The director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday that the number of men and women joining Islamic State is on the rise. Of the 20,000 foreign fighters, he said, at least 3,400 have come from Western countries, including approximately 150 Americans who have either gone or tried to go to Syria.
Most of those will die fighting someone else’s battle. Some will survive, and possibly become more dangerous. But there also will be those who — broken, disillusioned and traumatized by what they have done or seen — will want to come home. What is to be done with them?
I’ve traveled to Pakistan for the last two years to learn how the country rehabilitates and re-integrates former Taliban fighters. I’ve witnessed remarkable progress there, especially in the efforts to re-integrate former child militants. From seeing that and other programs in action, I have come to believe that de-radicalization can work. It is not a silver-bullet solution, nor can it ensure 100% success, but there is no doubt that de-radicalization programs can be tremendously effective in countering terrorism.
Although they are becoming more common around the world, such programs remain an experiment in progress. Indeed, some operate in secret, waiting to see whether they are successful before the outside world learns of their existence. There may be as many as 40 worldwide, the best known of which are in Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Indonesia, Germany and Denmark. Newer ones have sprung up in places such as Somalia and Pakistan.
These programs are diverse, but “de-radicalization” is a useful shorthand because most seek to change how former terrorists think. Do that, the assumption goes, and the risk of reengagement with terrorist activities goes way down.
It might sound like cult deprogramming, but the reality is closer to halfway houses. Most programs are conducted in prisons with Islamist militants who have been apprehended by security forces or surrendered — but their actual crimes vary widely. Some have killed, while others have provided material support, but they are all classified as terrorists. Many of those undergoing rehabilitation in Pakistan are young boys, a few barely 10 years old. The goal is to resocialize them all, preparing them for re-integration into their communities. Programs I’ve looked at employ a combination of psychological therapies, counseling, religious instruction and activities aimed at promoting civic engagement.
Collecting intelligence is also often a crucial feature of such programs. Participants may be required to publicly renounce terrorism and, in some cases, provide evidence against former comrades.
Some of the former terrorists I’ve interviewed told me they were deeply disillusioned with their groups long before they took steps to leave. Their reluctance to walk away was, in large part, because they saw no way out. In many countries, de-radicalization is a true second chance at life — the only real alternative to a lifetime in prison or a life on the run.
In Pakistan, the focus is on re-integration. The community is directly involved, often providing support in the form of mentorship or jobs. The program is also supported by Pakistan’s army; it came up with the idea for re-integration and provides security, which is crucial in areas affected by terrorist recruitment. The leadership of Pakistan’s army knows that it has a responsibility to help restore hope of a future for these young citizens saved from a life of terrorism. This is not easy. Several officers I met had lifelong friends and colleagues killed by the same people now being rehabilitated. And yet, when I ask those officers how they feel about that, they say, we have no choice, we must try.
The Pakistan programs also illustrate that de-radicalization isn’t simply about ideological retraining. Programs must provide opportunities for young boys and adolescents if they are to stay disengaged from terrorism long term. Vocational training leading to a job is a vital factor in preventing recidivism. The programs also build trust between the army and the communities from which the militants were recruited.
Could anything even close to this develop in the United States?
Admittedly, there may be no social or political appetite for de-radicalization here. Some may just call for returning fighters to be imprisoned. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised that any fighters returning to his country would face guaranteed detention. Just this week, a Belgian court sentenced Fouad Belkacem to 12 years for helping arrange travel for young Belgians to Syria. In Britain, those who return from Syria might face treason charges, in some cases meriting a life sentence.
Yet there is some hope.
A few weeks ago in Minneapolis, 18-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf was charged with conspiracy to support a terrorist organization, which carries a sentence of as much as 15 years in prison. In May 2014, Yusuf had gotten a passport a few weeks before securing an airline ticket to Istanbul, allegedly intending to go to Syria.
But rather than put Yusuf in jail while he awaits trial, a federal judge has sent him to a halfway house to see whether he can be integrated back into the community. It was the first clear example of trying rehabilitation and re-integration as an alternative to detention. It is too early to tell whether Yusuf’s case provides a precedent, but it represents a remarkable, if risky, first step.
No de-radicalization program should offer blanket amnesty, and we should put measures in place to evaluate their effectiveness. But it is time to get creative. The U.S. Department of Justice has begun to recognize this and just recently funded two academic research projects on de-radicalization. There are enormous benefits to be gained. After all, it is only by understanding the motivations and experiences of those who have gone to fight abroad that we can prevent the recruitment of another generation of militants.
John G. Horgan is the director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.