“Deradicalization” Is Coming To America. Does It Work?

A teacher in Kenya discusses deradicalization with students in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh.

A teacher in Kenya discusses deradicalization with students in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

March 18, 2016

It’s been less than two years since the Islamic State declared its own caliphate across wide stretches of Iraq and Syria, and already tens of thousands of foreigners have traveled to the region to join the fight. Some have died there, while others have returned to their countries of origin, like Tunisia or France, to carry out attacks.

Authorities in several countries now struggle with the challenge of how to stop radicalized people from traveling to Syria to join extremist groups, and what to do with those that come home.

In Germany — which has seen an estimated 760 fighters join ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria — one well-known program called Hayat has taken a “deradicalization” approach used by other programs to reintegrate neo-Nazis into society, and applied it to work with extremists returning from the Middle East.

A deradicalization approach may soon be tried in the United States. Earlier this month, a district judge in Minnesota ordered four men who had been charged with providing “material support” to ISIS to undergo an evaluation with Daniel Koehler, a German deradicalization expert who worked at Hayat, to gauge their chances for rehabilitation. The evaluation, set for April, would potentially help create a program to shift the four men, who all pled guilty, away from radical ideology.

It’s been described as a first-of-its-kind program in the U.S. FRONTLINE reached out to Koehler, who serves as director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, to understand how such programs work and why they could be a useful option in countering terrorism. Koehler, an expert on terrorism, radicalization and right-wing extremism, started working with a program that tried to deradicalize neo-Nazis in 2010. He then worked at Hayat as a family counselor, before moving on to training others in deradicalization work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What does deradicalization mean? Is it about disavowing violence or changing ideology?

Many practitioners do not agree on what deradicalization actually means. First of all, there’s a differentiation between disengagement and deradicalization. Disengagement means your goal will be simple behavioral change, basically [ensuring] people stop committing illegal activities without necessarily stopping their condoning the ideology of these organizations. Many argue that this would be the right approach, because it’s the only way to measure success.

Others say that we have to go beyond that. When we have returnees from Syria or neo-Nazis, I work with them and teach them to respect the law, to not act out violently or illegally. But [there is always the risk] they could still spread the ideology, still support these extremist groups — maybe they collect funds, recruit others to violent movements. They’re not acting on their own but they’re still supporting the cause.

“Most of the ideal candidates [for deradicalization] have thought about changing, thought about leaving, but do not know how to do it, or are afraid of the consequences.”

I do not want to work in a program that leaves out these ideological components completely. I think we need to talk about why these people have been attracted to extremist movements in the first place. We have to talk about what they think should be the future vision of society, how society should be changed, what kind of problems need to be tackled in which way.

I think there’s a middle way. There’s a way of deradicalization that goes beyond the mere renunciation of violence. I think you have to renounce the ideological goals of that violence as well, to reach a recognition and acceptance of the victims’ suffering, and the injustice that was produced by that specific violence. I think it would be a good goal to strive for basic recognition of human rights and equality. Pluralism, accepting and tolerating alternative political and religious views, is the key goal here.

How does it work? How do you deradicalize someone?

There’s a broad set of potential tools used around the world. There’s vocational training, religious counseling, psychological counseling or creative art therapy.

They start with trying to identify the driving factors and motivations for that person to engage in violent extremism. This can be very different. Maybe one person was drawn to extremism because of frustration, lack of prospective jobs and education. You have to provide them with alternatives to that extremist environment. Others may have been drawn to extremism out of high ideals, like a fight for justice and honor and freedom or protecting women and children in Syria. You have to provide them an alternative as well. Each approach has to be hand-tailored and really made to fit the individual radicalization recipe.

Most programs use a broad mixture of teaching life skills, providing for economic reintegration, family counseling and therapy, some form of psychological mentoring or counseling.

What makes someone a good candidate?

I would argue that candidates have to have some sort of cognitive opening, some motivation to participate, some crack in their ideology or in their life that makes them susceptible to the intervention.

It can be done — to induce a deradicalization process with a person who hasn’t in any way thought about changing, but we have to accept that this approach takes much more time and resources, and has a much higher rate of failure.

Most of the ideal candidates have thought about changing, thought about leaving, but do not know how to do it, or are afraid of the consequences, or haven’t really felt the need to do it now, but they have some element of doubt or disillusionment.

