When Robert Orell was 13, he got really into Vikings. The young Swede even had a Viking-patterned T-shirt that he liked to wear around Stockholm. It was while wearing this T-shirt that, one day, Orell was approached by a group of people bearing pamphlets and a message that “I was special and was needed for the cause.”
The pamphlets carried an assortment of xenophobic missives. Orell, a young man with “a lot of frustration and anger,” found them instantly appealing. Within a year or two the boy was knee-deep in “the organized White Power environment,” listening to hardcore music and partying with bomber-jacket-clad skinheads (while himself preferring “more of a militarized style”). He saw everyone as an enemy, and sometimes he pursued them with brute force. Orell and his comrades spent weekends getting drunk and looking for trouble.
Twenty years later, Orell has a young son and a rather niche day job. He is a trained psychotherapist and head of EXIT Sweden: a nonprofit whose clients are “those who wish to leave nationalistic/racist/Nazi-oriented groups or movements.” EXIT Sweden works with (mostly) Swedish men as they disengage from their radical folds and transition back into the mainstream.
It’s a good time to be a former radical in the de-radicalization biz. Over the last two years, an international network of "formers"—industry speak for former violent extremists who have renounced their views and now work to rein in in others who hold similar ones—has been growing. Around the world, former-run organizations are taking hold, and governments are using them to boost domestic counterterrorism programs.
Since 2012, support has also come from the private sector. Gen Next is an invitation-only clique made up of San Fran start-up types, and Google is a co-sponsor of Against Violent Extremism (AVE), which is in part a social network and Who's Who centering around former radical hate. “Some of this is providing people with networking opportunities,” says Ross Frenett, who manages AVE on behalf of a London think tank with the jargon-ish title Institute for Strategic Dialog (ISD). “This work can be lonely.”
The idea of mobilizing and deploying formers to wage battle against extremism is partly based on the premise that Formers are best equipped to beat chinks into the armor of radical ideology. They also know what it feels like, on a personal level, to be drunk on radical hate.
But the scheme also makes broader assumptions—for instance that de-radicalizing radicals is a science, and an exportable one, such that former members of al Qaeda, an American fundamentalist cult, an LA street gang, and a clique of Swedish skinheads may be deprogrammed in similar ways. If this is true, then maybe radicalization has little do with the particular form of ideology offered, and more to do with a certain indefinable something that leaves individuals susceptible to the firm embrace of extreme groupthink.
As they mobilize, formers have also been working to build a brand. In a promotional Google video, one member enthused: “My goal is just to take the term former and make it cool!"
It started in 2011, in Dublin, at the Google-sponsored Summit Against Violent Extremism. Jared Cohen—a former aide to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then the newly minted head of Google Ideas, a self-described “think/do tank”—had turned the internet giant’s attention to the problem of internet radicalism. The web, read a company statement, is playing a growing role in extremist recruitment. (Apparently, “55 percent of gang members report posting gang-related videos online.”) By extension, the web should also seek to “provide solutions.”
The Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network, and an accompanying YouTube channel, was born of the Summit. It quickly began recruiting formers, including "a former Muslim extremist from Nigeria and the Christian pastor who once tried to kill him, a former violent Israeli settler, a former member of the Iranian militant Islamic group Ansar-e Hezbollah, a Latino street-gang leader, a former Tamil Tiger, the former founding members of a transnational Salvadoran gang, a former member of one of the world’s most popular skinhead bands, a former member of the Bloods, and a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.”
One such former was Nachum Pachenik, the aforementioned “former violent Israeli settler.” Pachenik, son of a Holocaust survivor, was born in a Jewish settlement near Hebron; his family was among the first to settle conquered territory after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In his early 20s, after leaving a special-forces unit in the Israeli military, Pachenik “became involved in violent activities.” Today, he is a writer and poet, and a founder of Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace)—an Israeli-Palestinian peace-building project.
Another was Usama Hasan who, while living in London at age 13, became involved in an extreme Salafi group. Later, when he was 19, Usama traveled to Afghanistan to train with the Arab mujahideen. After 9/11, Husan began to question his Islamist faith. He is now a physics PhD, as well as a Muslim imam, who works “to promote democratic and pluralistic visions of Islam.”
