Sarah Marsden is a Lecturer in Terrorism Studies at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews.
Recently, there has been much debate about the best approach to take with those returning from the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Various proposals have been mooted, from forcing them to attend ‘deradicalisation programmes’ to banning them from returning to the UK. Relatively few of these ideas are rooted in a strong evidence base. That is in part because we still have much to learn about what might motivate someone to permanently reject violent extremism.
Although knowledge about what might inform the movement away from terrorism has developed in recent years, we have only a limited understanding of the aims of this work. Questions remain over what it is that interventions with those who have been involved in terrorism should seek to achieve. Is it ‘deradicalisation’, commonly understood as attitudinal change? Or is it disengagement, focusing more on behavioural change? And by what measures might we recognise ‘successful deradicalisation’? This last question is the focus of my recent paper: ‘Conceptualising ‘success’ with those convicted of terrorism offences’.
These questions are not only of concern to policy makers and academics, they are a significant issue for those on the frontline of this work, those organisations, such as the probation services, who are tasked with supervising convicted ‘terrorists’ when they have been released from prison. In my research with statutory and community-based organisations working with former prisoners, this question of what the work was seeking to achieve represented a significant gap in the knowledge base.
To better understand this issue, I spent many hours interviewing and observing practitioners. Through this, I developed a framework for understanding what the work was trying to achieve. Grouped under two broad headings of public protection and reducing the risk of reoffending/encouraging desistance, I identified 13 measures by which to interpret the processes involved with trying to move someone away from extremism. Three broad conclusions about what might constitute effective engagement emerged from the research:
- Rather than attempting to explicitly ‘deradicalise’ or ‘deprogramme’ individuals, there was a concerted effort to reintegrate them back into society. For example, helping them to develop more positive social networks or supporting them as they tried to find work.
- Instead of focusing exclusively on trying to deconstruct the motivation to reoffend, there were attempts – particularly from community-based organisations – to redirect this motivation. For instance, if someone was concerned with issues around social justice, there were efforts to find an outlet within the local community that might enable the individual to pursue these goals in a way that contributed to, rather than threatened, society.
- Finally, attention was paid to developing resilience to negative influences that might undermine any growing commitment to reintegrating back into wider society. Developing former prisoners’ critical thinking skills was one way practitioners tried to do this, enabling them to interrogate the information designed to motivate them to re-engage in extremist networks in a more critical light.
Importantly, the processes involved with moving people away from extremism are complex and highly individualised. Practitioners therefore reflected the need to listen carefully to each person’s account of his or her involvement, and understand the particular issues relevant to their journey into and out of extremism. The need to approach the person holistically rather than focusing on specific ideological, attitudinal, or behavioural measures of ‘risk’ also emerged as an important part of best practice. Finally, taking into account the significant barriers faced by these former prisoners was vital. People convicted of ‘ordinary’ crime face challenges finding work and being accepted into the community, those convicted of terrorism offences face even tougher hurdles.
However difficult it is to talk about ‘rehabilitating terrorists’, if the aims of successful reintegration and long-term public protection are to be met, it is a conversation we need to have. Not least because meaningful reintegration demands not only a commitment from the individual, but also one from society, that they will accept the individual back into the community and allow them to move on.
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