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Deradicalization Programs Are the Wrong Response to the Islamic State

It is counterproductive to treat the anger within Islamist extremism as purely irrational without recognizing some of the grounds for it.
Photo via AP

The Islamic State is a terrorist organization of the most literal variety. The group is expert in its production of terror, conscientiously choreographing and editing videos of authentic horror that are aimed with a sniper's precision to trigger Western fear.

It's no accident that the video of James Foley's beheading and that of Steven Sotloff appear to feature the same executioner. In the masked, knife-wielding figure with a recognizably British accent, the Islamic State has offered an archetypal villain. Drawing from the canon of Hollywood foreboding, the executioner reappears in the video of Sotloff's beheading to chillingly proclaim, "I'm back."


If the threat of more brutal killings has been the primary message of the execution videos, the presence of "Jihadi John" (as he has been dubbed) is their bold subtext. In the fundamentalist killer with a British accent, the feared specter of the radicalized Muslim — the terrorist next door — is ushered into reality and presented as an imminent threat. With the masked face of brutal terrorism bearing the voice of London's East End, there's little wonder that the British government has scrambled to respond.

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Prime Minister David Cameron announced measures in parliament this week proposing that any British citizens on the terror watch list known as TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures) be forced to attend "deradicalization" programs. The measures also include giving British police the authority to summarily seize the passports of suspected militants at the border. Right-wing British politician Nigel Farage went further late last month, suggesting that Britons who fight for the Islamic State should be stripped of their citizenship.

The government has not elaborated on the form the deradicalization efforts will take. But there are a number of reasons to be skeptical about these proposed British responses to so-called "homegrown" terror.

Firstly, as Atossa Araxia Abrahamian rightly pointed out in Medium, stripping the citizenship of suspected militants is "in the short term totally pointless — and in the long term, it can even be dangerous." Indeed, the threat of denaturalization from Britain and the risk of becoming stateless in fact serve the Islamic State's conception of itself as having religious statehood outside of official international recognition. As the VICE News documentary The Islamic State illustrated through a number of intense interviews with fighters in Syria, these individuals have already chosen to identify with the caliphate rather than any existing nation state.


"The fundamentalists pay no heed to borders, conventions, sovereignty, and international niceties," Abrahamian writes. "Telling them they aren't British anymore confirms exactly what they think — and suggests that they should come up with their own version of a state, one that rejects so-called British values. Which sounds an awful lot like what they're doing."

As such, when Cameron stated on Monday that "adhering to British values is not an option or a choice," his words were little more than a content-free panegyric to British nationalism. Such remarks certainly would not play well with individuals already disillusioned enough with British society to vaguely consider joining the Islamic State.

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Furthermore, it's not clear to me that a useful conception of deradicalization must include the embracing of "British values." (As a born-and-bred Brit, I'm not even sure what a British value consists of aside from a resignation to living under a gray sky.) Cameron's remarks suggest that to defeat Islamic State terror and avoid any more Jihadi Johns, a loyalty to British or, more broadly, Western values must be planted in the hearts of Muslims.

Such a strategy puts ideology above practicality. Muslims need not love the West to not be terrorists.

Indeed, experts have argued that deradicalization is a wrongheaded strategy to combat terrorism. As John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told Rolling Stone last year, "The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research." In a 2008 piece, Horgan explained that deradicalization efforts are not only "poorly conceptualized" but also in critical need of distinction from the idea of fostering "disengagement" with terrorism.


Deradicalization programs have taken a number of different forms in different parts of the world, but tend to share the fundamental principle that would-be terrorists must be cognitively dissuaded from radical belief systems — for example, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. One common tactic is to have moderate imams encourage alternative readings of Islam to undo extremist mindsets. Disengagement, meanwhile, focuses on dissuading individuals from engaging in terrorist activity. Horgan noted that in interviews he had with former members of extremist groups between 2006 and 2008, "while almost all of the interviewees could be described as disengaged, not a single one of them could be said to be 'deradicalized.' "

Horgan also pointed out that there is no blueprint for successful disengagement. The reasons that individuals, including those with radical beliefs, decide not to engage in violent acts of terror are idiosyncratic. Sometimes it's a question of material circumstances — financial, familial, or social incentives. Sometimes individuals decide that the risks of engaging with known terrorist networks are too high. Sometimes it's simply disillusionment with certain groups or tactics. Crucially, there is no fix-all approach that has proven successful for disengagement. What has been shown again and again, however, is that deradicalization efforts aiming to dislodge radical beliefs have failed or been irrelevant to stymying terrorism.


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If disengagement does not require a disavowal of radical beliefs, it seems pragmatic to focus on disengagement if the aim is (as it should be) to fight the sort of terror tactics and violence employed by the Islamic State. But the pragmatic argument is the least of it. The very concept of deradicalization, as it has been applied to fighting Muslim fundamentalism in these paranoid post-9/11 years, is flawed. It carries with it the assumption that radicalism in these instances is the result of brainwashing and is inherently irrational. The US and the UK blithely refuse to implicate their Middle East foreign policy and war-waging in the fostering of violent anti-Western sentiment. Also left out of the discussion of homegrown terror are the disenfranchising and alienating effects of domestic counterterror programs, which have treated entire Muslim communities as always-already terrorists.

Violent and discriminatory foreign and domestic policies that treat Muslims as presupposed enemies do not, of course, justify Islamic State terror. My point is simply that it is both irresponsible and arrogant for UK and US politicians to treat anger, even extreme anger, from Muslims at home or abroad as irrational or a cognitive state that can be simply adjusted by forcing them into a re-programming course.


To be sure, the Islamic State is committed to a hearts-and-minds campaign of indoctrination aimed at very young children and people of all ages. But Islamic State fighters also talk unfailingly of revenge for Muslim lives lost to US-led wars. As Rachel Shabi recently noted in a piece for Al Jazeera America, "the links between foreign policy in the Middle East and violent extremism have been cited by practically the entire spectrum of involved professionals, from ex-security officials to politicians, counter-terror analysts and grassroots community workers. But they are all routinely disregarded."

Treating the hatred within Islamist extremism as purely irrational and the result of brainwashing, without recognizing some of the very real grounds for anger, means that efforts to redress such rage will miss the mark.

The Islamic State's adept propaganda machine knew what it was doing in casting Jihadi John as the executioner. It was only a matter of time before the masked villain was identified, or at least putatively so. Suspicions so far seem to point to British rapper turned jihadist Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary (aka L Jinny), and a river of digital ink has already been spilled poring over Bary's old rap lyrics, social media profiles, and family history to chart his apparent journey to jihad. The specifics of Bary's biography are not my interest here. What is of interest is the scrambling to make sense of one individual's radicalization.

Attempts to piece together Bary's story reflects a desire for understanding and nuance in order to explain the emergence of apparent evil. Meanwhile, the response from the British government has invoked blunt generalizations about radicalism and terror. The mistake is not so much that this approach treats Jihadi John as a villain without an origin story, but rather conjures an origin story that wrongly casts Britain and the West as heroes. And the gravest problem with this narrative is that it aligns with the Islamic State's pernicious "us versus them" worldview.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard