It seems like common sense — enlist disillusioned extremists as credible voices against terrorism and put them to work persuading others to rethink their flirtation with political violence.
Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief in Britain, told the Guardian: “Many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists.” And in a recent report summarizing the stories of 58 Islamic State defectors, scholar Peter Neumann concluded that their narratives “can be important in helping to prevent young people from being radicalized and recruited.”
Yet the case for enlisting ex-militants to prevent the radicalization of others remains contentious; there is little or no empirical data to back it up. Neither Barrett in the Guardian nor Neumann in his report offered any evidence — not even anecdotal — for the effectiveness of former Islamic State members as agents against future radicalization.
A burst of tweets last year from Georgia State University professor John Horgan in reaction to a news story about Harry Sarfo, a reformed Islamic State recruit from Germany, made the problem explicit. “We all kinda say ‘their stories might prevent others…’ but we should (from a research standpoint) be getting clearer traction on this.” And in a follow-up tweet: “Can we find evidence that defector narratives dissuade initial involvement of potential recruits?”
Although there is a small body of research on how to best frame and disseminate “counter-narratives” against terrorist propaganda (spearheaded by Horgan and Kurt Braddock), it doesn’t speak to the issue of how effective these messages are with their intended audience. The one study that has tried to figure it out captured likes, shares and comments related to three different counter-narrative campaigns on social media, but that doesn’t tell us anything about who was liking, sharing and commenting, or whether minds were changed.
A close examination of the stories told by reformed militants reveals that, in common with other kinds of “defector narratives” (from ex-cons, former cultists or reformed addicts), they are often exercises in self-justification. Because the ex-militant is in need of exoneration and self-forgiveness, he must come up with a suitably absolving explanation for why he joined the now-reviled group in the first place. This usually takes the form of a brainwashing tale in which he is more sinned against than sinning.
For example, many repentant female Islamic State supporters claim they were forced into traveling to Syria, or they insist — ludicrously, given the incessant news coverage of Islamic State atrocities — they were “lured” by promises of a paradise on Earth for Muslims, with bountiful markets, pristine hospitals and parks, and righteous justice. One French returnee conceded her own guilt but also blamed “those who manipulated me, exploited my naivety, my weakness, my insecurity.”
Stories of evil manipulation and exploitation may be psychologically useful for former extremists, but there’s little evidence that the radicalized (or those leaning in that direction) are buying them. As one British female Islamic State recruit witheringly put it in a tweet: “We’re not stupid young brainwashed females we’ve come here to syria for ALLAH alone.”
Nor do these retrospective atrocity tales do much to explain to the general public how normal people come to embrace violent extremism. The stories don’t “tell it like it is,” just how bad it is. They also tend to minimize the glamour and attractiveness of violent causes for young recruits. To the extent that studies tell us how radicalization works, far from being a pathological or passive process, it is the culmination of an active search for meaning and fulfillment, often undertaken with friends or kin.
Another argument used to justify belief in the preventive power of counter-messages is that former militants have the requisite street cred to be taken seriously by young Muslims. Only most don’t, because once, say, a member of Islamic State or Al Qaeda repents and rejects his former views, he relinquishes credibility with those who see truth in extremism. Worse, if the ex-militant is working with the secular liberal or moderate establishment, he’s considered a sellout.
Maajid Nawaz, who co-founded the Quilliam Foundation in London, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, is an obvious case in point. For all his bona fides as a former member of the transnational Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an association that earned him jail time in an Egyptian prison, Nawaz is regarded with suspicion among even moderate British Muslims, while those at the extreme end of the spectrum regard him with contempt as a traitor.
And yet, the ex-extremist, and his redemption narrative, finds eager supporters. This may have more to do with society’s need for catharsis than with any benefit he brings to fighting political violence. Like the one-time criminal who has found the right path after a lifetime of doing wrong, these repentant “formers” make the rest of us feel good. Their change of heart validates and reinforces our better angels. That’s especially satisfying in times of uncertainty, when we feel insecure about who we are and where we are going.
Simon Cottee is a visiting senior fellow at the Freedom Project, Wellesley College. He is the author of “The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.”
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