At what point can an intervention start? Before any violent act? In prison? After prison?

Intervention programs can start at any given stage of the radicalization process. I’ve been working with families of individuals who are in an earlier stage of radicalization, and some who have just returned from Syria.

These programs, if they are designed properly, can dynamically shift from a preventative approach to counterterrorism or intervention approach. There are some deradicalization programs that are designed to work in prison, so they would start comparatively late in the radicalization process. Others like the family counseling model are based on providing help as early as possible.

How effective have such efforts been in Germany and elsewhere? Have you seen much recidivism?

There are a number of programs in Germany actually; the field is very diverse. The problem is that none of them are actually scientifically evaluated. So, we don’t know how many of the graduates return to any form of crime or extremism.

Nevertheless, I would say the German model is very successful at least regarding reaching the target group. We’ve seen since 2012 that the [nationwide] hotline has received more than 4,000 calls of concerned individuals, resulting in much more than 1,500 counseling cases.

… That being said, the talk about recidivism is problematic because we don’t know how many former or released terrorists go back to terrorism without any treatment on their own, or if they decide to basically move on in another way. It could be that deradicalization programs have a low recidivism rate simply because former incarcerated terrorists — a vast majority of them decide not to go back to violence and crime for any given reason. It’s very hard to scientifically prove a non-event, something does not happen in the future, and show that you caused it.

What do you make of the criticism that deradicalization programs stigmatize certain communities or religions — in the current climate, specifically Muslim communities?

I realize that especially in the United States, there’s this strong fear that such programs actually criminalize or stigmatize local communities or families and individuals. In Europe, we did see that same criticism. I recognize and completely understand that, but I think that when deradicalization programs are done correctly and effectively, they actually safeguard and protect communities from criminalization. It’s the goal of such programs to reduce that stigma, to reduce people being arrested, to prevent the involvement of the security authorities, to help former extremists reintegrate, to help them become strong voices against extremism in the communities.

I think what needs to be said is deradicalization programs shouldn’t work around or above the heads of community leaders, organizations and families, but include them, work with them as equal partners and address the fears, sorrows and worries.

On the flip side, there are a lot of people who say, “Just throw them in prison.” Why is deradicalization an option worth considering when you can just penalize them?

Penalizing or arresting our way out of terrorism actually has never worked, never. In no context was a terrorist organization or an extremist ideology defeated by these suppressive measures. If we just put someone in prison for 20 years, they might come out very angry, very frustrated, and very, very radicalized. He or she might radicalize others in prison who come out earlier. The person might become a martyr for the movement. We’ve seen in many other countries that when you arrest one, you create three other extremists. It helps to spread the idea, and proves to the movement that they are right, that they are under attack.

“There’s hardly anything more credible to youngsters who are at risk of radicalization than former members. We need to utilize that.”

In a certain way, it’s a game and by arresting and repressive action, we prove them right. We have to do it, I’m not saying we should abstain from that; we have to punish people who commit crimes and do illegal things. But if you just raise pressure in the container without providing a valve to release steam and provide a way out of it, it’s not good.

When we invest resources in intervention and deradicalization, we’re achieving a couple of things. First of all, intervention, reintegration, and rehabilitation is much cheaper than long-term repression, arrests and prisons.

Second, we disrupt terrorist hierarchies and we learn about the radicalization process. We learn about how they recruit, how they operate. We create holes in group structures forcing the group to train members to fill that role. They constantly need to explain to their members why that former leader or former comrade has left, so we create more doubts in the other members’ minds. This has led even to the complete collapse of extremist groups in the past.

In addition, through producing these stories of successfully reintegrated extremists, we produce the most credible and valuable forces and voices against extremism. Just imagine that you have someone who can say, “I have been a member of that group for 10 or more years. I have done this and that. I have been an accepted leader of that group, and I can tell you that it’s all lies what they tell you, that they work on hypocrisy and double standards.”

There’s hardly anything more credible to youngsters who are at risk of radicalization than former members. We need to utilize that. We have to provide those who are willing to change a way out of that life. And those who are not willing to change have to face the consequences and the punishment.


Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Hayat hotline has received more than 4,000 calls from concerned individuals, resulting in more than 1,500 counseling cases. It has been updated to note that the calls were to a government-run hotline.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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