schemes but then went on to commit terror offences regardless.

Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, wrote in a 2017 paper that the practice of deradicalizing someone is un-standardized, and therefore littered with dangers.

“Using the wrong methods could cause a lot of damage. It could mean not detecting a high-risk person, or even shielding him from the authorities.”

“The fact that a person is in a deradicalization program could make security officials and people in his community less vigilant, blinding them to his continued danger,” he wrote, without giving examples.

In the same vein, the European Union’s Radicalization Awareness Network stated in a 2019 paper which compared approaches from across Europe that: “Even after the very best of prevention efforts, some individuals still go on to become (violent) extremists.”

That’s the view also taken by the Center for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST) who wrote that there is “limited evidence about what supports positive change, which makes it difficult to determine if an intervention’s approach is likely to be successful.”

Prevent may cause more problems than it solves

Muslims are often wrongly deemed to be radicalizing, or at risk of it, as the Financial Times (FT) reported in a deep dive into Prevent in January 2019. In one case, a postdoctoral student at Staffordshire University was hauled-in for reading a book called “Terrorism Studies.”

Dr Fahid Qurashi, a lecturer in criminology at Staffordshire University, told Business Insider that Home Office data shows 80%-90% of referrals “are inappropriate and not related to terrorism.”

Miqdaad Versi, a member of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB,) told the FT that Prevent makes “many Muslim children … risk growing up being seen as potential security threats and feeling they may be treated differently due to their faith.”

Muslim children in the UK have been referred for deradicalization for “possession of a ‘boycott Israel’ leaflet” and “‘Free Palestine’ badges,” the MCB has said.

A deradicalization program in Spanish prisons focusing on changing a terrorist’s ideology failed in 2016, serving as an example of the “hard” approach.

Extremists were spread between prisons so that they couldn’t form networks with one-another and authorities tried to deradicalized them by keeping them in isolation, and limiting contact with other inmates.

Twenty-three inmates classed as “radical Islamist” agreed to take part in the programme, but not one was successfully deradicalized. Twelve confessed to crimes to make their lives in prison easier, but then outright refused to change their ideological commitments, el Periódico reported. (It is not clear what activities the Spanish program involved.)

Bennnett Clifford, a research fellow at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, wrote in 2018 that isolating radicals “prevents extremists from participating in counter-radicalization programming and may radicalize them further.”

“Labelling certain political ideologies as illegitimate … will inevitably lead some believers of those ideologies to adopt illegitimate means of expressing those ideologies and pursuing their goals, including illegal and violent means.” Phil Edwards, a professor of Criminology at Manchester University wrote in a 2014 paper on deradicalization.

This leads to cases where “offenders simply fake progress to their counselors,” Dr Rakib Ehsan, from the Henry Jackson Society think tank, told the Times on London.

The bomber inside Prevent

The Parson’s Green bomber was scouting-out bombing sites at the same time he was undergoing Prevent counselling, for example.

In the UK, 7,318 people were reported to Prevent between April 2017 and March 2018. Around half were over far-right extremism and half Islamic extremism. Of those, 394 were given support to deradicalize, according to the 2018 report.

Support methods include ideological conversion, chaplaincy, psychological support, religious guidance, careers advice, and self-esteem counselling, according to the government.

But the Home Office told Business Insider it was unable to supply data on whether any of the 394 went on to commit terror offences.

A undated report by the government’s Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) found that only two of 33 deradicalisation programmes it studied in the UK could be called “effective,” the FT said.

In the face of criticism aimed at “hard” deradicalization tactics from experts and academic like those cited above, as well as allegations of profiling from the Muslim community, the UK government launched an independent review into Prevent, which is due to begin in December 2019.

All the available evidence suggests that deradicalization can work, especially when “soft” community-driven tactics are used to reintegrate those back into normal society.