One of AVE’s goals is to develop best practices, a kind of manual for how to effectively de-radicalize people. Academic and government conferences have studied the effectiveness of one-on-one mentoring. “An important principle in mentoring people involved in extremism is to sow seeds of doubt, but not try to win arguments,” concluded one conference, co-sponsored by the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration. They have also considered specific policy questions, like "Should violent extremists who are arrested be jailed in isolation so that they won’t radicalize other inmates (this is the strategy in Holland)? Or should they be dispersed so that they are shaken out of their extreme element (this is the strategy in Denmark)?" Such is the art of extremist extrication.
ISD’s Frenett says that AVE is now working with University College London on a statistical evaluation framework for former-led projects—though research is in its early stages.
As the network has grown, some unlikely bedfellows have emerged. Building Bridges for Peace was started by a woman named Jo Berry, whose father was killed by an IRA bomb in 1984—and Pat McGee, the former IRA man who planted the bomb. Another former IRA volunteer, Henry Robinson, has teamed up with a man who lost his son in the 1998 Omagh bombing and traveled to Bogotá to help Colombians push the peace-building cause.
My favorite project is Formers Anonymous, which is based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, and which treats hateful street thuggery as an addiction rather than a character failing or an ideological predilection. Imagine a bunch of formers getting together over coffee and a pack of cigarettes to talk about how they resisted the urge to beat someone senseless that day—or instead succumbed to the temptation of odious thoughts. The formers keep each other in check, so they don’t revert. “We are a group of men and women who have identified a shared problem of attachment and/or addition to a grossly irresponsible, and/or criminal and/or drug (including alcohol) lifestyle,” the group’s Facebook profile reads. “Formers Anonymous recognizes the existence of addiction to street life as a primary addiction similar to other behavioral addictions such as gambling or eating disorders.”
Increasingly, formers are government partners. In the UK, formers have controversially been consulted by CONTEST, the Home Office’s counter-terrorism strategy. Continent-wide, they feature in initiatives like the European Commission–funded Terrorism and Radicalization (TerRa) network and Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN). Some of AVE’s research has also been supported by the US State Department.
Private organizations are also in the game. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s Frenett says that AVE has connected formers with YouTube. YouTube, he says, uses the formers as privileged “flaggers," who help the site to identify hate-inciting online material that should be nixed. “They’re allowing members to input into policy… on what should or shouldn’t be taken down.” Ghaffar Hussain of the London-based Quilliam Foundation says that he has been commissioned by Google to research “radicalization on the internet and how it can be countered.” The work involves interviewing formers about their internet use.
The work has not escaped the ire of critics. Some are skeptical that formers can ever be fully reformed. Others object to the method of delivery more than the message itself. In 2011, shortly after the Summit Against Violent Extremism, Jonathan Githens-Mazer of the European Muslim Research Centre wrote a biting takedown of the event:
“I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable as the true purpose of the summit became clear over the course of the first day. Different panels, organized chat-show style with a moderator and three or four speakers sat in cream white armchairs [and] talked about the fact that they didn’t get enough love from their fathers…”
In particular, critics object to AVE’s grouping of gang violence, neo-Nazism, Islamism, anti-apartheid-inspired terrorism, guerrilla war crimes, etc., into a single category. This strategy, critics claim, denies any validity to the formers’ ideas of national liberation and struggle against oppression. Extremism, in other words, is painted as a symptom of unloving fathers or unstable households rather than something political.
Moving forward, there are also some logistical difficulties. Vetting Formers is tricky, though this has become easier over time, since formers often refer other formers and vouch that they really are formers. There’s also the issue of lingering former-former tension. “There are people from the same backgrounds who won’t talk to each other,” ISD’s Frenett admits. “They take grudges formed from inside the movement and bring them out.”
For Orell, the former Swedish neo-Nazi, help from other formers was an important part of his exit process. At first, he says, “I was very afraid that people were going to judge, to say, you must be crazy or sick. To talk to someone who said, 'I’ve been there as well and it’s possible to get out…': It was such a relief, so healing.”
But the actual decision to leave his skinhead posse began as a personal sojourn. Military service, Orell says, inspired him to be “pure, body and mind, not drinking, being healthy, doing a lot of physical training.” In turn, “I realized that [my comrades] aren’t the elite of the white race.”
Follow Katie on Twitter: @katieengelhart